This story is part of an ongoing series on U.S.-China relations produced jointly by the South China Morning Post and POLITICO, with reporting from Asia and the United States.
China would not normally be able to satisfy its consumer demand for pork, even before the epidemic of African swine fever has cut the nation’s pig population in half. Farmers in the United States would, normally, step in to help fill the gap.
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But in retaliation to the tariffs placed on Chinese imports by President Donald Trump, pork going to China from the U.S. now faces a 62 percent levy, essentially making American products too expensive for consumers in China. It’s also leaving exporters frustrated that they cannot take advantage of a prime opportunity to gain long-term access to a lucrative market.
American pig farmers are estimated to be losing out on $1 billion in exports as a result of the continued tensions between the two global economic powers.
Although some U.S. pork products are making their way to China despite the steep duties, in the long term, American producers are haplessly losing out to countries like Brazil and Germany in the global race to feed China’s insatiable taste for pork.
“We certainly want to retain as much of our business as possible [in China], but when you have a tariff that’s five times higher than the standard, that’s a significant headwind,” said Joe Schuele, vice president of communications for the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
The longer trade negotiations with China drag on, the more American farmers will see their window of opportunity close as global competitors claim parts of the Chinese market share.
Earlier this year, pig farmers in the U.S. had some hope that the tensions between Beijing and Washington would be resolved quickly as trade negotiations seemed to be going smoothly. But in May, Trump accused China of backtracking on promises it made during months of talks, resulting in even more tariffs being placed on Chinese goods coming into the U.S.
Right after that announcement, Chinese buyers called off orders of more than 3,000 metric tonnes of U.S. pork — the biggest cancellation in more than a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
China’s need for imported pork, though, is not going away. By the most recent official estimates from April, China’s pig population is down by 20 percent — or around 100 million pigs — from a year earlier. The disease has been spreading since summer 2018.
“To put it another way, nothing like this has happened since we’ve had data to record such things,” said Feng Yonghui, chief researcher at Soozhu.com, a website for the pork industry.
China already imports more pork than any other country, with the USDA predicting a 41 percent rise in imports, to around 2.2 million tonnes, as a result of African swine fever.
Europe — the largest source of Chinese imports — has contended with its own African swine fever problems, limiting its ability to ramp up production. China would also need to pay more to lure EU exports away from higher-income neighbors, including Japan and Korea, the USDA said in a recent report.
Herds in other economies that export to China, like Vietnam, have also been afflicted with the disease. Vietnam said last month it had culled 2 million pigs in a bid to curb an outbreak of African swine fever after the virus spread to most of its provinces.
All those factors leave the U.S. in a position that should allow it to dominate the market, said Nick Giordano, vice president of the National Pork Producers Council. From a U.S. farmer’s perspective, this is “the single greatest sales opportunity in our industry’s history,” Giordano said.
“We have been saying for years that if all the barriers to U.S. pork exports in China were eliminated, that pork could single-handedly put a huge dent in the U.S. trade imbalance with China,” he added. “Today, more than ever before, that is the case because African swine fever is ravaging the Chinese hog herd.”
Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes estimates that the trade dispute with China has cost American pig farmers $8 per animal, or $1 billion in total losses.
Canada and Brazil are already making inroads in filling that void, with the South American nation already improving its market share in China from 4 percent in 2017 to 13 percent in 2018, the USDA reported.
China’s officials have been sending mixed messages about the depth of the crisis, on the one hand saying African swine fever pig deaths and rising pork prices are under control, while on the other stepping up countermeasures to combat a dwindling pig supply.
“Our pig-raising industry has already adequately prepared, and we will deal with the effects of African swine fever,” said Cao Derong, president of the China Chamber of Commerce of Import & Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce & Animal By-Products.
He also suggested that customers would be perfectly happy to substitute pork with other meat, such as beef, chicken or seafood.
“China’s consumers can use other meat products, or other country’s meat, to replace meat imports from the United States,” Cao added, emphasizing that U.S. pork imports are relatively small and that China will continue to rely mainly on its own domestic supply. “We will never depend too much on imports for any particular product.”
E.W. Johnson of Enable AgTech, a small consultancy and animal disease testing facility in Beijing, believes that poor sanitary practices that keep the disease proliferating haven‘t changed, leading to a deepening crisis as the year wears on.
He added that the spread of the disease may slow during the summer, as the warmer environment makes it harder for the virus to spread, but it’s likely to intensify again in autumn when the weather cools. That leaves the Chinese government just a few months to figure out what to do next.
If China’s tariffs on U.S. goods remain in place, other countries will step in to fill the demand. Li Dali, a merchandiser at Qingdao New Ocean Line, a major importer of frozen meat, estimates that European market share could rise from around half of China’s meat imports to 60 percent or 70 percent within a year.
That means major European meat exporters — including those in Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany — will have an edge over North American providers like Canada and the U.S.
“In the past, we have relied on two major sources of frozen meat products: Europe and North America. But right now, U.S. imports are already very, very low,” Li said.
Canada suspects that its exports are facing retaliatory actions after it arrested a top Huawei executive at the request of the U.S. For instance, China suspended licenses for two Canadian pork producers in May, saying products had improper labels. This week, a third Canadian firm said its shipments have been blocked.
Feeling the price pinch
Chinese officials may soon feel consumer pressure to do something about rising pork prices.
Feng of Soozhu.com said he expects pork prices to break records this year. Prices climbed to just over 20 yuan ($2.90) per kilogram in April, 20 percent higher than a year earlier, and they are likely to rise even more. In March, a report by Japanese bank Nomura said prices could hit 33 yuan per kilogram by January.
“Food prices have a structure, and react to market prices. If the price of pork goes up, so do other meats, but consumers still have choices,” said Feng, adding that he didn’t think pork prices would rise above the 40 yuan ($5.79) per kilogram price of beef last year.
In April, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs warned that pork may be 70 percent more expensive in the second half of 2019. But in early June, China’s Ministry of Commerce contended that rising pork prices were “basically under control.”
China also has plans to revitalize production. In late May, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released plans to pump more loans into the industry.
Wang Dan, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in Beijing, predicted that Chinese authorities will have to take some steps to stabilize prices.
“China will have to either lower tariffs or subsidize importers,” she said. “Either way, eventually China has to import more from the U.S.”
While Europe already supplies more than half of China’s imported pork, Wang said that increasing production out of the European Union countries will be difficult because of the bloc’s strict environmental regulations and animal welfare requirements.
“The most feasible way for China to meet its needs is to increase imports from the U.S.,” she said.
Even after the disease is eradicated, the effects of African swine fever are expected to linger as China works to rebuild its domestic hog population.
“China will be dealing with this African swine fever for many years to come. Five years will probably be the minimal time needed for the industry to recover,” said Catherine Bertrand-Ferrandis, a spokesperson for the World Organization for Animal Health, which is more commonly known by the French acronym OIE.
So if the trade war is resolved in the coming months and retaliatory tariffs are dropped, American producers could try to cultivate their stake. That may leave more, but still limited, room for pork exporters like the U.S., said Pan Chenjun, senior analyst at Rabobank.
“I think this is a medium-term opportunity for overseas suppliers,” Pan said. “In the longer term, I think China could return to self sufficiency with some 5 percent supply coming from imports.”
Keegan Elmer reports for the South China Morning Post from Beijing. Liz Crampton reports for POLITICO from Washington.