DAVID GREENE, HOST:
China is truly a superpower - of pork. It is home to half of all the pigs in the world. But right now a disease called African swine fever is sweeping through Chinese hog farms. And it's having ripple effects for farmers all over the world as NPR's Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The swine fever epidemic in China and the rest of Southeast Asia began a year ago, and it's still spreading. Christine McCracken and her colleagues at the big financial firm Rabobank have been talking to their clients in China, companies in the pork business - trying to figure out how bad it is.
CHRISTINE MCCRACKEN: Every day, we hear of more outbreaks.
CHARLES: According to their latest estimate, African swine fever is killing off so many pigs that by the end of this year, China's production of pork could be cut in half.
MCCRACKEN: That's roughly, you know, 300 to 350 million pigs lost in China, which is, you know, almost a quarter of the world's pork supply.
CHARLES: Which I found stunning. Should I be stunned by that?
MCCRACKEN: You should. It's a massive number.
CHARLES: African swine fever is not swine flu. This disease is harmless to humans. It can spread through contaminated pork products or the clothes of people working with infected pigs, not through the air. But the virus is really hard to get rid of, which Chinese farmers are finding out.
MCCRACKEN: They've had a hard time repopulating herds. It's hard to decontaminate a facility in a short amount of time. Generally, it takes at least six months to sometimes three years to decontaminate a site.
CHARLES: McCracken says many Chinese farmers have slaughtered their herds early out of fear the animals might get infected, so there's still pork on the shelves. In the past month or so, consumers in China are starting to see the impact. Pork prices are rising. In fact, the impact is rippling across the globe.
With fewer pigs, China's importing less soy meal to feed them. That alone has been enough to push down global prices of soybeans, which means less money for farmers in Brazil and the U.S. On the other hand, it's been good news for pork producers in the rest of the world. China is starting to import more pork, driving up prices. And McCracken says the epidemic is still going strong.
MCCRACKEN: It's really hard to see how this is going to end, though at some point, you know, they'll just be better, more biosecure facilities that have fewer chances of getting the virus.
CHARLES: Traditionally, almost half of the pigs in China came from small backyard operations, hundreds of thousands of them. Those farms, though, if they can't protect their animals from infection, may not survive.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "I AM REAL PUNK")
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