China is taking pig biosecurity to new levels – 13 stories in fact.
It is the height of a building in southern China where more than 10,000 pigs are kept in a condominium-style complex, complete with restricted access, security rooms, in-house veterinary services and carefully prepared meals.
The seemingly luxurious conditions represent a cutting-edge approach to biosecurity in which pigs – the main source of meat in China – are protected from viruses, including the devastating African swine fever that has wiped out half of the nation’s pigs in both. years before the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
Known as “hog hotels,” these gigantic vertical farms have been built by companies, including Muyuan Foods and New Hope Group, emulating the strict controls that major suppliers in other countries have used to prevent the outbreaks of the devastating disease.
China is copying best practices from Europe and the United States to close its biosafety gap, said Rupert Claxton, meat director of consultant Gira in Britain, which gives advice to farmers and businesses after two decades. “In 20 years, it’s done what Americans have probably taken 100 years to do,” he said.
The deadly African swine fever, which afflicts pigs as much as Ebola kills humans, caused a dramatic outbreak in China in 2018. In one year, about half of the nation’s herd more than 400 million pigs had been swept away – more than the entire annual production of the United States and Brazil combined – leading to shocking prices and unprecedented imports.
Food security has become a top priority, and when inflation has gone to its highest in eight years, the government has had to turn to emergency sources of frozen meat to cool prices. New agricultural policies have been put in place to accelerate a move to large-scale industrial operations on backyard farms that have traditionally fattened pigs on raw kitchen waste and swill – the main sources of African swine fever.
Now, national pork numbers are recovering faster than anticipated because mega farms have expanded capacity so aggressively. Wholesale prices of pork have fallen to such an extent that they have tripled the government’s new alert system, encouraging authorities to start buying pork for state reserves and to support the market.
However, the virus threat persists, with 11 incidents reported until 2021, which led to the hunting of more than 2,000 pigs, China’s agriculture minister said in July. The emergence of new strains that appear to cause milder symptoms and have a longer incubation period complicate efforts to detect and respond to outbreaks, the minister said.
In developed countries, pig production is dominated by larger farms in fewer hands. This has been seen for decades in the United States, Denmark and the Netherlands, which are among the best biosafety standards in the world and have never reported a single outbreak of African swine fever in recent years.
Today, mega-pig complexes that do not rely on other farms for food, feed and work – which risk introducing pathogens – are a pillar of China’s food security. As of 2020, 57% of the country’s pork production is from farms that supply more than 500 pigs a year. Before the fire, only about 1% came from larger suppliers.
The New Hope Group recently completed three five-story buildings in an area the size of 20 football fields, or 140,000 square meters (1.5 million square feet), in Beijing’s eastern Pinggu district. The plant, which can be smelted from about a kilometer away, will eventually produce 120,000 pigs a year, making it the largest in the Beijing area.
It is equipped with robots that monitor animals for fever, air filtration and automatic feeding and disinfection systems, according to Gong Jingli, the supervisor in charge. The request for a visit was rejected for biosecurity reasons.
That’s partly because the scale of these exploits means more is at stake. With thousands of pigs housed nearby, an infectious disease could spread quickly.
Strict protocols are applied to minimize risks. Staff are required to shower and change their clothes at the entrance and exit of the facility – just like the scientists working in the biosafety laboratories. Wristwatches should be left out.
Tom Gillespie, a U.S. pig veterinarian with 40 years of experience and who visits farms every year in Asia, said he had been asked to remove his wedding band before entering an establishment in China. , but was allowed to keep his shows. The requirement was a reaction to the African swine fever, he said, and could be relaxed once operators become more familiar with managing biosafety risks.
Some mega-farms have built staff dormitories to seek to limit workers ’contact with the“ outside ”- a strategy Gillespie said would be difficult to implement in other countries.
So far, large-scale farms in China have also avoided many restrictions applied to their overseas counterparts due to animal welfare and environmental issues.
“In Europe and the United States, there are restrictions on how much we can do on a pig farm because people are just opposing it – they don’t want to live next to these huge sites,” Claxton of Gira said. “In China, that doesn’t seem to be the case. If it is decided that a pig farm is needed, then space is available. ”
Vertical expansion is a popular option in a country that lacks vast traces of empty space. Rapid urbanization has reduced the land available for agriculture, and environmental regulations have made intensive animal production increasingly difficult in metropolitan areas.
High blocks can reduce the use of agricultural land by a third compared to traditional farms with the same number of pigs, and there is flexibility in terms of location since some can be built in the mountains, New Hope’s Gong said. . The used water from the Pinggu plant is treated and used to irrigate nearby orchards, while the solid waste is transformed into fertilizer, Gong said.
Muyuan Foods, the largest pig farmer in China, said it has land available to support 100 million pigs. Jiangxi Zhengbang Technology, the second largest, said its herd could reach a similar size.
The rise of large pig farms also reflects the changing diets in China. While Beijing has focused on fighting hunger and eradicating poverty in recent decades, rapid economic development and expanding incomes mean that 1.4 billion people in China eat more meat, eggs and other animal proteins. It is driving more intensive animal production.
“China is the largest nation in the world that consumes pork, and I don’t see that changing very easily or quickly,” said David Ortega, associate professor of food and agricultural economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “Rebuilding the pork sector is a national priority for the government.”