Europe sweats as swine fever threat goes global

Previously confined to the European part of Russia and the Baltic states, the spread of African swine fever (ASF) further east and west is causing alarm on a global scale.

Russia-based journalist Vladislav Voronitkov’s bimonthly column outlines the ever increasing threat posed by African swine fever

Russia has already lost more than a million pigs since 2007 due to the epidemic, which has now moved to Siberia for the first time, according to Agricultural Minister Alexandr Tkachev.

The ASF situation was already a cause of great concern, but 2017 has seen an unprecedented spike in outbreaks, and authorities that previously believed it was a localised problem that could be solved without significant effort have been forced into a rethink.

Experts believe that now the virus is in Siberia, it will not be long before it reaches the far east of Russia and jeopardises investors’ plans to establish export links with China. Indeed, the risk is that the virus will penetrate into Kazakhstan, then get into Mongolia and, ultimately,

China, something Russian veterinary officials have said would be a disaster, with millions of heads of pigs at stake.

To the west, neighbouring Ukraine has registered 64 outbreaks of ASF this year (up to April 10) – there were 94 for the whole of 2016. It is present in 20 of the country’s regions and veterinary regulators have suggested Ukraine could face a pork shortage as a result. This would come as a shock for Ukrainians, for who cured pork fat is a staple dish.

The picture is similar in the Baltic states, including in Latvia, where almost 10,000 pigs have been culled since the start of 2017 – more than the total losses incurred in the previous three years.

The first outbreaks of ASF in Moldova this year may take the virus further to Romania soon, while the continuous and unsuccessful attempts to deal with ASF in Poland and the Baltic states could eventually let the disease get dangerously close to Germany.

The situation with ASF is getting out of control in most parts of the post-Soviet Union – the virus is becoming a global threat. The disease doesn’t threaten complete annihilation of the pig population but the consequences are going to be keenly felt, particularly in the export market.

In 2016, Russia increased pork exports more than fourfold to 18,000 metric tonnes, while also making trial deliveries all over the world, from Hong Kong to the Caribbean. But, as it reached pork self-sufficiency last year and with ASF proving a barrier, it will struggle to increase exports further. The numerous new pig farms that are about to be commissioned and the rising supply promises to bring about heavy pressure on prices.

ASF has assumed new importance as the geopolitical tensions have interrupted the well-established trade ties in the region.

Ukraine has been subject to the Russian food embargo since last January, and it is estimated this resulted in an almost fivefold drop in the volume of its pork exports, from the record-breaking 50,000t in 2015 to only about 10,000t in 2016. The same applies to the Baltic states, including Latvia, where swine exports dropped from 163,000 head in 2011 to zero in 2015.

Russia does now export meat to the rebel regions of Ukraine, which are experiencing food shortages because of the Kiev Government’s blockade. But it appears unlikely there will be any further increase of supplies in this direction, while negotiations on opening up major export markets for Russian pork, including China, have stalled.

Furthermore, the ASF genome has been identified several times in sausage production in recent years, discouraging foreign importers from purchasing Russian semi-finished, ready-to-cook and sausage products. Theoretically, the country’s exporters could take advantage of the devaluation of the Ruble and offer some premium products to foreign markets.

But again, the presence of the virus puts grit in the bearings. It seems that the pig industry in Russia, as well as other former Soviet states, has reached a tipping point and a new strategy to deal with the threat is urgently required.

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About The Author

Vladislav Vorotnikov is a Russian-based journalist covering agricultural and food topics.