This Little Piggy Shortage

A new breed of criminal has emerged in China: "pigjackers." Soaring pork prices in the People's Republic have sent thieves roaring off with truckloads of hogs—and sometimes with smaller hauls, as was the case with the gang that was busted last year in Shenzhen trying to make off with 275 pounds of pork on a motorbike. A local newspaper valued the meat at upwards of $420, or roughly three times what a stolen motorbike might fetch in the city. Police easily caught the getaway bike; it couldn't handle all that weight.

The porcine crime wave is no joke to China's leaders. They see it as a sign of a much larger problem: even more than they worry about a repetition of Tiananmen Square, they dread the kind of mass unrest that could erupt out of a spike in pork prices. A full 65 percent of the country's total protein consumption is pork. The threat of a spontaneous uprising has been made worse by a freak blizzard that paralyzed central China last week—the region's worst in 50 years—stranding mobs of migrant workers on their way home for the Lunar New Year and disrupting shipments of the pig meat that is essential to holiday feasts. Food prices in general, and pork in particular, have been skyrocketing for months. Economic boom times are boosting demand even as the supply has plunged because of shrinking farmlands, rising grain prices and a "blue ear disease" epidemic that forced pig raisers to cull many thousands of hogs.

In an effort to head off serious trouble, Beijing has tapped the country's official "pork reserve." That's no joke, either; it's the actual term for the special stash of meat the Chinese government keeps frozen in case of a sudden crunch—not unlike America's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But snowbound shipments of pork probably won't reach many Chinese families' tables in time for the holiday. And the country's underlying agricultural shortages will only get worse. The prospect is something for the whole world to worry about. Experts predict that China, long a major exporter of corn products, will soon become a net importer—possibly this year. When that happens, global grain prices could jump like this year's oil market.