Pigs stand in their pens at a farm in Zhuji, east China's Zhejiang province on March 2, 2011. China, long the bargain workshop to the world, plans in the next five years to boost wages and narrow a worrying wealth gap as it vies to head off social unrest in a new and improved economic model. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Pigs stand in their pens at a farm in Zhuji, in Zhejiang province, eastern China © AFP

For centuries farmers in southern China’s Xingang village have raised pigs, helping feed their country’s appetite for almost half the world’s pork.

But in recent years a nationwide drive to reduce water pollution and to steady pork prices has led to the mass closure of pig farms. Swaths of the country, where swineherding is so integral to rural culture that a pig with a roof over its head forms the Chinese character for “home”, have been transformed.

Banners in the village square now proudly proclaim Xingang free of pigs. “The entire township is pigless,” says He Lianhong, 42, who lost most of a Rmb200,000 ($30,000) investment when his farm of 200 hogs, Xingang’s largest, was bulldozed last year.

Two years ago about half the world’s 800m pigs lived in China — mostly in rural facilities with fewer than 500 hogs. Now, partly as a result of demolitions, the number is 350m, a reduction authorities hope will curb pollution.

Livestock-farming-ban zones covering 636,000 square km – about twice the size of Poland – have been designated nationwide since 2014, and authorities have shuttered hundreds of thousands of pig and poultry farms – more than 200,000 in the first half of this year, according to officials.

For years, untreated effluent has sullied rivers, compounded in recent years by outbreaks of disease that have left dead pigs dumped in waterways or buried in mass graves. “Just a couple of years ago there were terrible smells everywhere and nearby water was black, dead pigs were piled on the roads . . . it was really terrible,” says Mr He. 

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Demolitions of many of the smallholdings that dominate the market have already had an impact on pork prices, which, because of the vast quantities of the meat consumed in China, play an outsized role in the country’s inflation figures.

Pigsty demolitions drove prices to historic highs of more than Rmb30 ($4.50) per kilogramme last year, says Feng Yonghui, an analyst at consultancy Soozhu.com.

Meanwhile, large agribusinesses have ramped up production, slaughtering 15m more animals than the previous year. Listed companies invested Rmb41bn in new pig projects last year, mostly in China’s north-east.

Nationwide pork consumption peaked in 2014 when 42m tonnes were consumed, a figure that has fallen closer to 41m as Chinese eating habits shift to more beef and chicken, according to consultancy Euromonitor. But pork spending continues to rise, reaching $850bn last year, as consumers choose higher-quality cuts.

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Many villagers complain about the “pork cycle” — of production cuts that lead to price increases that in turn give farmers the incentive to ramp up production

The booms and busts can destroy farmers’ livelihoods.

“Some have made fortunes from pig-farming and others have been ruined because prices are not stable,” says Li Fuying, a restaurant owner in Xingang.

Some analysts say that a new “strategic pork reserve” from which stocks are injected into the market when prices rise, together with the launch of a pork futures market and increased pork imports, have helped tame the cycle.

“There is still a pig cycle but it is becoming longer and longer. The main reason is the scaling-up of production,” says Mr Feng. 

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That is of little consolation to farmers in the area surrounding Xingang, where villagers showed the Financial Times videos of forcible demolitions of pigsties with the animals still inside. “If you resist, they will send dozens of men, so it’s no use,” says one farmer who asks not to be named.

“I have nothing to do all day except feed the ducks. I’m angry but there’s nothing I can do,” says Lai Rongjiao, whose pig-sheds were demolished last year. “It’s the first year for two decades I haven’t raised a single pig,” she adds.

What was once the pig-farm of Nie Zhenyong, a 42 -year-old local, has now been concreted over to serve as a practice area for learner-drivers. He has found few customers. “We were encouraged to raise pigs and received subsidies, so we raised a lot, and then it was all demolished,” Mr Nie says mournfully. “Our family of six, including the elderly, all have no source of income.”

Others risk fines to maintain their traditional livelihood. “The Communist party doesn’t let us raise pigs. But I still have a few hogs in secret,” says Han Chunhuo, who keeps a clandestine sty near his house. “I’m nearly 50 and there’s no other job I can do”.

Additional reporting by Wang Xueqiao

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