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To decrease its reliance on imported breeding pigs, China should reinforce protection of native breeds and step up selective breeding to produce its own quality varieties, experts say

By Xu Tian Updated Jun.1

Indigenous black pigs bred in the depths of the Qinling Mountains, Shangluo, Shaanxi Province

During the annual two sessions held in March, Liu Yonghao, member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and chairman of New Hope, China’s largest animal feed producer, drew public attention to China’s heavy reliance on imported breeding pigs. “Now a large number of breeding pigs in China are imported. We need to develop our own,” Liu said.  

While China is the biggest pork producer and consumer in the world, many of its breeding pigs are imported from other countries. This reliance has grown in recent years. In 2020, more than 30,000 breeding pigs were imported, a record high. Liu said this reliance has not only affected the speed and quality of recovery from the shock of African swine fever (ASF) but also constrained China’s pork industry.  

The protection and restoration of breeds native to China is challenging, particularly under the threat of intermittent ASF outbreaks that could potentially wipe out indigenous breeds. Selective breeding in China is still in the initial stages of development because the majority of pig breeders rarely bother to invest in it.  

The problem is the inability to produce quality breeding pigs locally, experts said. “The technology gap between China and other countries is really a cause for concern,” said Wang Lixian, a research fellow with the Institute of Animal Sciences, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.  

Swine Decline 
Qu Hongyu, a pig breeder in the coastal city of Yantai, Shandong Province, began raising native pigs in 1995 after swine fever swept his farm. Only six Yantai black pigs, which generally have stronger immunity systems than imported breeds, survived. Qu had gone against the mainstream – his fellow villagers raised imported breeds. During the toughest times, Qu could not afford feed and took a loan from his parents to keep the farm going.  

Local pigs fell out of favor among farmers in the 1980s when China began importing breeding pigs. Zhang Yingjie, an official in charge of animal husbandry and aquaculture in Ningxiang, Hunan Province, told NewsChina that in the 1980s almost every rural household raised Ningxiang Huazhu pigs, a native variety. But by the 1990s, local breeds had fallen out of favor. 

Policies are partly to blame. At the end of the 1970s, per capita consumption of meat was six kilograms a year for rural residents and 18 kilograms for urban dwellers. Pork accounted for over 80 percent of China’s meat consumption. Wang told NewsChina that as living standards improved following reform and opening-up, the government encouraged farmers to raise high-yield lean pigs to guarantee meat supplies.  

As a result, more profitable breeds such as the Danish Landrace, Large White from the UK and the Duroc from the US gradually came to dominate. These pigs take only five to six months to mature for slaughter compared to one year for local breeds. In addition, imported pigs produce about 65 percent lean meat, while local pigs have only 40 percent.  

This led to a decline in populations of local breeds. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011- 15) for The Protection and Utilization of Genetic Resources of Livestock and Poultry published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) in 2011 stated that 85 percent of the existing 88 local pig breeds had declined and 31 breeds were at the brink of extinction.  

Experts began calling for protection of local breeds in the late 1990s. When Qu participated in an animal husbandry exhibition in Jinan, Shandong Province in 2008, his Yantai black pigs caught the attention of agricultural experts, who said they had not seen purebreds in years. 
Since 2008, MARA has authorized seven batches of State-level genetic banks, protection zones and farms for breeding native livestock and poultry. By June 2019, 83 local pig breeds were listed for protection, while more than 50 State-level protection farms, seven protection zones and one State-level genetic bank were in operation. Over 80 provinciallevel protection farms have been established across the country.  

Race Against Time 
However, these efforts have been difficult. From the 12th to the 13th Five-Year-Plan (2016-2020) period, eight indigenous pig breeds died out and 29 others reached the edge of extinction. In southwestern Sichuan Province, the nation’s largest pig producer in 2020, local breed stock decreased from 2.2 million in 1995 to 859,000 in 2019, according to Yang Chunguo, a director of seed development at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in Sichuan. 
Yang said that protection farms are not having the desired effect. Feeding indigenous pigs is a drain on profits and some protection farms run at a loss. Some farms are struggling to breed the policy minimum of 100 local pigs to stay in business. “Running protection farms will be a problem in the long run,” he said.  

The spread of ASF since 2018 has worsened the situation. As protection farms usually breed a single indigenous variety, ASF outbreaks can wipe out the herd.  

Wang Churui, a professor with China Agricultural University, told NewsChina that as an expert with the committee of pig breed resources at MARA, he is unaware of any cases where ASF directly caused an indigenous breed to go extinct, but he said there is great risk of it happening in the future.  

Without effective vaccines, biosecurity measures such as fencing are standard for ASF prevention. However, not only are many protection farms unprofitable but they lack standard biosecurity facilities.  

But more farms are stepping up. In Yantai, Qu built a 1.5-meter fence around his farm, which is now a designated protection farm for Yantai black pigs. Fences separate the livestock areas from the farm offices and staff living quarters. There are more than 100 ASFprepared protection farms across the country, according to Zhu Li, deputy Party secretary of the College of Animal Science and Technology at Sichuan Agricultural University.  

Other policies are in place. In late 2018, MARA required all pig farms within three kilometers of protection farms to adopt biosecurity measures. Hunan Province earmarked 20 million yuan (US$3m) in subsidies for small pig breeders operating within three kilometers of protection farms and key breeding farms if they retreat from the business.  

Meanwhile, some provinces are establishing protection farms for indigenous breeds as backup that divide herds of one breed into two farms. As it takes time to build backup farms, in some cases rare breeds are sent to farmers living deep in the mountains, as their isolation offers protection from outbreaks.  

In June 2019, MARA pointed out the importance of collecting and storing genetic materials as a last resort. Many provinces are building sperm and egg banks for indigenous breeds.  

But Zhu Li said these protection measures are not foolproof, as porcine sperm and oocytes only contain 50 percent of the original pig’s genetic code and sows must be killed to retrieve ova. Some provinces, including Sichuan, are turning to cloning.  

Jiang Yanzhi, a professor of bioscience at Sichuan Agricultural University, told NewsChina that while indigenous breed populations are recovering thanks to protection efforts, genetic diversity has suffered. He added that indigenous pigs face greater risks of reduced biological fitness due to inbreeding and variety degeneration, so rebuilding family trees is urgently needed through biotechnology such as gene sequencing.  

A technician at a breeding base for native pigs in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province makes culture fluid for breeding pigs’ semen in May 2016.

A worker at a breeding base in Suining, Sichuan Province sterilizes the area to prevent African swine fever, February 21, 2020

Breeding Hurdles 
As interviewed experts pointed out, efforts to protect indigenous breeds aim to maintain gene banks for future use and are not a substitute for imported pigs.  

Sales of indigenous pigs remain marginal. Qu, for example, has barely made ends meet for years breeding local pigs. The exception was in 2020 when pig imports were restricted due to ASF and Covid-19. Qiu now targets consumers less sensitive to price and seeking better meat quality, charging up to twice the average price. However, this is still a niche market.  

While the future market share of indigenous pork might increase to 20-30 percent from today’s 5-10 percent, experts said a majority market share is still a long way off. Zhu Li said imported pigs will have a place as long as there is demand for cheaper pork from lower-income groups. 

Wang Churui said that China could develop selective breeding with imported varieties to meet domestic market demand.  

However, the country lacks a sound system for selective breeding. Zhu explained that selective breeding helps to maintain desirable genetic traits in pigs such as high lean-meat percentages. But these traits fade once selective breeding ceases. So as long as people eat pork, selective breeding must continue, which requires persistent investments of time, energy and capital.  

China has a gap to bridge in this regard. Authorities did not promote selective breeding of lean-meat pigs on a large scale until in the 1980s, about 100 years later than Western countries. Besides, China has been slow to develop intensive farming and modern management, making disease prevention in selective breeding a greater challenge.  

In recent years, Chinese agribusinesses have been closing the gap with developed countries. Zhu said that a company in Sichuan Province imported a batch of breeding pigs from Canada in 2013. By 2016, after years of intensive selective breeding, these pigs had genetically surpassed their Canadian relatives in many aspects.  

But the domestic market for selective breeding is not promising, as selectively bred pigs do not fetch desirable prices. Smaller breeders, which supply the majority of China’s pig production, are sensitive to price and selectively bred pigs are more expensive. They prefer to simply slaughter imported breeding pigs after they produce one or two generations of piglets and import a new batch.  

Liu Yonghao suggested the government provide subsidies and other incentives that encourage companies to invest in R&D, infrastructure, training and international cooperation.  

Zhu noted that it is not wise to stop importing pigs because it benefits genetic diversity. 
“China should put more efforts in selective breeding to keep pace with other countries in technology and meanwhile improve the quality of its breeding pigs by importing pigs to build a benign cycle,” Zhu said.