China’s ‘heartbroken’ pig farmers torn apart by pork price spike and African swine fever

He Huifeng

To raise or not to raise? That is the question for Chinese farmers like Fang Xinlun as doing business in the world’s largest pig farming industry has recently become more of a gamble.

Fang runs a pig farm in Zhumadian in the central Chinese province of Henan, but at the moment is unwilling raise more pigs due to fears of African swine fever, the deadly virus that could kill up to half of China’s pig population, despite it leading to soaring pork prices.

He does not allow outsiders to even get close to his pig farm, including friends or relatives, due to fears of contamination from a disease that has already contributed to China losing more than 100 million pigs over the last year.

“Me and my family haven’t had a meal at any restaurants for months because the food outside may contain the virus. I can’t afford to take any chances,” he said.

Me and my family haven’t had a meal at any restaurants for months because the food outside may contain the virus. I can’t afford taking any chances

Fang Xinlun

As China reels from the largest disruption to its pig farming industry that is causing a plunge in supply and a surge in prices, Beijing is scrambling to encourage pig production. But for Chinese pig farmers who have survived financial losses, environmental policy restrictions and African swine fever itself, it is not an easy option to simply expand.

Liang Liyong, who runs a farm of around a few thousand pigs in Jian in the southern Jiangxi province, feels helplessness due to the threat of African swine fever.

“It’s entirely up to ourselves to judge whether we should raise more [pigs] or not, but the risk is our own,” Liang said.

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Chen Yun, another pig farmer in Jian, claims he has suffered over 5 million yuan (US$700,000) of losses after his farm of around 10,000 pigs became infected by African swine fever in June.

“The biggest problem is there are no [effective] epidemic prevention measures. Local insurance companies and governments have not compensated us for the losses caused by the spread of the fever,” Chen said.

We buried the dead pigs and had to sell the 10,000 live pigs at a dirt cheap price, including breeding pigs, sows and piglets. My heart was broken

Chen Yun

“We buried the dead pigs who died in just one or two days and then had to sell the 10,000 live pigs at a dirt cheap price, including breeding pigs, sows and piglets. The normal price of a breeding pig in June was 16 yuan (US$2.2) per kilogram, and I sold at only 3.6 yuan.

“I sold piglets at 100 or 200 yuan (US$14 or 28) soon after the outbreak occurred, and the market price of a piglet has grown to 1,500 yuan (US$211) each. My heart was broken.”

Local husbandry and veterinary bureau workers in protective suits disinfect a pig farm as a prevention measure against African swine fever in Jinhua, Zhejiang province. Photo: Reuters
Local husbandry and veterinary bureau workers in protective suits disinfect a pig farm as a prevention measure against African swine fever in Jinhua, Zhejiang province. Photo: Reuters

To make matters worse, Chen also did not receive compensation from his insurance company or the local government as the fever is regarded as a force majeure event, caused by a natural or unavoidable catastrophe that could not be anticipated.

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The fear surrounding African swine fever, against which there is still no effective vaccine, along with the discriminatory government policies against small pig farms in the previous years may make it difficult for China, which consumes half of the world’s pork, to boost supply quickly despite promises of subsidies and help from the government.

Yu Kangzhen, a vice-minister for agriculture, said in Beijing on Wednesday that it was unrealistic for China to pin its hope on imports to meet the country’s demand for pork as China’s total consumption is too large after the country produced 54 million tonnes in 2018 but consumed 56 million tonnes.

Wang Zuli, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told a corn industry conference this week that African swine fever will cause a sharp fall in domestic supply and produce a supply gap of at least 10 million tonnes, a worrying figure given that the world’s total pork available for export is only around 8 million tonnes globally.

Officially, pork prices rose 46.7 per cent in August from a year earlier, but in many places, it has more than doubled with Wang saying the average gross profit for a live pig has surged to about 1,500 yuan (US$211), or more than the seven times the historical average of 200 yuan (US$28).

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Jian farmer Chen is planning to try and start again later this year by raising 20 or 30 sows in his old pig farm as he cannot afford to build a new farm, although this would be still far less than the original annual output of 25,000 pigs.

“If there’s still virus there, the sows will die soon. If the sows can survive, I will try my luck to expand to a few hundred early next year,” he said.

“Only our farmers know how horrible the African swine fever epidemic is.”

Additional reporting by Orange Wang

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