As many as half of China’s breeding pigs have either died from African swine fever or been slaughtered because of the spreading disease, twice as many as officially acknowledged, according to the estimates of four people who supply large farms.
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 up food prices and devastating livelihoods in a rural economy that includes 40 million pig farmers.
“Something like 50% of sows are dead,” said Edgar Wayne Johnson, a veterinarian who has spent 14 years in China and founded Enable Agricultural Technology Consulting, 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 culled, but also farmers 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 began rising substantially this month and China’s agricultural ministry has 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 the world’s pork, said this month its sow herd declined by a record 23.9% in May from a year earlier, a slightly deeper drop than for 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 pork output, industry experts say.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs did not respond to a fax seeking comment on claims of much higher losses than officially reported. It said on June 24 the disease has been “effectively controlled,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
Dutch agricultural lender Rabobank said in April that pork production losses from China’s African swine fever outbreak could reach 35%. It is revising that number higher to account for widespread slaughtering in recent months, Pan 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 China’s southwestern 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 neighboring Guangdong province, 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 bureaus 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% fewer 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% on the year, the NBS said.
Numerous suppliers to the industry have said they believe the actual decline is much worse.
Dick Hordijk, chief executive at 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.”
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