China’s offer to improve food production? Giant towers of pigs.
The first sows arrived in late September at the huge 26-storey skyscraper that overlooks a rural village in central China. The female pigs were taken by the dozens in industrial elevators to the upper floors where the pigs would reside from insemination to maturity.
It’s about pig farming in China, where agricultural land is scarce, food production lags behind and pork supply is a strategic imperative.
Inside the towering edifice, which resembles the monolithic housing blocks seen across China and stands as tall as the London tower that houses Big Ben, the pigs are watched on high definition cameras by uniformed technicians in a NASA-like command center. Each floor functions as a self-contained farm for the different stages of a young pig’s life: a space for pregnant piglets, a room for farrowing piglets, places for suckling and a space for fattening piglets. young pigs.
Food is transported on a conveyor belt to the top floor, where it is collected in giant tanks that deliver more than a million pounds of food per day to lower floors through high-tech feeders that automatically dispense the meal to pigs based on their life stage, weight and health.
The building, located on the outskirts of Ezhou, a city on the south bank of the Yangtze River, is being hailed as the world’s largest self-contained pig farm with a second identical pig tower set to open soon. The first farm started operating in October, and once the two buildings reach full capacity later this year, it is expected to raise 1.2 million pigs a year.
China has a long love affair with pigs. For decades, many rural Chinese households have raised barnyard pigs, considered valuable livestock not only as a source of meat but also manure. Pigs also have cultural significance as a symbol of prosperity because historically pork was only served on special occasions.
But pork prices are higher than in other major countries where pig farming became industrial long ago. In recent years, dozens of other gigantic industrialized pig farms have sprung up across China as part of Beijing’s drive to bridge that gap.
Built by Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei Modern Animal Husbandry, a cement maker turned pig farmer, the Ezhou farm is a monument to China’s ambition to modernize pig production.
“Current pig farming in China is still decades behind the most advanced countries,” said Zhuge Wenda, chairman of the company. “It gives us room for improvement to catch up.”
The farm sits next to the company’s cement factory, in an area of the country known as the “Land of Fish and Rice” for its importance to Chinese cuisine with its fertile farmland and plans surrounding water.
A pig farm in name, the operation is actually more like a Foxconn factory for pigs with the precision required of an iPhone production line. Even pig droppings are measured, collected and reused. About a quarter of the food will come out as dry excrement that can be reused as methane to generate electricity.
Six decades after a famine killed tens of millions, China still lags behind most developed countries in efficient food production. China is the largest importer of agricultural products, including more than half of the world’s soybeans, mainly for animal feed. It has about 10% of the planet’s arable land for about 20% of the world’s population. Its crops cost more to produce and its farmland produces less corn, wheat and soybeans per acre than other major economies.
The shortcomings have widened in recent years as trade disputes with the United States, pandemic-related supply disruptions and war in Ukraine have underscored the potential risk to China’s food security. In a political speech in December, Chinese leader Xi Jinping called agricultural self-sufficiency a priority.
“A country must strengthen its agriculture before becoming a great power, and only robust agriculture can make the country strong,” Xi said. In the past, he has warned that China “will fall under the control of others if we don’t keep our rice bowl steady.”
And no protein is more important to the Chinese rice bowl than pork. The State Council, China’s cabinet, issued an executive order in 2019 stating that all government departments should support the pig industry, including financial assistance for larger-scale pig farms. In the same year, Beijing also said it would approve multi-storey farming, which allowed pig farming to go vertical to raise more pigs on relatively smaller plots of land.
“This is an important step and not just for China, because I believe multi-storey farms will have an impact on the world,” said Yu Ping, executive director of Yu’s Design Institute, a company that designs pig farms. .
As China modernized with hundreds of millions of people moving from the countryside to urban centers, small backyard farms disappeared. The total number of pig farms in China producing less than 500 pigs a year has fallen 75% since 2007, to about 21 million in 2020, according to an industry report.
The transition to mega-farms accelerated in 2018 when African swine fever ravaged China’s pork industry and wiped out, by some estimates, 40% of its pig population.
Brett Stuart, founder of Global AgriTrends, a market research firm, said hog towers and other giant pig farms are exacerbating the biggest risk facing China’s pork industry: disease. Raising so many pigs together in one facility makes it more difficult to prevent contamination. He said major U.S. pork producers were expanding their farms to reduce biosecurity risks.
“American hog farmers look at pictures of these farms in China, and they scratch their heads and say, ‘We would never dare to do that,'” Stuart said. “It’s just too risky.”
But when pork prices tripled in a year, coupled with Beijing’s support for large-scale pig farming, the rewards seemed to outweigh the risks. A construction boom ensued and a supply-constrained market was overwhelmed by available hogs. Pork prices are down about 60% from 2019 highs. China’s pork industry is marked by Bitcoin-like volatility, riding boom or bust cycles that lead to huge profits or losses based on wild price swings.
Last month, Jiangxi Zhengbang Technology, a giant pork producer that has grown rapidly in recent years, said it had been warned it could be delisted from the Shenzhen Stock Exchange over fears of insolvency of the company.
“The government’s hope is that consolidation will make prices more predictable and less volatile over time,” said Pan Chenjun, executive director of RaboResearch’s food and agriculture division. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
In rural villages, where backyard farms once dotted the countryside, mega-farms are springing up. Three years ago, as the real estate and infrastructure sectors began to collapse, Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei decided to use nearby land and apply his construction expertise to diversify into a business offering better growth prospects. It has invested $600 million to build the high-rise pig farms with another $900 million earmarked for a nearby meat processing plant.
Its experience in cement is useful in pig farming, the company said. Using its existing employees, it built a space-saving reinforced concrete apartment tower. It uses excess heat from the cement plant to provide hot baths and hot drinking water for pigs. According to Hubei Zhongxin Kaiwei, this will help pigs grow faster with less feed.
Small backyard pig farmers struggle to keep up with this kind of scale.
Qiao Yuping, 66, raises about 20 to 30 pigs a year with her husband in Liaoning province in northeast China. When pork prices fell last year, she said they didn’t make any money. She said it’s hard to ignore the impact of mega-farms driving up the prices of animal feed and vaccines.
“Everything has gone up in price,” Ms. Qiao said. “How can we not be affected?”