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Don’t Forget China’s Other Viral Outbreak

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Don’t Forget China’s Other Viral Outbreak

China’s efforts to contain coronavirus are stalling recovery from an earlier African Swine Fever outbreak, with implications for food security.

Don’t Forget China’s Other Viral Outbreak
Credit: Pixabay

Wuhan residents rarely leave their apartments nowadays, and when they do, it is to stock up on necessary goods like food and masks. On January 23, officials banned transportation in and out of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak of a novel coronavirus that has so far infected more than 82,000 people and killed 2,810. People in Wuhan rushed to buy food and supplies. More than a month later, shelves remain bare. To increase supply and decrease the price of pork, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture of Rural Affairs decided on February 7 to release 10,000 tons of frozen pork from a Hubei reserve.

Why pork? The Chinese population loves pork more than any other country, consuming half of the world’s stock at 500 million pigs a year and 39 kg per person. Following market liberalization in the 1970s, eating pork in China came to symbolize the prosperity brought by rapid economic growth.

But before the coronavirus outbreak hit China in December, the world had been dealing with a less well-known outbreak. In August 2018, the African Swine Fever, caused by a fatal and contagious virus to pigs, spread across China, forcing the culling of nearly 2 million hogs and increasing pork prices by almost 50 percent. The virus now affects more than 50 countries and 75 percent of pork production.

The Chinese government has been scrambling for more than a year to stop the further spread of African Swine Fever, but discrepancies in local implementation have proved inadequate. Despite the Ministry of Agriculture’s order to local governments to reimburse farmers for the culling of sick animals, some farmers have been asked to provide proof that their pigs died of African Swine Fever to receive compensation, next to impossible for small farmers, who produce roughly 50 percent of China’s pork. As a result, farmers have hesitated to report cases to health and agriculture officials, and slaughter and improper burial in tight agricultural spaces have increased the risk of viral spread.

Despite claims from the Ministry of Agriculture that the Chinese pork population began to rise in December, agriculture financing firm Rabobank expected China’s output to decline a further 10 to 15 percent by the end of 2020. The unexpected outbreak of coronavirus means that it will take China longer than predicted to recover from the pork crisis. The Chinese government has attempted to fulfill the shortage through imports in the short-term, but the combined global trade only comprises 20 percent of Chinese demand. There are simply not enough pigs in the world.

Between two massive outbreaks, China is prioritizing coronavirus due to the direct threat to human life. Therefore, efforts to contain the African Swine Fever have been largely pushed aside as local governments shift focus to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. In 2019, the central government mandated local officials to facilitate a shift from small-scale farms to larger, improved facilities better equipped to handle livestock diseases. These initiatives have since stopped due to travel restrictions and the closure of businesses, leading to the continued rise of pork prices without a clear end in sight.

Strict travel regulations mean that small-scale farms risk closing if the coronavirus outbreak lasts more than a few months. As of 2018, fully 90 percent of farms in China were less than 2.5 acres. The New York Times reported that these farms have been unable to sell livestock or restock on feed. Pig production will decrease further during this period, increasing global pork prices and demand for imports from the United States, Brazil, and the European Union.

Coronavirus will impact the pork industry and Chinese diets for longer than Rabobank’s previous predictions of a 10 to 15 percent reduction in output. Before coronavirus, families cut back on eating traditional pork dishes or stopped altogether. Chinese consumers sought alternatives such as beef, lamb, and chicken as menu prices rose. This pattern will continue as long as domestic production is down. While coronavirus haunts China, African Swine Fever will persist amid a background of damaged supply chains and paused initiatives.

Chinese consumers will ultimately return to their favorite dishes, but many will say goodbye temporarily as coronavirus hogs global attention. Pigs may not be flying, but their prices are soaring high.

Madison Plaster is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University studying economics and international relations. The views expressed here are strictly her own.