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African swine fever epidemic in China weighs on U.S. agriculture industry

By Jessie Higgins
African swine fever epidemic in China weighs on U.S. agriculture industry
A lorry loaded with hogs heads to the slaughterhouse outside of Beijing on December 30, 2015. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 8 (UPI) -- The rapid spread of African swine fever through China has left American farmers uncertain about the future of agricultural trade between the two countries, even after the trade war ends.

China has culled some 1 million hogs since the epidemic began in September, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. But that has done little to slow the spread of the disease, and experts estimate it will claim many millions more of the animals in the coming years.

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"It could be as much as 30 percent of China's herd impacted," said Michael Nepveux, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Such a dramatic reduction in China's hog population would send shock waves through international agricultural markets, Nepveux said.

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China is the most populated country on earth and pork is its main protein. Losing domestic herds would force the country to import substantially more pork or other protein to feed its people. At the same time, with fewer animals to feed, the demand for imported soybeans -- which are used mainly as meal to feed hogs and other livestock -- could plummet.

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"There's no question there is going to be a reduced demand" for soy, said Tim Bardole, an Iowa soybean grower and president-elect of the Iowa Soybean Association. "There are a wide range of estimates, but it will be a pretty substantial reduction."

China already is importing more pork this spring, Nepveux said. And some of those sales have gone to American producers. However, it is unclear if that will translate into substantial increases in the coming years.

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China currently has a 62 percent tariff on American pork, which was placed as retaliation for tariffs the Trump administration levied on Chinese goods last year. As long as that tariffs remain, it's unlikely U.S. companies will have much access to the Chinese market, said Jim Monroe, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council.

"We have shipped a significant percentage of our pork to China in the past," Monroe said. "I can't speculate on how exports are going to flow to China, but I can say that they will be looking for a reliable source of pork. And we have the best in the world."

Meanwhile, a similar tariff remains on American soybeans, as part of the trade war.

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Before the trade dispute began, China bought roughly 30 percent of all the soybeans grown in the U.S. The tariff led to a sharp reduction in trade, which cost American soy growers substantially this year, Bardole said.

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Growers have pinned their hopes on restoration of normal trade between the two nations, in a number of cases to save their livelihoods. But the swine fever epidemic has many worried that their ordeal will continue even after trading is restored, said Bardole, who recently visited with soy importers in China.

"One of the disturbing things is the impact they've seen in meal demand now," Bardole said. "And it's not over. Everyone we talked to [in China] thinks it's going to get worse before it gets better."

Guessing exactly how much of an impact the disease will have on Chinese -- and world -- markets is difficult, particularly because it is unlikely China is accurately reporting the number of infected animals, Nepveux said.

What is clear is that African swine fever has spread to all of China's major pork-producing provinces. And it shows no signs of slowing.

The disease is not transmittable to humans, but it is highly contagious among both wild and domestic hogs. No vaccine or treatment exists for the virus.

"Ninety percent of the pigs that get it will die," said Liz Wagstrom, the chief veterinarian at the National Pork Producers Council. "It is very contagious."

One of the main reasons China has not contained the outbreak is most of its hogs are raised on small farms with fewer than 50 animals -- sometimes far fewer. Those farmers feed their pigs something known as "swill," which is basically table scraps. Those scraps can easily include meat from infected hogs.

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"Because these guys are so small, there's no biosecurity going on there," Nepveux said.

That leaves culling as the only option to halt the spread of the disease. But experts are skeptical that China will be able to contain it using this method.

"It has spread quickly through China and it is going to be extremely difficult to control," Wagstrom said. "They've had foot and mouth disease in China for 30 years. They also have something known as pseudorabies. Those are diseases we have a vaccine for, and they haven't been able to control them."

African swine fever originated in Africa in the early 1900s, and has since spread to Asia and parts of Europe. It has not been found in the United States, but there is great concern of that happening.

"That would be devastating," Wagstrom said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with Customs and Border Protection to increase security at the border to prevent infected pork from entering the country.

"We understand the grave concerns about the ASF situation overseas," Greg Ibach, the USDA's undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a statement.

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