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China responds slowly, and a pig disease becomes a lethal epidemic

China’s unsuccessful efforts to stop the disease may have hastened the spread — creating problems that could bedevil Beijing and global agriculture for years to come.

By: New York Times |
December 18, 2019 8:40:14 am
China responds slowly, and a pig disease becomes a lethal epidemic Buyers and sellers at a pork wholesale market in Beijing on Sept. 27, 2019. A devastating disease spreading from China has wiped out roughly one-quarter of the world’s pigs, reshaping farming and hitting the diets and pocketbooks of consumers around the globe. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

Written by Keith Bradsher and Ailin Tang

A devastating disease spreading from China has wiped out roughly one-quarter of the world’s pigs, reshaping farming and hitting the diets and pocketbooks of consumers around the globe.

China’s unsuccessful efforts to stop the disease may have hastened the spread — creating problems that could bedevil Beijing and global agriculture for years to come.

To halt African swine fever, as the disease is called, the authorities must persuade farmers to kill infected pigs and dispose of them properly. But in China, officials have been frugal to the point of stingy, requiring farmers to jump through hoops to seek compensation from often cash-poor local governments.

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As a result, Chinese officials are not reaching farmers like Peng Weita. When one of his pigs suddenly died three months ago from swine fever, he said, he quickly slaughtered his other four dozen before they could fall sick as well. But he buried them and took a big loss rather than reporting the deaths to the government for compensation.

“Three years of costs were all for nothing,” Peng said.

His loss was the government’s as well. Because he did not report the episode, local officials could not make sure he followed all the steps necessary to halt the spread, like burying carcasses a considerable distance from the farm. Peng said he probably buried them too close to his farm but declined to discuss details of the disposal.

The epidemic shows the limits of China’s emphasis on government-driven, top-down solutions to major problems, sometimes at the expense of the practical. It has also laid bare the struggle of a country of 1.4 billion people to feed itself.

China has long viewed food security as tantamount to national security. It had become essentially self-reliant in pork as well as in rice and wheat thanks to subsidies and aggressive farmland management. The swine fever epidemic will test that commitment to its increasingly affluent people, who more often expect meat at the dinner table.

The pig disease — a highly contagious and untreatable plague that is not fatal to humans but can be spread by us — has now extended swiftly out of China. It has moved across nine other Asian countries, particularly Vietnam, which is the world’s fifth-largest pork producer and has lost much of its herd this autumn. Before reaching China, the disease had been slowly infecting occasional farms in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Powered by pork, China’s overall food prices last month were one-fifth higher than they were a year ago, after seven years of little change. Large purchases of pork by China are driving up live hog prices in the United States, Europe and around the globe, pushing up costs for everything from German sausages to Vietnamese pork meatballs.

Beef and lamb prices have risen as families worldwide seek alternatives, so much so that overall meat prices in international commodity markets have increased nearly 20% in the past year. Brazil is now ramping up beef and chicken production to meet demand, partly by burning forests in the Amazon to clear land for agriculture.

“The epidemic could have broad and deep economic impacts at the global level,” said Boubaker Ben Belhassen, the director of trade and markets at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. “We don’t think there’s enough pork in the world to offset China’s shortfall.”

China used to have 440 million pigs — almost half the world’s population — but its herd has shrunk by half or more, according to Rabobank, a Dutch bank with a heavy agricultural focus. Pork prices in China have more than doubled.

The problem has become so pressing that Beijing accepted a partial trade deal with the United States last month, in part to resume imports of American food. Pig prices have climbed so high that one livestock company, Guangxi Yangxiang, printed red banners to recruit potential farmers that read, “Raise 10 sows and drive a BMW next year.”

Stopping the epidemic was always going to be tough. Small farms, often packed together in crowded agricultural areas, produce nearly half of China’s pigs. To stop diseases from spreading, Chinese officials have to reach millions of traditional small farmers.

China’s leadership has focused on remaking farming to stop the spread. With generous subsidies, Beijing has ordered governments and businesses to build industrial-scale farms with safeguards like quarantine areas for new arrivals and incinerators for diseased pigs.

That solution could help long-term, but China’s immediate response may have made the spread worse.

When the swine fever began to spread 16 months ago, the Ministry of Agriculture told the country’s local governments to cull all pigs in herds if there was even one sick animal, and to compensate the farmers. The ministry authorized local governments to pay up to $115 for the largest pigs, a cap later raised to $170. Before the epidemic, however, many pigs sold for $250 or more apiece, particularly breeding sows, according to government data. With the epidemic, the price has soared to $600 or more.

To get that partial reimbursement, many farmers had to deal with tightfisted local officials. The ministry said it would reimburse local governments only for between 40% and 80% of their costs. Local governments also had to provide proof, often including laboratory tests, that pigs died of African swine fever and not some other ailment.

As a result, culling has been slow. Official data show only 1.2 million pigs, or less than 0.3% of the country’s herds, have been culled. It is not clear where the rest of the country’s vanished herds went, but food experts say many were likely butchered and turned into food. That would worsen the spread, because the disease can lurk in meat for months.

Australia has found that almost half of the sausages and other pork products carried by recently arriving passengers or the mail were contaminated, said Mark Schipp, the president of the 182-nation World Organization for Animal Health in Paris and Australia’s chief veterinarian.

In Wulongqiao, a quiet village in the low, pine-studded hills of northern Hunan province, a number of farmers said they did not bother seeking compensation, citing the low payout.

Where many pigs went is a mystery. Peng, the farmer, said that when he slaughtered his pigs, he had panicked and buried them in secrecy, and so had no record of what became of them. He filed for the loss under his commercial insurance, which covered only a tenth of the value of the pigs, he said.

Chinese officials have tried to be reassuring. In April, July and October, officials said they had brought the disease under control, only to see signs of further spread. Each new statement was provided by a less senior official than the one before. Most recently, the agriculture ministry said that it only hoped production at the end of next year would be four-fifths of normal levels — still a shortfall equal to the entire pork production of the United States, the world’s second-largest pork-producing nation.

For now, dying pigs and rising pork prices are changing diets and cooking practices across China.

Su Dezhi, a pork butcher at an open-air market, said that he used to buy and carve up two pigs a day for sale. Now he can only sell half a pig a day. The wholesale price per pound for him to buy pigs has more than tripled.

“I can barely cover my costs,” he said, a large cleaver in his hand as he stood behind a table with only a few bloody slabs of pork.

Yet many in China seem reluctant to eat anything else. Across an aisle from Su stood several large cages full of chickens and ducks. But the poultry vendor, She Xinbao, said that his sales had only increased from about 30 birds a day to 33 or 34, partly because poultry prices have also risen.

Those who have pigs have enjoyed the surging prices. Chen Zhixiang, a 36-year-old pig farmer with a black dragon tattoo on his right forearm, is among the very few pig farmers in Wulongqiao who have not lost any pigs. He said he had cooked meals for his pigs from raw corn this year rather than buy feed that might be contaminated.

Pigs have become so rare in his part of Hunan province that when he drives to a village these days to sell an animal or two, he draws a crowd.

“People gathered around the truck to stare at them,” he said. “It’s like they were seeing a panda.”

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