As many as half of China's breeding pigs have either died from African swine fever or been slaughtered because of the spreading disease, twice as many as officially acknowledged, according to four people who supply large farms.
While other estimates are more conservative, the plunge in the number of sows is poised to leave a large hole in the supply of the country's favourite meat, pushing up food prices and devastating livelihoods in a rural economy that includes 40 million pig farmers.
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"Something like 50 per cent of sows are dead," said Edgar Wayne Johnson, a veterinarian who has spent 14 years in China and founded Enable Agricultural Technology Consulting, a Beijing-based farm services firm with clients across the country.
Three other executives at producers of vaccines, feed additives and genetics also estimate losses of 40-to-50 per cent, based on falling sales for their companies' products and direct knowledge of the extent of the deadly disease on farms across the country.
Losses are not only from infected pigs dying or being culled, but also farmers sending pigs to market early when the disease is discovered nearby, farmers and industry insiders have told Reuters, which analysts say has kept a lid on pork prices in recent months.
However, prices began rising substantially this month and China's agricultural ministry has said they could surge by 70 per cent in coming months as a result of the outbreak. Pork accounts for more than 60 per cent of Chinese meat consumption.
China, which produces half the world's pork, said this month its sow herd declined by a record 23.9 per cent in May from a year earlier, a slightly deeper drop than for the overall pig herd.
Sows, or adult females bred to produce piglets for slaughter, account for roughly one-in-10 pigs in China. A decline in the sow herd usually equates to a similar drop in pork output, industry experts say.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs did not respond to a fax seeking comment on claims of much higher losses than officially reported. It said on June 24 the disease has been "effectively controlled", state news agency Xinhua reported.