There are three ways in which disease intersects with geopolitics. First, the outbreak and impact of disease usually reveals stark inequalities in terms of public health provision, access to medicine and communal reconstruction. Second, disease management is usually contingent on space being separated, quarantined and subject to exclusion orders. Travel bans are often imposed in the name of homeland security and biosecurity. Third, the management of disease is part and parcel of global political strategies and projections of power. Public health interventions can be designed, framed and implemented by global bodies such as the UN World Health Organization and/or wealthy states from the global North armed with professional medical and health expertise and a well-funded pharmaceutical sector. The global South might find itself facing public health interventions that look and feel like they are designed to ‘contain’ the risk of disease affecting countries and regions elsewhere.
African swine fever (ASF) provides a poignant example of a zoological pandemic causing geopolitical and public health ripples around the world. In October, the Financial Times reported that European pork prices were going to hit a six-year high because of ASF. Chinese pig herds have been bedevilled by the disease and, as a consequence, global demand for processed pork in particular has been hit by shortages. Compounding matters further, European suppliers in Poland and Romania have experienced losses. In the recent past ASF was thought to be linked to wild boar, but now the virus has mutated to domestic pigs.
Harmless to humans, ASF is deadly to the pig population. European Commission data on reported outbreaks makes for grim reading with at least 450,000 pigs affected in Romania alone. There are fears that Europe’s open borders might facilitate the spread of the disease to other major producers such as Germany.
More worryingly is news from China that outbreaks continue to be reported around the country. Almost none of China’s 34 provinces have been spared from ASF. Pig culling has been common, as have other emergency measures such as quarantine and livestock mobility bans. Analysts have warned that China’s pork production is likely to reduce at least by a quarter before 2019 is done.
Pork prices have risen markedly, with reports that up to 40 per cent of China’s pig herds had been destroyed. The figure will rise and could even reach 70 per cent according to some analysts, and actual numbers might not correlate well with the reported figures from the Veterinary Bureau of China. Neighbouring countries also affected include Cambodia, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam. ASF is becoming an issue for Southeast Asian countries en masse.
The larger picture in terms of this disease is disturbing. ASF is described as a complex and resistant virus. Infected blood from diseased animals can infect other wild and domestic pigs. It has been around since the 1920s, but has largely been confined to sub-Saharan Africa and isolated pockets of southern Europe. Over the last 15 years, the diffusion pattern of ASF was markedly different. ASF made itself felt in Eastern Europe and, more recently, parts of Asia. It has been reported in over 50 countries.
The transportation of infected animals and vehicles are recognised as the primary mechanisms for disease diffusion. Imported feed for pig herds is another source of concern for food manufacturers, while the wild pig/boar population can contribute further to ASF transmission. Expect to hear more about emergency biosecurity measures being imposed around the world, including in the US.
‘Protein geopolitics’ is a matter of global significance. Other regional meat producers are reporting record interest from China. In order to meet Chinese demand, Australian and New Zealand producers are sending more pork and sheep meat exports. Prices are rising and despite the trade tension between the US and China, Beijing is importing pork supplies from its geostrategic rival. In October, US trade figures reported a surge rising to more than 140,000 tons of pork alongside soybean for animal feed with China likely to want to import more and, paradoxically, the ASF disaster might provide an opportunity to tone down talk of a ‘trade war’ and tariffs. Longer-term, it will be interesting to see whether trading patterns shift in favour of foreign exporters such as the US and Australia, possibly to the detriment of others who find themselves overwhelmed by the scale of Chinese demand.
Food security is a major preoccupation for the Chinese authorities, with a 1.4 billion population to feed. China is the biggest consumer of pork and manages the largest domestic pig population in the world (440 million animals at its peak). Price rises affect huge numbers of Chinese families hard and not just with pork. Demand for other meats has soared, such as mutton/lamb, seafood and chicken causing further global market distortions.
As a pandemic, ASF reveals the intersection between animal health, food security, trade patterns and regional geopolitical dynamics. Meanwhile, pig farmers in the US are benefiting from China’s misfortune.
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!