Business, Finance & Economics

Big pig farms bring big new source of pollution to China

Two goats, some turkeys, chickens and ducks. But no pigs.

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60 year old Wang Fulian, whose family has a small farm near Beijing, sold her ten pigs last month.

It’s a big change for the family. Like millions of other rural households in China, they’ve raised pigs for as long as they can remember.

But Wang Fulian wasn’t sad to see them go. She says raising pigs is tough work. She doesn’t want the responsibility anymore, and neither do her two daughters. They’ve both chosen to work in factories instead of on the farm.

It’s a choice more and more small farmers here are making. And the trend comes just as demand for pork is booming along with the incomes of millions of Chinese, more than doubling in the last 15 years.

In China, “meat” usually means “pork.” It accounts for more than two-thirds of the country’s growing meat consumption, and nearly half the world’s pork is consumed here.

Until recently, the vast majority of this came from small backyard operations like the Wang’s. But today, most comes from bigger farms like the kind of large intensive operations now common in the west.

One of the smaller ones is outside of Beijing, where farmer Yue Wie raises his animals in a large enclosure with a line of concrete stalls, and crates where sows feed their young.

Yue says his operation currently houses more than 100 pigs, and he’s hoping to upscale to 500. But even that would still be modest in comparison to some other operations here.

Kevin Chen, a senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Beijing, says it's not unusual to see facilities that can accommodate more than 100,000 piglets.

China is seeing a boom in what are known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. It’s anintensive method of raising livestock developed in the west, in which hundreds or even thousands of animals are raised in very close quarters.

Chen says the trend is being encouraged by the government, in an effort to increase the safety of pork.

Food safety is a big issue in China. Chen says the government wants to avoid more incidents like the 2008 melamine scandal, in which several children died and 300,000 got sick after some small dairy farmers added the chemical to their cows’ feed to boost the apparent protein levels in their milk.

Disease is also a large concern. Chen says the government believes it's easier to supervise a smaller number of intensive livestock operations than millions of backyard farms.

But that’s not the only reason Beijing is backing big hog farms. Chen says in China, a steady pork supply is seen as vital to social stability.

He says when there was surge in the pork prices a few years ago, “there was panic in the government… And they worry that people not have enough pork, and they got unhappy and maybe something bad will happen. So they take that very seriously.”

Last year, the government handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for large pig and other livestock facilities. These and other incentives have attracted a flurry of big investors, including Germany’s Deutsche Bank, US-based Tyson Foods, and China’s third richest man, web tycoon Ding Lei.

But the transformation is bringing its own set of problems.

Ma Jun, one of China’s leading environmental activists, and author of the book China's Water Crisis, says livestock farming “has been a major contributor to our water pollution."

Earlier this year the Chinese government reported that water pollution from agriculture is much worse than had been thought. Ma says that’s partly because animal waste from farms often runs untreated into waterways.

That can be a problem on small farms, but it can be much worse with large ones.And Ma says CAFOs tend to create waste problems that aren’t found at all on traditional farms.

“The discharge may contain more pathogens and other toxic waste,” he says, “because some of the feed contains some unfavourable materials” like heavy metals, antibiotics and hormones.

Ma acknowledges that the rise of CAFOs in China may have some benefits. Bigger pig farms can afford to invest in waste treatment systems, he says. And it's harder for them to avoid government scrutiny.

But that assumes that the government is watching closely.

Wang Jimin, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, says that’s not always the case. Jimin says China’s environment ministry has set standards for the treatment of waste from livestock operations, “but at a provincial level, there are different requirements.”

Violations of environmental laws are rampant in China, and there are often lots of incentives for officials to look the other way.

But there are also incentives for farmers and the government to manage the growing volume of hog waste better. Among other things, the government is pushing the use of biogas digesters, a technology that’s becoming commonplace on many farms, including Yue Wei’s.

Yue’s small confinement operation has three large tanks, which convert the waste from his hundred or so pigs into a gas that can be used for cooking. The system also produces fertilizer that Yue can use on his own farm or sell to others.

The technology lets pig farms get value out of what can otherwise be a problem. It also dovetails nicely with the Chinese government’s efforts to develop renewable energy and cut greenhouse gas pollution.

But biogas systems are expensive, and they don’t get rid of any chemical contaminants.

That means the Chinese government is under pressure to cultivate new solutions as the size of pig farms expand  along with the country’s appetite for pork.