Produced by Tom Griggs. Edited by Paolo Pascual. Footage from Reuters.
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African swine fever is an infectious disease that kills pigs, but it's proving to be a human crisis of a different kind - an economic one. The disease has already caused the deaths of more than 6m pigs, according to the most conservative estimate. It's now disrupting agriculture and meat in ways we will be feeling for years.
Hog farmers have been wiped out across Asia. Consumers in the hardest hit markets, led by China and Vietnam, are eating less pork and switching to other meats. And while Asia has legions of loyal meat eaters, the disease's impact could help fuel another global trend - the switch away from meat and toward vegetable-based proteins and meat substitutes.
African swine fever isn't dangerous to humans, but experts warn against eating meat from diseased animals because the disease can be transmitted if hogs are exposed to infected meat and feed containing food scraps. As its name suggests, African swine fever originated in Africa, but it's been reported for years in Europe too. It reached China in August 2018, experts believe, from Russia.
It had jumped to Mongolia by January of this year, Vietnam in February, Cambodia in March, and by October in the Philippines. It's now present in much of the continent. And it's even been reported in North Korea, Asia's most closed country.
The Paris-based Organisation for Animal Health describes the outbreak as one of the biggest crises to hit global livestock in decades. About a quarter of the world's hogs have died, either from the disease or in culls. In addition to killing their infected animals, Asian farmers have been selling uninfected ones at any price, even pigs that weren't fully grown. This has caused the price of pork to soar and other meats too as consumers switch their eating habits, fueling inflation this year in both China and Vietnam.
There have been other ripple effects too. Prices for corn and soybeans, both used in feed, have fallen. Meanwhile, earnings at some companies that raise hogs or produce pork have tanked. African swine fever has also altered the global meat trade possibly permanently, with China now importing more foreign pork than ever before.
The crisis reaches right across the globe to western markets and companies in the form of rising meat prices and shifting demand. Slow to react at first, officials across Asia are now working hard to contain African swine fever. And markets have adjusted to the shock. Few, however, are willing to say the worst of the outbreak is past.