PEKING (Reuters) – According to estimates from four large-scale farmers, half of Chinese breeding pigs have died of African swine fever or have been slaughtered due to the spreading disease.
FILE PHOTO: Pigs are seen on the back of a truck in front of a slaughterhouse in Dongguan, Guangdong province, China, on December 22, 2017. REUTERS / Stringer / File Photo
(For an interactive graph, click on tmsnrt.rs/2t0mpCk)
While other estimates are more conservative, the decline in the number of sows is a big hole in the supply of the meat's favorite Land left behind, which drives up food prices and destroys the livelihood in a rural economy with 40 million pigs farmers.
"About 50% of the sows are dead," said Edgar Wayne Johnson, a veterinarian who spent 14 years in China and established Enable Agricultural Technology Consulting, a Beijing-based agricultural services company, with clients across the country.
Three other executives from vaccine, feed additive and genetics manufacturers also estimate losses on the basis of declining sales of their companies' products and direct knowledge of the extent of the fatal disease on farms across the country at between 40% and 50%.
Losses occur not only through the dying or killing of infected pigs, but also because farmers send pigs to the market early when the disease is detected nearby months.
However, prices rose sharply this month and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture announced that they could rise 70 percent as a result of the outbreak in the coming months. Pork makes up more than 60% of Chinese meat consumption.
China, which produces half of the pork in the world, announced that its herd of sows had declined by a record 23.9% yoy in May. This is a slightly lower decline than in the entire herd of pigs.
Sows or adult female animals bred to produce piglets account for about one in ten pigs in China. According to industry experts, a decline in herd sows usually equates to a similar decline in pork production.
(Picture: African swine fever – tmsnrt.rs/2t4EnDK)
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs did not respond to a fax requesting an opinion on allegations of significantly higher losses than officially reported. According to the state news agency Xinhua, the disease was "effectively fought" on June 24.
Rabobank, the Dutch agricultural lender, announced in April that production losses of pork from the outbreak of African swine fever in China could reach 35%. According to Pan Chenjun, senior analyst, this figure is higher to explain the widespread slaughter in recent months.
African swine fever, for which there is no cure and no vaccine, kills almost all infected pigs, although it does not harm humans. Since China's first reported case last August – the virus is similar to the virus found in recent years in Russia, Georgia and Estonia – it has spread in all provinces and beyond the borders of China, although Beijing has taken measures to curb its advance ,
According to four farmers and a recent official interviewed by Reuters, 137 outbreaks have been reported in southern provinces such as Guangdong, Guangxi and Hunan.
The enormous and fragmented nature of China's agricultural sector, a secret bureaucracy, and the widespread speculation of poor Chinese data quality among industry experts make it impossible to determine the full extent of the disease.
"Nearly all the pigs here died," said a farmer in Bobai County, China's southwestern Guangxi region. Guangxi produced more than 33 million pigs in 2017 and is an important supplier to South China.
"We were not allowed to report the swine disease," she told Reuters. She refused to reveal her name because of the sensitivity of the problem, adding that the authorities arrested farmers for "spreading rumors" about the disease. Reuters could not verify this.
(Graphic: Outbreaks of African swine fever in China – tmsnrt.rs/2QMhmzL)
The authorities of Yulin City, which oversees the Bobai County, confirmed an outbreak of the disease in a pig on May 27, the second Reported in the region after a case in Beihai City on February 19.
The Office of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of Guangxi Region did not respond to a fax requesting comments.
Reuters also talked to farmers in the cities of Zhongshan, Foshan and Maoming in neighboring Guangdong province, all of whom lost hundreds or thousands of pigs in the last three months due to the disease. Officially, no outbreaks were reported in these cities. None of the farmers agreed to be identified.
Guangdong Provincial and Hunan Provincial Agricultural Offices did not respond to faxes requesting comments.
LIKE "AN OIL"
At the end of March, China had 375 million pigs, 10% less than at the same time a year ago, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). It had 38 million sows, a decline of 11% over the previous year, said the NBS.
Numerous industry suppliers believe the actual decline is even worse.
Dick Hordijk, CEO of the Dutch cooperative Royal Agrifirm, told Dutch radio station BNR last month that his company's profits in China were being wiped out by the disease, which spread like an "oil spill".
"One hundred percent of our business was focused on pigs, half of which are now gone," he said. "This is a disaster for the farmers and the animals."
The company produces premixes or mixtures of vitamins and other nutrients in two Chinese factories and sells them to about 100 large pig farmers in China for use in feed.
Stephan Lange, vice president of animal health in China at privately held pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, which manufactures vaccines, and Johnson, the Beijing-based veterinarian, said the loss in the country's pockets was more than 50% ,
Some in the industry believe that the main animal-producing provinces, including Hebei, Henan and Shandong, have been particularly hard hit.
GREAT PRODUCERS, EMPTY FARMS
In Shandong, China's fourth-largest pig breeding province, Johnson estimates that more than half of the farms with a large number of sows were empty, based on discussions with farmers and larger pig producers.
The virus was so widespread that he discovered it on the surface of a highway in the province where it could be spread by passing trucks, he added. He used the same test that is often used to detect the virus in pigs.
Shandong Agricultural Bureau did not respond to a fax requesting an opinion. The authorities said the herd of sows had shrunk by 41 percent in the seven months to February 2019, although only one outbreak had been reported.
Henan said in a statement to Reuters that there were only two outbreaks of the disease. The number of sows declined by 16.5% in the first quarter, due in part to market prices and African swine fever, without giving any further details.
Also in Hebei, the northern province around Beijing, many counties have only a few sows, said Johnson, who had his first illness there in October.
Hebei has reported only one outbreak – in February of this year – but according to an online survey by the Department of Agriculture, herd sows fell 32% in the first quarter.
Hebei Province told Reuters in a statement that swine fever is "stable" in Africa, denying that many counties still have only a few sows left.
(Graphics: Pork production by top producers from 1990 to today: tmsnrt.rs/2Ipn6O3)
"I do not dare to breed pigs"
Beijing repeatedly called on farmers to replenish their stocks, but continued New sows A farm that is infected with African swine fever is risky according to experts.
The virus can survive for weeks outside a host and may continue to live in a farm that has not been thoroughly disinfected.
Lange said some of his clients had started to replenish empty farms, but for some, the disease had returned.
"Obviously, there is still great uncertainty. If you get infected again, that's really a lot of money you lose, "he said.
The Bobai farmer, who now has no way to pay her debts, said she had no plans to resume her farm, even if she could afford it.
"I do not dare raise pigs," she said. "You can not see the virus with your eyes, the virus is still there, there is a virus in the pigsty."
Reporting by Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu; Additional coverage by the newsrooms in Beijing and Hong Kong; Munroe and Alex Richardson