There may not be enough pigs in the world to make up for the losses that China and the rest of Asia is about to suffer from a new outbreak of African swine fever.
For consumers, it means the price of bacon and other pork products will spike. For farmers like me, it means that we’ll continue to focus on doing what is needed to guarantee the health of our animals with strong safety measures.
No one in our global economy is immune to what’s happening. In the United States, the National Pork Producers Council cancelled this year’s World Pork Expo, a major event that draws thousands of visitors to Iowa.
“We have decided to exercise extreme caution,” said NPPC president David Herring, a pork producer in North Carolina. “The health of the U.S. swine herd is paramount.”
The latest eruption of African swine fever was first reported last year in China, home to 433 million pigs, the world’s largest population. Some experts estimate that the country could lose up to half of them through mortality and preventative culling. That’s almost the combined size of the pig populations in the European Union (150 million) and the United States (73 million).
What may be the only good news is that our food is safe to eat. African swine fever poses no risk to human health. Although this viral disease can devastate herds of pigs, both on farms and in the wild, it doesn’t transfer to people. There should be no concern to purchase pork to be enjoyed by your family safely.
Even so, the disease presents a huge problem for agriculture. It will push up consumer prices, complicate trade, and threaten the livelihoods of pork producers.
Here in the Netherlands, my family earns a living by raising pork. We have 600 sows and 5,600 finishers (i.e., meat pigs in preparation for the market). Last year we introduced our consumer brand, Hamletz, which is known for its commitment to animal welfare as well as its distinctively good taste, which is partly the result of special feed we grow on our farm. In March, our farm received national recognition as “Agricultural Entrepreneur of the Year 2019.”
African swine fever hasn’t touched our farm and we plan to keep it that way—but we also know that pork producers are vulnerable no matter where they live. The outbreak in China has entered neighboring Vietnam and could spread throughout Southeast Asia. It’s endemic in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. Last September, the outbreak was discovered among wild boars in Belgium, which is coming distressingly close to our own operations.
We monitor the health of our herd closely. We take blood samples monthly and veterinarians come by routinely. Because there is a concern that infected pork in feed could be spreading the disease, we are very careful to make sure our pigs are not fed anything that might be questioned. And although pigs have a reputation for rolling around in dirt and mud, we insist on standards of cleanliness: Visitors to our farm must take showers and wear clothes provided by our farm before we let them see our swine.
If we have a suspicion of disease, we jump into action, including an emergency number to call. The Dutch government is ready to respond with biosafety protocols. In the event of an African swine fever outbreak, our country will divide into regions for the purpose of containment, with a goal of keeping the disease away from uninfected farms.
The one thing we can’t control as well as we’d like is the wild boar population. They’re allowed in only two areas of the Netherlands, but they have a habit of escaping and expanding their territory. When spotted outside of these zones, they should be shot immediately.
Our country has suffered in the past from African swine fever: In the late 1990s, pork producers had to reduce their herds by 2 million hogs. It took the industry a decade to recover.
This year’s outbreak already has caused pork prices to rise to their highest level in several years. All signs suggest that they’ll go higher still. This creates an economic opportunity for our farm, and we’ll take advantage of it. Yet we’re wary of disruptions. We’d prefer a stable market with healthy pigs and reliable prices, rather than dramatic fluctuations caused by disease, culling, and the misfortunes of fellow pork producers.
But in agriculture, we know that we can’t always have it our way. So as always, our job is to do our part to keep our pigs safe and to supply the world with the pork it wants.