Along the Gulf shores of Texas and Louisiana there is a complex of deep, underground caverns. Inside each of these enormous caves – each of which is large enough to easily fit Chicago’s Willis Towerinside — the U.S. government keeps hundreds of millions of barrels of petroleum to safeguard the country against natural-disaster-induced and political-conflict-related supply disruptions.
Many countries have similar strategic reserves, but on the other side of the world, China maintains a different kind of stockpile: icy warehouses around the country are filled with frozen pork. The commodity is of such importance in China — which consumes more pork per capita than any other country after Vietnam — that the government set up a national reserve to protect the country from shortages and price volatility.
But the country’s pork industry is being devastated by a deadly, highly-contagious virus. Since officials began reporting cases last August, African Swine Fever (commonly known by its abbreviation ASF), has swept across the country. Outbreaks have hit every province and all five autonomous regions (like Tibet and Mongolia), and experts believe there are far more cases than the 129 outbreaks officially reported.
Since China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs confirmed the ASF outbreak in Liaoning Province in early August 2018, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that the contagion has spread across all of China’s provinces, and into Vietnam and Cambodia. And last week, the virus had reportedly spread to North Korea, a country that is unlikely to make any effort toward containment.
ASF is a viral disease that is both highly contagious and almost always fatal. While the virus cannot be transmitted to humans and is not a food-safety threat, the economic consequences from a spread of this disease are potentially devastating.
Some context on the China situation illustrates what is at stake. China consumes about 56 billion pounds of pork per year, more than half of total global consumption. Likewise, the Chinese hog herd numbers more than 440 million head, which is nearly three times larger than all of Europe and almost six times larger than the U.S., the second largest pork-producing nation.
Given the impact and the spread of the disease, China’s Ministry of Agriculture recently estimated that up to 80% of hog producers have no immediate plans to re-stock their herds. According to government estimates, the Chinese breeding herd of sows has been reduced somewhere in the range of 8 million head. The total U.S. sow herd is 6.4 million head.
Rabobank, the Dutch global ag financing giant, estimates that between 150 and 200 million hogs and pigs have been infected with the deadly disease and will be lost. Compare that to the total U.S. harvest of barrows and gilts for pork production in 2018 of 124 million head. In other words, China will not be able to import enough pork to offset its production losses, and the ravages of ASF will ripple through the global market.
Consider U.S. soybean exports to China, currently hampered by retaliatory tariffs resulting from the U.S.-China trade dispute. Shipments to China won’t fully recover even once the tariffs are lifted owing to the dramatic reduction in China’s swine herd. ASF in China will affect the bottom-line of U.S. soybean growers.
However, the bigger picture issue is how to contain and treat this, and other, animal health threats. Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine for ASF. Thus, the emphasis has been on prevention and containment, which is largely a matter of implementing strict and complex sanitary measures and remaining vigilant. For example, earlier this year, the U.S. National Pork Producers’ Council canceled its annual World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa, as an exercise in “extreme caution” over attendees from ASF-positive regions. The Expo, which has been held annually since 1987, is the largest pork industry trade show in the world, drawing more than 20,000 visitors.
But more sinister threats evolve from the economic disruption caused by ASF. Just this past March, the USDA and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency intercepted more than 50 shipping containers loaded with approximately one million pounds of pork from China. The meat had been mislabeled and hidden among other products entering the Port of New York/Newark. Indeed, pork and pork products are a known vehicle for transmitting this virus and could introduce it to the U.S.
Dan Kovich, DVM and the director of science and technology for the National Pork Producers Council, said his organization is coordinating containment efforts with its counterparts in Canada and Mexico to prevent the spread of AFS to North America. The U.S. containment effort involves not only pork producers but all the many key animal health entities such as the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, Swine Health Information Center, National Swine Disease Council, and state and federal animal health agencies.
“Of course, we also have to think about how we would respond if, heaven forbid, it were to come here,” said Kovich. “We are working very closely with USDA and Customs and Border Protection to make sure that we identify and address all of our vulnerabilities.”
Agtech companies have an important part to play in addressing and solving zoonotic diseases. And the work is underway. In light of the ASF situation, Boehringer Ingelheim and GNA Biosolutions recently announced a new research partnership to develop a quick-test diagnostic tool for ASF. Obviously, early detection of ASF is fundamental to containment.
Genomic mapping and gene-editing/CRISPR technology hold great potential for preventing viral diseases such as ASF. Breaking the cycle of transmission of such diseases could also reduce the use of antibiotics and potentially pay dividends in addressing antimicrobial resistance.
“We as an industry right now are looking at the potential of a gene-edited pig that’s resistant to the ASF virus,” said Kovich. “The exciting thing about gene editing is that it allows us to make changes within the animal’s own genome that, given its efficacy, will give us a whole new toolbox to deal with these viral diseases.”
“That is sometime in the future, but we are actively working to try and find a workable regulatory pathway so that when these tools are available, we have a way to be able to utilize them in our herds,” he said.