African swine fever a cloud with silver lining for Irish pig industry

While African swinefever poses as an alarming threat for Irish producers, a silver lining haspresented itself through increased price and market demand, writes NiallHurson.

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

For most of 2018 pig prices were below the cost ofproduction in Ireland. Farmers were concerned for the survival of theirenterprises in what was a challenging marketplace. Now, with Chinese productionmerely a shadow of its former self, demand for pork has grown and so has theprice 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 2018was €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 ofthis 120.71m tonnes was pork. Pigmeat is the second most highly produced meaton the planet falling just short of poultry by 1.6m tonnes last year. In 2005the global demand for pork was 100m tonnes with projections for this to grow to143m tonnes by 2030. China has the highest pork consumption per capita with thecountry importing an additional 1.8m tonnes last year. The average Chineseperson consumes over 40 kilos of pork and with this huge appetite, pig numbershave inflated in East Asia in recent times.

In a sudden turn of events during 2018 African swine fevervirus took hold and has been the causative agent for the decimation of China’spig population. The virus causes a haemorrhagic fever with high mortality ratesin domestic pigs and some isolates can cause death of animals as quickly as aweek after infection. ASF can result in devastating losses for pig farmers andthe pig industry in affected countries. There is no cure or vaccine availablefor ASF and cases of the disease has been identified across the world. Withinthe last two years the disease has spread to a number of previously unaffectedcountries in Europe and Asia. A part of the reason for the widespreadoccurrence of ASF in China is in the way they produce their pigs. Backyardfarming is much more common with households keeping a small number of pigs forprivate consumption. Biosecurity measures aren’t as vigorous in these smallerproduction systems and so make containment of viral diseases significantly moredifficult.

Experts have forecasted China’s pork meat output to drop by25% in 2019 which will lead to an even lower production in 2020 and willcontinue to be felt in coming years. A large restocking is expected to takeplace in 2020 as the chances of a new wave of the disease declines. ASF hasmade its way to Europe with most cases restricted to wild boar populations anda minority of domestic pigs. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine(DAFM) in Ireland has instructed holiday goers to not bring meat products intoIreland from outside the EU as a precautionary measure. Meat and meat productsare 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 cannotbe accessed by farm animals, or wild birds.

In order for the Irish pig industry to remain ASF free it iskey to adhere to the strict biosecurity measures outlined by the DAFM. Farminvasions are a prime example of a lapse in common sense and pose a concerningthreat to farm biosecurity. Dozens of animal rights activists invaded a pigfarm in Co Westmeath for over six hours in June 2019. The action raisedconcerns for animal health and biosecurity at a time when pig farms are underheightened surveillance to prevent the risk of ASF spreading from continentalEurope. IFA president Joe Healy condemned the sit-in by vegan activists at thefarm saying, “with heightened risks to the Irish pig sector, it is recklessthat people would enter a facility without observing proper biosecurityprocedures.”

To date Ireland is free ofAfrican swine fever, but a potential outbreak of the disease would have a hugeimpact on the pig industry here. Through reinforced biosecurity on pig farmsand awareness from the general public, Ireland will continue to mine into thesilver lining of the ASF dark cloud.