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Giant towers of pigs: this is how China bets on improving its food production


Skyscrapers located in rural areas function as farms. A model that worries about possible cases of contamination.

The first females arrived in late September at the massive 26-story building that towers over a rural town in central China.

The female pigs were quickly moved by the dozens, in industrial elevators, to the highest floors,

where the animals would live from the moment of insemination until maturity


This is how pigs are raised in China, where there is very little land for agricultural activities, food production is lagging behind and the supply of this animal is imperative for strategic objectives.

Inside the massive building, which looks like any other monolithic housing block in China and is as tall as the Tower of London, home to Big Ben, uniformed technicians monitor the pigs with high-definition cameras from a command center. NASA style.

Each floor operates as an independent farm

that takes care of the different stages of a young pig's life: an area for pregnant women, a farrowing room for piglets, rearing spaces and a fattening area for young pigs.

Jin Lin, general manager of the urban pig farm in Ezhou, China.

(Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

The feed is moved on a conveyor belt to the top floor, where it is collected in giant tanks that distribute around half a million kilograms of feed a day to the other floors through high-tech feeders that automatically serve the food to the birds. pigs based on their stage of life, weight and health status.

The building, located on the outskirts of Ezhou, a city on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, has been touted as

the world's largest independent pig farm


A second identical building will open soon.

The first farm went live in October and, once both buildings are at full capacity later this year, they are expected to raise 1.2 million pigs each year.

China's love affair with pigs has a long history.

For decades, many rural Chinese households have raised pigs in their backyards, considered a valuable type of livestock, not only for meat production, but also for dung.

As if that were not enough, pigs have cultural importance as a symbol of prosperity, since historically the pig was only served on special occasions.

Currently, no country eats more pork than China, which

consumes half of the pork produced in the world


The price of pork is closely watched because it is used to measure inflation and is carefully managed through the strategic national pork reserve, a reserve of meat that the government uses to stabilize prices when supplies run low.

The problem is that the price of pork is higher than in other major countries where pig farming became an industrial activity long ago.

In the past few years, dozens more giant pig farms have sprung up across China as part of Beijing's plan to close that gap.

Built by Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei Modern Animal Husbandry, a cement company turned pig farm, the Ezhou farm is a monument to China's ambition to modernize pig production.

“Pig farming in China right now still lags decades behind that of more advanced nations,” said Zhuge Wenda, the company's president.

"So we have a good margin to improve and catch up."

The farm is next to the company's cement factory, in a region of the country known as the "land of fish and rice" for its importance to Chinese cuisine due to its fertile farmlands and the water bodies of the surroundings.

Although it's a pig farm, the operation actually looks more like a Foxconn pig factory, with

the precision needed for an iPhone production line


Even animal excrement is measured, collected and reused.

Approximately a quarter of the food is turned into dried poop that can be reused as methane to generate electricity.

The control center of the farm, where the technicians monitor the animals.

(Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei/The New York Times)

Six decades after a famine killed tens of millions of its people, China still lags behind most of the developed world in efficient food production.

China is the biggest importer of agricultural goods, including more than half of the world's soybeans, most of which is used as animal feed.

It has about 10 percent of the planet's arable land for about 20 percent of the global population.

Their crops are more expensive to grow and their land generates less corn, wheat and soybeans per hectare than other major economies.

Its limitations have become more pronounced in recent years, as trade disputes with the United States, pandemic-related supply disruptions, and the war in Ukraine highlighted the

potential food security risk in China


In a public policy speech in December, Chinese leader Xi Jinping identified agricultural independence as a priority.

“If a country wants to become a great power, it must first strengthen its agriculture;

only a strong agricultural sector can make a nation strong," Xi said.

In the past, he has warned that China could come "under the control of others if we do not hold our bowl of rice firmly."

The truth is, no protein is more important to the Chinese rice bowl than pork.

The State Council, China's cabinet, issued a decree in 2019 instructing all government departments to support the pig industry, including financial aid for larger-scale pig farms.

The same year, Beijing also announced its intention to approve multi-story farms, which would allow the industry to grow vertically so that more pigs could be raised on slightly smaller pieces of land.

“This is a watershed, and not just for China, because

I think multi-story farms will have a big impact in the world

,” said Yu Ping, senior management at Yu's Design Institute, a company that designs pig farms.

With the modernization of China and the displacement of hundreds of millions of people from the countryside to urban centers, small backyard farms have been disappearing.

In China, the total number of pig farms producing fewer than 500 pigs a year has plummeted 75 percent since 2007 and stood at about 21 million in 2020, according to an industry report.

In the Chinese diet, pork has special cultural and culinary significance.

(Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

The shift to megafarms accelerated in 2018, when African swine fever swept through China's pork industry, causing the loss, by some estimates, of 40 percent of its pig population.

Brett Stuart, founder of market research firm Global AgriTrends, said pig towers and other giant hog farms exacerbate the biggest risk facing China's pork industry: disease.

Raising so many pigs together in one building makes it difficult to avoid contamination


Stuart explained that large US pork producers spread out their farms to reduce biosecurity risks.

“Pig farmers in the United States see the pictures of those farms in China and can only say, scratching their heads, 'We would never dare do that,'” Stuart said.

"It's too risky

. "

But when the price of pork tripled in a year and Beijing announced support for large-scale pig farms, the rewards seemed to outweigh the risks.

A construction boom followed, and a supply-constrained market was inundated with pigs.

Hog prices are down about 60 percent from 2019 price peaks. China's pork industry is marked by bitcoin-like volatility, with boom-bust cycles representing huge revenues or terrible losses, depending on the violent changes in the price.

In rural towns, where backyard farms were once common in the countryside, mega-farms are already popping up.

Three years ago, when the real estate and infrastructure sectors began to collapse, Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei decided to use adjoining land and use his construction knowledge to venture into a business with better growth prospects.

It invested $600 million in building

the farm building, with an additional $900 million planned for a meat processing plant nearby.

His knowledge of cement is useful in the pig farming sector, the company said.

With the employees he had, he built a multi-story reinforced concrete building to economize on the land area.

He also takes advantage of the heat released in the cement factory to give the pigs hot water baths and lukewarm water to drink.

According to Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei, this will help pigs grow faster with less feed.

Those who still raise pigs in their backyard have a hard time keeping up with that kind of scale.

Qiao Yuping, 66, raises 20 to 30 pigs a year with her husband in northeast China's Liaoning province.

When hog prices dropped last year, she recounted, she didn't make any money.

She said it's hard to ignore the impact of mega-farms that drive up the price of animal feed and vaccines.

“Everything has gone up in price,” Qiao lamented.

"How can we avoid being affected?"

c.2023 The New York Times Company

Source: clarin

All news articles on 2023-02-10

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