Tiny Pig Farms Complicating China's Fight Against Deadly Virus

(Bloomberg) -- The race to contain the deadly pig virus spreading through China’s eastern provinces may be hampered by the proliferation of millions of small farms that house many of the country’s hogs.

In Heilongjiang province, where there have been at least two outbreaks of African swine fever, farmer Wang Lianchen said he’s not concerned because he hasn’t been told by local officials that he should be worried. He only found out about the growing number of outbreaks since the start of August by watching television and hasn’t taken any additional measures to protect the 200 pigs that live in his backyard.

“When it comes, it will come and you can do nothing about it,” 63-year-old Wang said in an interview in the front courtyard of his house in Qingfeng village. Traders come three times a year to collect his hogs and he doesn’t know where the animals are then sold.

Tiny Pig Farms Complicating China's Fight Against Deadly Virus

Wang is one of millions of small-scale farms that produce more than 70 percent of China’s pigs and highlights the arduous task the world’s top pork consumer faces. Tens of thousands of animals have already been culled, live hog transport banned and markets shut to try to control the spread of the disease that can be 100 percent fatal. Pork is the staple meat in China, where the country’s more than 400 million-head herd accounts for more than half of the world’s pigs.

“It is very hard to eradicate the disease in the country, where middle-and-small-sized hog farms dominate,” said Pan Chenjun, an analyst at Rabobank International in Hong Kong. It will be difficult for China to control the disease in the short-term, or over the next year, as these farms lack of proper biosecurity measures to guard against the disease, she said.

Tiny Pig Farms Complicating China's Fight Against Deadly Virus

The arrival of the virus in China last month is a major threat to the industry and to the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and others, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said last week after an emergency meeting in Bangkok. The agency warned the disease will almost certainly emerge in other Asian countries. There’s no vaccine and it doesn’t affect humans.

China’s most recent African swine fever outbreak occurred in Anhui province. At least 16 others have been reported across the country’s northeast and east, spanning some 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) and six provinces, since Aug. 1.

Transport

Live hogs are transported long distances in China as consumers prefer fresh meat, said Ma Chuang, deputy secretary general at the Chinese Association of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine. The practice of feeding pigs with swill or food scraps also poses a challenge in controlling the spread of the disease, he said.

In China, 75 percent of pigs are fed with animal feed from industrialized production and the rest are fed anything from grass to restaurant leftovers, said Ma. In April, several restaurants in Beijing were found to have been illegally supplying non-treated leftovers to 14 pig farms in the city’s Tongzhou district. China bans feeding swill to pigs unless it’s been heat treated.

Tiny Pig Farms Complicating China's Fight Against Deadly Virus

Farms Shut

The outbreaks will accelerate the shutting of backyard operations in China’s rural areas and more slaughtering houses will be built closer to farms to avoid long-distance transport of hogs, according to Rabobank’s Pan. More cold storage transport of meat, instead of live animals, is needed, she said.

Land constraints, coupled with the costs involved in treating large volumes of animal waste, mean that U.S.-like large-scale pig farms aren’t feasible in China, said Zhu Zengyong, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Agricultural Information Institute. While small-to-middle sized farms will remain popular, more may be overseen by companies in what’s called a “corporations plus farms” model, he said.

Back in Heilongjiang, farmer Wang may even consider expanding his herd despite African swine fever. “The small plot of farmland can hardly feed the family,” he said. His 1,000-square-meter property is big enough to increase his herd more than threefold should hog prices reach 16 yuan per kilogram, from 8 yuan per kilogram he got in spring.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Niu Shuping in Beijing at nshuping@bloomberg.net

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With assistance from Editorial Board