Year of the Pig brings devastation to Asian hog farms
Alland San Juan, a hog farmer in Bulacan province, north of Manila, knew disaster was about to strike in August when his neighbours’ pigs began dying en masse, forcing them to dispose of the bodies in local catfish ponds.
African Swine Fever had not yet been reported in the Philippines. But by early September, all 250 of the San Juans’ hogs had also died of the disease, and — with the ponds now full — the family hired a backhoe to dig a pit and bury them on their farm.
“We cried buckets of tears,” said his wife, Geraldine San Juan, a part-time law student and mother of six. “All our dreams went up in smoke.”
In the Chinese calendar, this year is the Year of the Pig, a symbol of wealth in China. However, it will be remembered in Asia as the year when ASF devastated hog farming, creating what experts are calling the worst crisis to hit the global livestock and meat industry in decades.
Since ASF arrived in China in mid-2018, about a quarter of the world’s pigs have died from the disease or culls undertaken to prevent its spread. China farms about half of the world’s pigs and consumes about half the world’s pork.
“We’re talking about unprecedented impact,” said Justin Sherrard, global strategist for animal protein at Rabobank. “We’re talking about a disease we haven’t seen before at this kind of scale.”
When ASF spread to south-east Asia this year, it drove up prices of pork and other meats as Asian consumers switched to other sources of protein. Experts say the outbreak will transform farming and the global meat trade well into the 2020s.
“As no vaccine against ASF is available now and probably won’t be in the near future, we might consider that the current crisis is one of the most important for the livestock sector in decades,” the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health told the FT in an email.
ASF is not transmissible to humans but veterinary disease experts discourage eating meat from infected animals.
In the Philippines, a nation of avid pork eaters, some consumers have been shunning the meat. In La Loma, Quezon City — a neighbourhood of greater Manila known for its restaurants serving lechon, or suckling pig — the head of the local lechonero restaurant association said business had fallen by nearly half since October. This was despite certificates from the local veterinary association asserting that the meat served there was safe to eat.
“I am telling them that it is ASF free,” said Ramon Ferreros, but added that many customers were still avoiding pork and coming to drink beer or bet on televised cockfights instead.
Experts believe ASF arrived in China from Russia but awareness and reporting on the disease was initially low, allowing it to spread fast.
China’s hog herd was 191m in October, 41 per cent down from August 2018, when the disease was first reported. The real decline may be larger, as many cities have played down numbers in order to cut the subsidies they pay farmers.
Pork prices in China hit a record in early November. They have eased since then after officials stepped up imports and released frozen meat held in reserve, but are still up by more than half this year.
Consumer price inflation in China hit a seven-year high of 3.8 per cent in October and in Vietnam it rose by nearly a percentage point in November over the previous month, thanks largely to rising prices for pork and processed meat.
Yang Zhenhai, a director at China’s ministry of agriculture, told journalists last month that the government wanted to bring the country’s hog herd back to 80 per cent of its pre-ASF level by the end of 2020. However, analysts think the recovery will take longer.
“You need to make sure every pig farm strictly follows hygiene standards,” said Ernan Cui, a researcher at Gavekal Dragonomics, a consultancy. “No one can claim that.”
In the Philippines, officials said new cases of the disease were declining after strict veterinary controls were put up between provinces. However, they were cautious about saying the outbreak — for now confined to the biggest island of Luzon — had been contained.
The San Juan family said they were thinking of moving into duck farming once they got back on their feet financially. In the meantime, they had converted their farm into a business for sorting plastic and other waste. “You cry for a night; you cry for a week,” said Ms San Juan. “Then you brush yourself off and you start again.”
Additional reporting by Guill Ramos in Manila