Photo by Niall Hurson

While African swine fever poses as an alarming threat for Irish producers, a silver lining has presented itself through increased price and market demand, writes Niall Hurson. 

As a powerhouse of global pig production, China had 440.6m sows in 2018 and produced over 50% of the world’s pork. This number has dropped dramatically to roughly 200m sows after an epidemic outbreak of African swine fever (ASF) in the region. In turn this has heightened the demand on imports in order to meet population demands and help reduce the strain on domestic production. The demand and price of pork has risen across the globe as a result, with Irish producers reaping the rewards.

For most of 2018 pig prices were below the cost of production in Ireland. Farmers were concerned for the survival of their enterprises in what was a challenging marketplace. Now, with Chinese production merely a shadow of its former self, demand for pork has grown and so has the price for Irish produce. EU prices are well above average with farmers receiving €159.83/100kg/carcass-weight (cw). Pig price in Ireland on 25 September 2018 was €137.30/100kg cw while on September 24 of this year prices had risen to €171/100kg cw, significantly above the EU average.

In 2018, 330m tonnes of meat was produced globally, and of this 120.71m tonnes was pork. Pigmeat is the second most highly produced meat on the planet falling just short of poultry by 1.6m tonnes last year. In 2005 the global demand for pork was 100m tonnes with projections for this to grow to 143m tonnes by 2030. China has the highest pork consumption per capita with the country importing an additional 1.8m tonnes last year. The average Chinese person consumes over 40 kilos of pork and with this huge appetite, pig numbers have inflated in East Asia in recent times.

In a sudden turn of events during 2018 African swine fever virus took hold and has been the causative agent for the decimation of China’s pig population. The virus causes a haemorrhagic fever with high mortality rates in domestic pigs and some isolates can cause death of animals as quickly as a week after infection. ASF can result in devastating losses for pig farmers and the pig industry in affected countries. There is no cure or vaccine available for ASF and cases of the disease has been identified across the world. Within the last two years the disease has spread to a number of previously unaffected countries in Europe and Asia. A part of the reason for the widespread occurrence of ASF in China is in the way they produce their pigs. Backyard farming is much more common with households keeping a small number of pigs for private consumption. Biosecurity measures aren’t as vigorous in these smaller production systems and so make containment of viral diseases significantly more difficult.

Experts have forecasted China’s pork meat output to drop by 25% in 2019 which will lead to an even lower production in 2020 and will continue to be felt in coming years. A large restocking is expected to take place in 2020 as the chances of a new wave of the disease declines. ASF has made its way to Europe with most cases restricted to wild boar populations and a minority of domestic pigs. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) in Ireland has instructed holiday goers to not bring meat products into Ireland from outside the EU as a precautionary measure. Meat and meat products are not to be brought onto Irish pig farms as a strict biosecurity measure. DAFM has also encouraged the correct disposal of waste food, so that it cannot be accessed by farm animals, or wild birds.

In order for the Irish pig industry to remain ASF free it is key to adhere to the strict biosecurity measures outlined by the DAFM. Farm invasions are a prime example of a lapse in common sense and pose a concerning threat to farm biosecurity. Dozens of animal rights activists invaded a pig farm in Co Westmeath for over six hours in June 2019. The action raised concerns for animal health and biosecurity at a time when pig farms are under heightened surveillance to prevent the risk of ASF spreading from continental Europe. IFA president Joe Healy condemned the sit-in by vegan activists at the farm saying, “with heightened risks to the Irish pig sector, it is reckless that people would enter a facility without observing proper biosecurity procedures.”

To date Ireland is free of African swine fever, but a potential outbreak of the disease would have a huge impact on the pig industry here. Through reinforced biosecurity on pig farms and awareness from the general public, Ireland will continue to mine into the silver lining of the ASF dark cloud.