BEIJING (Reuters) – As many as half of Chinese breeding pigs have either died from African swine fever or have been slaughtered because of the spread of disease, twice as many as officially acknowledged, according to estimates of four people supplying large farms .
FILE PHOTO: Pigs are seen on the back of a truck outside a slaughterhouse in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, China December 22, 2017. REUTERS / Stringer / File Photo
(For an interactive graphic click tmsnrt.rs/2t0mpCk )
While other estimates are more conservative, the plunge in the number of sows is poised to leave a large hole in the supply of the country's favorite meat, pushing food prices and devastating livelihoods into a rural economy that includes 40 million pigs farmers.
"Something like 50% of the sows are dead," said Edgar Wayne Johnson, a veterinarian who spent 14 years in China and founded Enable Agricultural Technology Consulting, and a Beijing-based farm services firm with clients across the country.
Three other executives at producers of vaccines, feed additives and genetics also estimate losses of 40% to 50%, based on falling sales for their companies' products and direct knowledge of the extent of the deadly disease on farms across the country.
Losses are not only from infected pigs dying or being killed, but also farmers are sending pigs to market early when the disease is discovered nearby, farmers and industry insiders have told Reuters, which analysts say has kept a lid on pork prices in recent months.
However, prices have risen significantly this month and China's agriculture ministry said they could surge by 70 percent in coming months as a result of the outbreak. Pork accounts for more than 60% of Chinese meat consumption.
China, which produces half of the world's pigs, said this month its sow herd declined by a record 23.9% in May from a year earlier, and a slightly lower drop than the overall pig herd.
Sows, or adult females bred to produce piglets for slaughter, account for roughly one in 10 pigs in China. A decline in the sow herd usually equates to a similar drop in pig production, industry experts say.
(Graphic: African swine fever – tmsnrt.rs/2t4EnDK)
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has not responded to a fax seeking comment on much higher losses than officially reported. It said on June 24 that the disease was "effectively controlled," the state news agency Xinhua reported.
Dutch agricultural lender Rabobank said in April that pig production production from China's African swine fever outbreak could reach 35%. It is revising that number higher to account for widespread slaughter in recent months, Mr. Chenjun, senior analyst, told Reuters.
African swine fever, for which there is no cure and no vaccine, kills almost all infected pigs, though it does not harm people. Since China's first reported case last August – the virus is similar to the strain found in recent years in Russia, Georgia and Estonia – it has spread to every province and beyond China's borders, despite measures taken by Beijing to curb its advance.
The government has reported 137 outbreaks so far, but many more are going unreported, most recently in southern provinces such as Guangdong, Guangxi and Hunan, according to four farmers and an official recently interviewed by Reuters.
The vast and fragmented nature of China's agricultural sector, a secretive bureaucracy and what is widely believed among industry experts to be poor Chinese data quality, makes the full extent of the disease impossible to ascertain.
"Almost all the pigs here have died," said a farmer in Bobai County in the southwestern China's Guangxi region. Guangxi produced more than 33 million pigs in 2017, and is a key supplier to southern China.
"We were not allowed to report the pig disease," she told Reuters, declining to reveal her name because of the sensitivity of the issue, adding that authorities have detained farmers for "spreading rumors" about the disease. Reuters was unable to verify this.
Authorities in Yulin city, which oversees Bobai County, confirmed an outbreak of the disease in one pig on May 27. It was only the second to be reported in the region after a case in the city of Beihai on Feb. 19.
The Agriculture and Rural Affairs Bureau of Guangxi Region did not respond to a fax seeking comment.
Reuters also spoke to farmers in the cities of Zhongshan, Foshan and Maoming in the neighboring province of Guangdong, all of whom had lost hundreds or thousands of pigs to the disease in the last three months. No outbreaks have been officially reported in those cities. None of the farmers agreed to be identified.
The agriculture bureau of Guangdong and Hunan provinces did not respond to faxes seeking comment.
LIKE 'AN OIL SLICK'
China had 375 million pigs at the end of March, 10% less than at the same time a year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). It had 38 million sows, and a decline of 11% over the year, the NBS said.
Numerous suppliers to the industry have said they believe the actual decline is much worse.
Dick Hordijk, chief executive of Dutch co-operative Royal Agrifirm, told Dutch radio station BNR last month that his firm's profits in China would be wiped out by the disease, which was spreading like an oil slick.
"One hundred percent of our business was focused on pigs, half of it is gone now," he said. "This is a disaster for the farmers and the animals."
The company produces pre-mixes or blends of vitamins and other nutrients in two factories in China and sells them to around 100 large pig farmers in China for use in feed.
Stephan Lange, vice president of animal health in China at Boehringer Ingelheim, which makes vaccines, and Johnson, the Beijing-based veterinarian, said the loss was higher than 50% in the pounds of the country.
Major livestock producing provinces including Hebei, Henan and Shandong are believed by some in the industry to have been particularly hard hit.
BIG PRODUCERS, EMPTY FARMS
In Shandong, the fourth largest pig-raising province in China, more than half of farms with a large number of sows were now empty, Johnson estimated, based on his conversations with farmers and larger pigs producers.
The virus is so widespread that it has detected it on the surface of a highway in the province, where it can be spread by passing trucks, he added. He used the same test that is widely used to detect the virus in pigs.
Shandong's agricultural bureau did not respond to a fax seeking comment on the issue. Authorities there said that the sow herd would shrink by 41 percent in the seven months to February 2019, even after only reporting one outbreak.
Henan said in a statement to Reuters that he had only two outbreaks of the disease. Its sow herd fell 16.5% in the first quarter, due to various factors including market prices and African swine fever, it said, without giving further details.
In Hebei too, the northern province surrounding Beijing, many counties have few sows left, said Johnson, who saw his first case of the disease there in October.
Hebei has reported only one outbreak – in February this year – but an agriculture ministry survey published online said the sow herd fell by 32% in the first quarter.
Hebei Province said in a statement that the African swine fever situation was "stable" and disputed the assertion that there were few sows left in many counties.
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Beijing has repeatedly called for farmers to restock, but putting new sows on this a farm that has been infected with African swine fever is risky, say experts.
The virus can survive for weeks outside a host, potentially living on a farm that has not been thoroughly disinfected.
Lange said some of his clients have started restocking empty farms, but for some the disease returned.
"There's a lot of insecurity obviously. If you get reinfected again, that's really a lot of money you're losing, "he said.
The Bobai farmer, who now has no way to pay off her debts, said she did not intend to restart her farm, even if she could afford it.
"I dare not raise pigs," she said. "You can not see the virus with your eyes. The virus is still here, there is a virus in the pigsty. "
Reporting by Dominique Patton and Hallie Gu; Additional reporting by Beijing and Hong Kong newsrooms; Editing by Tony Munroe and Alex Richardson