Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu
Even half of Chinese breeding pigs died of African swine fever or slaughtered for spreading the disease, twice as much as officially recognized, according to estimates of four people supplying large farms.
(For interactive graphics, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2t0mpCk)
While other estimates are more conservative, slicing the number of sows is leaving a big hole in supplying the country's favorite meat, increasing food prices and devastating life in a rural economy involving 40 million pigs.
"Something like 50% of sows is dead," said Edgar Wayne Johnson, a veterinarian who spent 14 years in China and founded Enable Agricultural Technology Consulting, a Beijing-based agricultural service company with clients across the country.
Three other executives of vaccine manufacturers, food additives and genetics also estimate losses of 40% to 50%, based on a drop in sales of their companies' products and direct knowledge of the scale of lethal disease on farms across the country.
Losses are not only due to the dying of infected pigs but also farmers who send pigs to the market early when the disease is detected in the immediate vicinity, Reuters said farmers and industry experts, for whom analysts say they have kept pork prices for the past few months.
However, prices have started to rise significantly this month, and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture announced that it could grow by 70 percent in the coming months as a result of outbreaks. Pork meat makes up more than 60% of Chinese meat consumption.
China, which produces half of the world's pork meat, said this month that sow herd dropped to record 23.9% in May compared to a year earlier, a somewhat slower drop than the total number of pig flocks.
Sows or adult females breed for the production of slaughter piglets account for about one in 10 pigs in China. Sowding of sows is usually the same drop in pig meat production, experts from the industry say.
(Graphic view: African swine fever – https://tmsnrt.rs/2t4EnDK)
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has not responded to a comment requesting a fax about allegations of much greater losses than officially reported. On June 24, he announced that the disease was "effectively controlled," the state news agency Xinhua reported.
Dutch agricultural lender Rabobank said in April that losses of pork production from the Chinese outbreak of African swine fever could reach 35%. Revision of that number is higher to explain the widespread slaughter of the past few months, Chenjun, senior analyst at Reuters, said.
African swine fever, for which there is no cure and vaccine, kills almost all infected pigs, although it does not harm humans. Since the first reported case in China last August, the virus is similar to that found in Russia, Georgia and Estonia in recent years – spread to every province and beyond China, despite measures taken by Beijing to counteract its progress.
The government has so far reported 137 outbreaks, but there are still many unrecorded, and recently in southern provinces such as Guangdong, Guangxi and Hunan, four farmers and a staff member recently interviewed by Reuters.
The huge and fragmented nature of the Chinese agricultural sector, mysterious bureaucracy, and what is generally believed among industry experts that poor quality data in China makes it impossible to determine the entire range of the disease.
"Almost all the pigs died here," said a farmer in Bobai district in southwest China's Guangxi province. In 2017, Guangxi produced more than 33 million pigs and is a key supplier to southern China.
"We were not allowed to report swine fever," he told Reuters, refusing to reveal his name because of the sensitivity of this issue, adding that the authorities kept farmers from "spreading rumors" about the disease. Reuters could not confirm it.
(Graphic: African swine fever epidemic map in China – https://tmsnrt.rs/2QMhmzL)
Authorities in Yulin, controlled by Bobai County, confirmed the outbreak of a single pig pig on May 27th. It was just the second one that was recorded in the region after a case in Beihai City on February 19th.
The Guangxi Agricultural and Rural Affairs Office did not respond to a comment asking for a fax.
Reuters also talked to farmers in the cities of Zhongshan, Foshan and Maoming in the neighboring Guangdong province, all of whom have lost hundreds or thousands of pigs in the last three months. There were no official outbreak reports in these cities. None of the farmers agreed to be identified.
The provincial offices in Guangdong and Hunan did not respond to the faxes that asked for a comment.
AS "OIL PICTURES"
China had 375 million pigs at the end of March, 10% less than at the same time a year ago, the State Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said. It had 38 million sows, down 11% year-over-year, according to NBS.
Numerous suppliers in the industry say they believe the actual fall is much worse.
Dick Hordijk, the Royal Managing Director of the Royal Cooperative, Royal Agrifirm, told the Dutch radio station BNR last month that his company's profits in China will be destroyed by disease, spreading like "oil stains."
"The percentage of our business was targeted at pigs, half now vanished," he said. "It's a catastrophe for farmers and animals."
The company produces pre-blends, or blends of vitamins and other nutrients, into two factories in China, and sells them to about 100 large breeders in China for use in food.
Stephan Lange, vice president of animal health in China at the private pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim of the vaccine, and Johnson, a veterinarian from Beijing, said the losses were more than 50% in pockets in the country.
It is believed that some major industries in livestock production, including Hebei, Henan and Shandong, are particularly hard hit by industry.
LARGE MANUFACTURERS, DAMAGE FARMS
In Shandong, China's fourth largest breeding area, more than half of farms with a large number of sows were now empty, estimates Johnson, based on his talks with farmers and larger pig producers.
The virus is so widespread that it has uncovered it on the motorway surface in the province, where it can spread to passive trucks, he added. He used the same test that is widely used to detect viruses in pigs.
The Agricultural Office in Shandong did not respond to the comment that asked for the fax. Authorities have said earlier that the sows' crust fell by 41 percent in seven months to February 2019, even after reporting only one outbreak.
Henan said in a statement to Reuters he had only two outbreaks of illness. Its sows dropped by 16.5% in the first quarter, due to various factors, including market prices and African swine fever, without further details.
And in Hebei, the northern province surrounding Beijing, many counties have no more sows, said Johnson, who saw his first case of illness in October.
Hebei reported only about one outbreak – in February this year – but a farm ministry poll posted on the internet said the sow had fallen by 32% in the first trimester.
Hebei Province told Reuters in a statement that the situation in the African swine fever was "stable" and challenged the claim that many sows remained in many counties.
(Graphics: Production of Pork Meats of the Top Producers 1990 – Today: https://tmsnrt.rs/2Ipn6O3)
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Beijing has repeatedly called farmers to rebuild herds, but putting new sows on a farm infected with African pork is risky, experts say.
The virus can survive for weeks outside the host, potentially living on a farm that is not thoroughly disinfected.
Lange said that several of his clients had begun filling empty farms, but some illnesses had come back.
"There is still plenty of uncertainty. If you get infected again, that's really a lot of money you lose," he said.
Bobai farmer, who now has no way to repay his debts, said he did not intend to restart his farm, even if he can afford it.
"I do not dare breed pigs," she said. "You can not see the virus with its eyes. The virus is still here, the pig has viruses."
(Reporting by Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu; additional reporting at the newsrooms in Beijing and Hong Kong; editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson)