Analysis: China at crossroads in rebuilding its pork industry, post ASF


Guest Author, BEEF Central (Australia)

November 7, 2019


Dramatic changes may lie ahead for China’s pork industry, if it is to start the long and slow recovery process from African Swine Fever, independent meat analyst Simon Quilty reports…



AT THE recent Leman China Swine Conference in Zhengzhou, I listened to Chinese hog producers large and small, Chinese swine academics and their US counterparts speak on a vast array of topics on ASF in China and how the China pork industry will eventually rebuild itself from this disease.


I believe the China pork industry is coming to several crossroads on how the industry will evolve from here – in this paper I look to explore these potential evolution options


The different paths that China will go down is in the hands of industry, government and researchers but many decisions I believe will be out of their hands as African swine fever will ultimately dictate the final terms.


The key crossroad issues I see are as follows:


·         China’s small farms versus large farms – will small farms survive?

·         Vaccines versus biosecurity – should a vaccine be found is there a need for biosecurity?

·         Big business – how with this look in the future?

·         Heavy pigs versus light pigs – has pig production changed forever?

·         Government transparency – will this improve?


Does ASF spell the end for China’s small pig producers?


So much of the answer to this question depends on whether a vaccine is found for ASF. If no vaccine then it is likely that the role of finishing hogs will be left to large commercial operations as they have the capability of introducing the strict biosecurity measures required.


The biosecurity steps required to manage ASF dominated the presentations in the three-day Lemin China Swine Conference with both US/Chinese research experts and industry players from both countries each outlining how they have succeeded with either ASF or with other diseases such as PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) and HCV (hog cholera virus) in managing these diseases.


It should be noted that sow rearing operations in China, which is dominated by large commercial operators, all spoke of the success of their biosecurity measures – so much so, that it is estimated that the top 10 sow operators will each have 1 million pigs by Q1 next year in 2020.


What is clear from all the presentations is that biosecurity is costly for all concerned, these costs range from the expensive chemicals needed to clean, the extra man power to do the cleaning, lost days in production, trucks needing to be cleaned and the list goes on and on – and for good reason, without these strict procedures reinfection will occur.


Medium and large businesses have the ability to afford these costly procedures but for the majority of China’s small farm operations the level of biosecurity required is likely to be cost prohibitive.


The number of small hog producers impacted is estimated to be 41.6 million pig farm operations, (based on 2016 National Statistics of China data) presented by Professor Dirk Pfeiffer, of City University of Hong Kong – Professor Pfeiffer later said these numbers were potentially slightly less in recent years but stressed that the majority of small farmers (1-99 in hog numbers) did the majority of finishing in China.


There is no doubt to me that the significant loss of small farming operations from the hog production system would lead to enormous social problems such as large scale unemployment in rural regions, removing important revenue from rural communities and would have many flow on affects to other associated enterprises which inevitably would lead to the abandonment of small scale hog facilities.


This is why the development of a vaccine is essential as this will eliminate the need for such strict costly biosecurity measures and enable small hog producers to re-enter into this space and continue to make a living – a vaccine is the ‘silver bullet’ for small hog producers to survive – without it there current existence is in question.


Vaccine versus biosecurity – what is the real cost?


Professor Qiu in his opening address at the conference outlined why he thought the development of vaccines in China to date had not been successful.


Firstly, there had been insufficient basic research – the issue being the complexity of African swine fevers biological characteristics and strain specificity. He noted that the ASF genome is huge with over half the genes still unknown, he described the infection and immune mechanisms as being very limited.


Secondly, the live virus operation restrictions within China had held back progress – researchers are needing primary ASF cells to isolate the virus, which in turn enables them proliferate the virus – both of which are difficult, given the government imposed live virus operation restrictions. The end result is that China’s vaccine production lacks suitable stable cell lines of ASF which has hampered the development of a small animal infection model. Progress so far has seen Harbin Veterinary Research Institute develop several candidate vaccines and an initial laboratory evaluation of these potential vaccines but that is it, so far – a successful vaccine has not been found yet.


Several other researchers at the conference reiterated the need for strong science based clinical trials and if the testing was not done correctly could result in the situation becoming even worse (if that’s possible) as an incorrect vaccine could mask the disease for an extended period – resulting in more contamination and spreading of the disease unknowingly with other pigs.


So, as China’s hog industry waits for a vaccine to be developed strict biosecurity measures is the number one means of ASF prevention and control.


Estimated biosecurity costs within China


It has been estimated that the cost for large commercial hog operations to introduce the strict biosecurity measures is about 42 RMB/pig ($6 USD/pig) per operation that might turn off 420,000 pigs per year – this cost is often being payed up front with the need for expensive chemicals and other costly inputs.


Biosecurity cost estimates on small farms have been estimated closer to 220 RMB/pig ($30 USD/pig), which is more than five times that of the commercial operators and this still has no guarantee of success.


To save money some small operators have opted for cheaper chemicals like calcium oxide which does not kill the ASF virus. The concern is that reinfection is likely if incorrect biosecurities measures are taken.


In the race to try to find a vaccine China has engaged eight universities and a minimum of seven biological product companies.


Funding of the vaccine research is coming from four separate Government departments including; China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, China’s Academy of Science, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and China’s Academy of Agricultural Science.


The vaccine strategy is to try to find a gene deletion vaccine, a live vector vaccine and a sub-unit vaccine – but in reality, many researchers believe it will take many years to find an ASF vaccine solution.


It should be noted – it was well recognised by many participants at the conference that by China improving biosecurity across all of China’s hog industry it is likely to prevent other diseases – effectively ‘raising the bar’ in terms of hygiene procedures and steps to minimise further infections of all swine diseases in the future over the long term.


In summary, should a vaccine be found it could see these strict biosecurity procedures disappear and the industry return to its ‘old ways’ and the industry will be again be susceptible to more diseases in the future, conversely without a vaccine, the standards will lift and therefore minimise all future swine diseases but is likely to be at the expense of the small hog operator who cannot afford these strict biosecurity procedures.


Big business looks to dominate ...


Potential development of a closed production system …


Owning animals further up the supply chain, double-stocking …


Co-operatives may evolve …


Heavy versus light hogs …


The need for government transparency …  




Strong ASF biosecurity and an ASF vaccine ideally, should both coexist, but in reality, its human nature that we follow the path of least resistance and with an ASF vaccine the enormous efforts made to improve China’s biosecurity is likely to fall away.


As stated without a vaccine larger farms seem to be inevitable in China and smaller farms will get less in number, or need to join forces with other smaller enterprises, to potentially form cooperatives as a means to survive.


The ability of China sow producers in recent months to rebuild so quickly gives hope that the rest of the hog sector can follow suit. As stated, the challenge will be the rearing/fattening stages in the China pork industry which in the past has been dominated by small farms, in this paper we have alluded to how some future models may look.


I think we would all like to see an ASF vaccine produced but this could be years away and in the meantime rebuilding needs to occur – so there is a need to move forward in China and to me it should occur as if a vaccine will not exist – if one day it does get produced, then it’s a bonus.


The obvious steps being, strong biosecurity processes need to be introduced throughout the entire pork sector, continued support of larger farms and greater transparency of ASF to better understanding where, when and how it has occurred throughout all regions.


Even with these measures – the time line and production shortfall outlined by Professor Qiu in his opening paper of a 15-20 million tonne pork deficit per year for the next 3-5 years still to me rings true – but there is no doubt that once these challenges are overcome China’s pork industry will be a stronger and more robust pork industry than what it was before ASF...