Sunday, June 26, 2022

"Poison Rice": Blame Bad Guys, Not the System

Heavy metal-contaminated rice has been turning up in China's market for decades. Officials blame bad actors rather than the system that shovels loans to trusted government-run companies with no market discipline, little oversight, and with protection from nosy journalists--except when it suits authorities' interests to unleash the reporters. 

This month a husband-wife team was found guilty of selling "poison rice" by a court in the Guangdong Province city of Yangjiang. The couple named Zhu and Yan was sentenced to 15 and 10 years in prison, respectively, and ordered to pay 87 million yuan in penalties. According to news media, over the course of 8 months in 2019 Zhu and Yan purchased 5,884 metric tons of rice with excessive levels of cadmium from a granary in Hunan Province operated by the national grain reserve. Their contract specified that the rice had to be used as animal feed and could not enter the market for human food, but Zhu and Yan were accused of knowingly packaging the rice for sale in shops around Yangchun City, a county-level city in southwestern Guangdong Province.

Cadmium-tainted rice came to the Chinese public's attention in 2009 when Guangzhou news media revealed that the Shenzhen City Grain Group had purchased 13,584 metric tons of rice contaminated with cadmium that ended up in Guangzhou retail markets. 

Cadmium is a heavy metal that is not easily processed or eliminated from the human body, and can cause kidney disease, brittle bones, and painful disease after long-term exposure.

In 2013--four years after the first scandal--Guangzhou news media reported that the local food and drug administration found 44.4% of rice samples collected in the local market exceeded the maximum tolerance for cadmium. A reporter said he collected his own samples from the largest local wholesale market and submitted them for testing which revealed that 11 brands of rice had excessive heavy metal contamination.

In 2020, Science and Technology Daily reported cadmium-tainted "poison rice" was discovered in Zhaotong City in Yunnan Province. The contaminated rice was said to have been supplied by 7 rice milling companies in Hunan Province's Yiyang City. The article listed a series of cadmium-contamination incidents going back as far as 1987.

Science and Technology Daily listed poisonous rice incidents in various provinces.

The cadmium contamination was attributed to accumulation of cadmium in the soil resulting from use of phosphate fertilizers and runoff into waterways from non-ferrous metal smelting operations along the banks of rivers in rice-producing provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi. (Couldn't be related to those cadmium batteries that are in every piece of electronic equipment? Nah.) Most of the cadmium-tainted rice was supplied by Hunan--one of China's top two rice-producing provinces. Guangdong--a highly industrialized province with little farmland--relies on neighboring Hunan to fill its rice deficit. 

In 2013, China released a national soil survey that found 19 percent of farmland had excessive contamination with pollutants. Cadmium was the leading contaminant. The soil survey had begun in 2006 and completed in 2010, but results were withheld for 3 years. Another soil survey began in 2022 but results will not be reported until 2025.

In 2014, a rice breeder recommended planting super rice varieties that could absorb the cadmium from the soil and supply rice to make biofuel. The rice breeder making the proposal estimated that 12 million tons of contaminated grain is produced each year.

In 2017, the World Bank loaned China $100 million to clean up polluted farmland in Hunan Province. The Hunan Provincial government was expected to kick in an extra $11 million. The project was scheduled to run through 2023.

The same year, Hunan Province issued a long document on a soil remediation program that included 3 sentences on cadmium contamination of rice with vague plans to choose unspecified technologies to address the problem. The program promised to ban metal-working facilities on riverbanks and clean up contamination from cadmium and lead-acid batteries. 

This month's news about conviction of the two rogue rice-dealers in Guangdong reflects Chinese leaders' standard strategy of blaming problems on evil bad actors--while exonerating the system itself. Recent news articles fail to show much interest in the culpability of state-owned grain trading companies tasked with supplying food to China's richest cities--Shenzhen and Guangzhou--as well as government reserve warehouses in rice-growing areas. 

A Chinese scientist who has advocated cleanup of soil for decades told Sci-Tech Daily the persistence of "poison rice" is partly due to the "monopoly" of soil-testing data by "experts" in local areas with a vested interest in grain sales who falsify reports and then inflate their estimates of costs to remediate the problem. The scientist said local governments focus their attention on prominent image projects that advance their careers like huge metal-working factories and mines. An example he gave was "construction of high-yielding fields" that can bring in funding of 10 million yuan or about 1000 yuan per mu ($18,750 per hectare) to build vast fields, roads, irrigation ditches, pumps, and other shiny infrastructure. Soil-remediation programs cost 20,000-60,000 yuan per mu and have fewer photo-ops for herds of officials. 

Interestingly, news media in Guangzhou seem to have been the driving force in publicizing the rice contamination problem over the years. While journalists may have done some digging to expose the problem, the news could not have been released without the OK of Guangdong Provincial authorities. Thus, the cadmium rice issue is in large part a behind-the-scenes battle between the interests of officials in Guangdong--who have an interest in protecting their consumers--versus the interests of neighboring Hunan authorities in protecting their farmers and rice mills. 

Poison rice invades Guangdong. Source: Shanghai Oriental TV

Monday, June 20, 2022

Meat Smuggling Booms to Skirt Import Barriers

China is waging war on meat and seafood smuggling as authorities pile on barriers to legal imports that include strict approvals, reams of documentation, and onerous covid testing, disinfection and tracking.

Chinese state-controlled media have reported a series of smuggler interceptions this year from just about every coastal province. Several articles reveal there is a national crackdown on smuggling underway.

Coast guard authorities board a ship in Shandong Province
suspected of smuggling in March 2022. Source: Xinhua.

Official media reported that the coast guard had intercepted 75 ships smuggling over 8000 metric tons of frozen products from January 1 to March 15 this year. 

Local media in Jiangmen City in Guangdong Province reported that the coast guard intercepted two boats loaded with 70 metric tons of beef and tripe packed in white bags on May 25 and 27. The products were valued at 7 million yuan (over $1 million). In April, Guangdong's anti-smuggling office reported 398 cases involving over 18,000 metric tons of frozen food smuggling this year, with 1667 people arrested. Guangdong raised the maximum reward for turning in smugglers from 200,000 yuan to 500,000 yuan.

A man wearing a sheep mask accepts a 100,000-yuan award for turning in smugglers.
(Guangzhou's nickname is "sheep city") Source: Yangcheng Daily.

Beihai City in Guangxi Province announced the sentencing of a pair of smugglers who conspired to transport 7 tons of smuggled Indian beef to the provincial capital of Nanning last December. India has not been approved to export beef to China due to concerns about foot and mouth disease.

On May 13-14 the coast guard in Xiamen, Fujian Province, intercepted two boats smuggling 340 metric tons of Brazilian beef and offal.

Last week authorities in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, reported the launch of an anti-smuggling crackdown system targeting frozen food, agricultural products, refined petroleum and wild animals and plant products. An "alliance" coordinated by Shandong's anti-smuggling office includes a district government in Jinan, the police, market supervision bureau, city postal bureau, and the first association of "volunteers" from the business community is said to be a model for inland provinces (Jinan is a couple hundred miles from the ports of Qingdao and Yantai).  The alliance's slogan, "communist party-guided + government leadership + volunteer friends," was praised by national anti-smuggling authorities. 

At the Shandong anti-smuggling meeting, officials were warned to be soberly aware of the continued high incidence of smuggling, and that smugglers are specialized, organized, and using high-tech methods to better evade authorities. Officials were ordered to be aware of the urgency, open the main door and block the evil door, and to resolutely maintain an orderly market economy with a secure and stable society.

Official sprays disinfectant on frozen food nabbed near
Shanghai in an anti-smuggling operation. Source: Xinhua.

The Chinese-language edition of China Daily reported that 700 metric tons of frozen meat were seized from two ships intercepted by the coast guard May 24-25 in waters near Zhejiang Province. China Daily explained that huge demand and strict requirements for exporters are responsible for sustained smuggling. China Daily explained that not that many foreign companies can satisfy the strict requirements to qualify for a license to export frozen food to China. Moreover, there are tariffs and value added taxes levied on legal imports. China Daily cited the impact of China's covid virus control procedures for frozen food--nucleic acid testing, disinfection of imports, and destruction of products--as another factor boosting the cost and time required to clear customs for legal imports. China Daily explained further that imported meat offal is much cheaper than in China--due to American and European differences in eating customs--and waivers of tariffs and other import barriers for residents of border areas are frequently abused to facilitate smuggling.

The articles on smuggling interdictions often report that smuggled items had no documentation or lacked certificates showing that the country of origin had been approved for export to China. 

The number of rejected seafood and meat shipments reported by China's customs officials has increased noticeably since June 2020 when China first began emphasizing the risk of covid-on-frozen-food after attributing an outbreak in Beijing to Norwegian salmon. None of these rejections cite covid, but lack of documentation and lack of inspection and quarantine approval are two common reasons. Covid is never cited in these rejections but dozens of rejections of shrimp from Ecuador that have been reported as contaminated with the virus have cited "animal disease" as the reason for rejection. 

Rejections of seafood and meat reported by China customs.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Rural Chinese Stimulus Launches

China's agriculture ministry launched a multi-pronged rural investment program in a teleconference broadcast to officials all over the country on June 9. The program is part of a national economic stabilization program ordered by the country's State Council leadership.

Local officials were ordered to resolutely carry out orders from the central communist party leadership to:

  • focus on stabilizing grain production 
  • expand soybean and oilseed production 
  • firm up supplies of seeds, land, and machinery as the foundation for agriculture 
  • nurture industry chains that produce, process and market local specialty products 
  • implement a rural construction action plan
  • move ahead on key tasks in agricultural green development 

These are all initiatives Chinese officials have already prioritized this year for "rural revitalization." Officials were ordered to raise the political position (of spending on rural projects) and be proactive in addressing "pain points," blockages and difficulties in rural areas. 

Officials are to: 

  • combine policies 
  • make sure funds for subsidies and aid are available in a timely manner 
  • increase the proportion of revenue from rural land expropriations used for agriculture and rural projects
  • issue local government bonds to finance the investment program 
  • expand government loan guarantees 
  • increase credit and financial services from banks and insurance companies 
  • broaden channels for "rural backyard strategic investment" 
  • ensure that more "investment from society" flows into rural areas to stabilize the economy.

Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued a list of preferred investments to guide private investment into the countryside:

  • Investments to ensure food supplies, including "food security industry belts" for grain, cotton, oilseeds, sugar, and rubber; soybean and oilseed production bases; dryland farming; "smart" grain storage; vegetables and greenhouses; "factory-type" concentrated livestock; and fish farming in oceans.
  • Modernized seed companies that combine R&D with commercial seed production in order to create internationally competitive companies.
  • Industries to enrich rural people, including agricultural industrial parks, rural specialty industry clusters, fishing harbor economic zones. 
  • Agricultural processing, food manufacturing, organic agriculture, and geographic-indicated products, storage for grain-cotton-sugar, and cold chain logistics.
  • Rural tourism services, including sightseeing, farm experiences, country houses, and agricultural heritage sites.
  • "Green development", such as collection and utilization of animal manure and crop stalks; recycling agricultural plastics, pesticide bottles, and fishing nets; and disposal of dead animals.
  • Innovation in agricultural science and technology
  • Rural human resources development
  • Rural infrastructure, including upgrades of fields, roads, electric and water facilities; roads for rural industry, mining, forestry and tourism
  • Rehabilitation of rural housing
  • Digital countryside and "smart" agriculture
  • Companies' overseas investment in agriculture and processing "Belt and Road" countries

Sunday, June 5, 2022

"Wheat Battle" Against Lockdowns & Burning Fields

China's wheat harvest is up against Covid lockdowns as officials also cope with burning fields in a "wheat battle." 

As the summer harvest swung into high gear in late May, local officials in wheat-growing provinces issued directives that the "summer grain battle" must be won. Urgent orders to both uphold virus-prevention and ensure a good harvest reveal the dilemma Chinese officials face: upholding "zero covid" while also ensuring a big wheat crop. 

Zero-covid and food security objectives are in conflict because China's wheat harvest relies on a massive movement of people. Many rural migrants working in cities are unable to return to their villages to harvest and sell their crops due to covid lockdowns, and those who do return must meet strict requirements for registration and prove they are covid-negative. Meanwhile, constant covid-testing must be carried out on crews of wheat-harvesters traveling from village to village to cut the wheat. The marketing of the crop relies on itinerant traders and truck drivers who comb the countryside to buy up wheat at the edge of fields or from farmers' homes, transport it to granaries and shovel it into bags.

"Volunteers" harvest wheat in Jiangsu Province's Xuzhou City. Jiangsu Net.

Another part of the "wheat battle" is a crackdown on burning wheat fields. Farmers like to burn the straw left in their fields after harvesting summer crops so they can immediately plant a second crop to be harvested in the fall, usually corn. The practice was banned as an air pollution control measure about ten years ago, but it may have had a resurgence this year due to covid controls that also crimp the process of gathering up, transporting and processing the wheat straw. Most news articles mention bans on field burning as part of this year's wheat harvest campaign.

On May 15, officials in Henan Province's Wangzhuangzai Town were ordered to conscientiously prepare for the "three summers" harvest (summer-harvested wheat, rapeseed, early rice) while also building a solid line of defense against the epidemic. The work program involves registering and recording all the members of itinerant wheat-harvesting crews and their machinery who must report to local authorities a day before entering a village. The town currently has 62 harvesters and 85 crew members registered. Officials are supposed to tally up wheat fields and workers, identify labor shortages, and send out "volunteers" to help with harvest and sale of wheat to address migrants' difficulties. Officials are ordered to publicize virus prevention and distribute notices and leaflets about bans on burning wheat fields. Officials who don't take their responsibility seriously will be penalized.

In Gulou District of northern Jiangsu Province's Xuzhou City, community officials formed supervision teams to compile statistics on wheat fields and local farm machinery. They assigned teams to be responsible for specific tracts of land. Communist party members reportedly were formed into teams to help harvest the wheat of families who could not return to their fields. Officials are ordered to ensure that covid-prevention work is performed on interregional wheat-harvesting crews. The Gulou District strictly forbids the destruction of wheat fields and forbids harvesting wheat for silage. Officials are deploying fire-fighting equipment to put out fires in wheat fields. As rainy weather arrived, harvesting equipment was having difficulty accessing fields. 

Working on a wheat-harvesting machine. Source: Minquan County Government

The wheat harvest program in Henan Province's Qi County tries to boost the image of its pesky covid-prevention workers by reporting that medical staff braved the hot sun to deliver bottled water, towels, essential oils, toilet water (?), watermelon, and face masks to harvester operators and workers in fields. The medical workers explained fire safety to agricultural machinery operators, reminding them to work without smoke or fire. 

Meanwhile, a youtube video shows an official in Henan ordering farmers to leave their fields while waving a cigarette as he yells, pacing through a field of flammable wheat straw about 20 feet from an unharvested stand of wheat.

Henan Province's Hebi City was hit hard by flooding last summer and fall. In Hebi's Jun County officials are also undertaking the "wheat battle" by ensuring wheat is harvested and banning the burning of fields in a 300,000-mu model wheat-farming tract. This article tacitly admits that last year's serious flooding was due to busted dikes: families in the area have been removed to temporary settlements while destroyed dikes and canals are being repaired. Families and grain traders in the area are being warned not to store their grain in their houses in order to avoid risk of floods ruining the grain. The dike-restoration project is targeted for completion in June and families are to be returned to their homes by October (presumably in time to plant next year's winter wheat crop).

Monday, May 30, 2022

China's Brazil Corn Agreement: Science Captive to Economics

China is on the verge of allowing imports of Brazilian corn. Many observers think China-Brazil negotiations were pushed along by China's expectation of disrupted corn supplies due to the war in Ukraine. If so, the move illustrates China's hijacking of scientific negotiations on pest and plant disease risks for economic and political purposes, the kind of behavior that an earlier generation of trade negotiators tried to stamp out when they set up the WTO trading system.

"It was a strategic consideration by the State to diversify import origins," an anonymous China-based trader told Reuters.

A commentary by Chinese market analysis group Mysteel attributed the Brazilian corn agreement to the risk that a relatively "stable" corn import pattern could be disrupted by the war in Ukraine. 

What they meant is that Chinese authorities face the prospect of having to import nearly all their corn from the United States if Ukrainian corn supplies are disrupted. Authorities are scrambling to line up alternative suppliers to avoid being at the mercy of American corn exporters.

Eight years ago the Dim Sums blog recounted a similar situation when Chinese authorities became desperate to diversify corn suppliers after China's corn imports soared to 5.5 million metric tons in 2012--and 98 percent of the imports were supplied by the United States. During 2012-13 China rushed through  agreements to import corn from Argentina, Brazil and Ukraine, but none of the agreements resulted in much trade until Ukrainian shipments ramped up in 2014. 

An opaque GMO approval process is another lever China uses to slow imports depending on domestic market conditions. 2014 was the same year Chinese authorities rejected nearly every U.S. corn shipment because they said they discovered an unapproved GMO variety inspectors had been ignoring for years as the seed company's application hung in the limbo of China's GMO approval system.  

A recent commentary by China's BRICS market analysis group observed that no significant trade ever occurred after China and Brazil signed the initial 2014 protocol to admit Brazilian corn to China. BRICS explained that China's agriculture ministry had not approved the many GMO corn varieties grown in Brazil, so only a few shipments of Brazilian corn had been made. The BRICS commentary attributed lack of movement on negotiations with Brazil over the last 8 years to China's huge corn glut that appeared in 2015 and a multi-year program to disgorge massive Chinese corn reserves that was completed in 2020. 

BRICS explained that China is now eager to push ahead on opening the market to Brazilian corn because the corn reserves have been depleted, China's corn needs have grown, and the country has a 50-million-ton feed grain deficit. BRICS explained further that China opened its market to Brazilian corn and other commodities due to the Russia-Ukraine war and tensions with the United States. 

The Mysteel commentary pointed to approval of GMO corn varieties by China's agriculture ministry as the key chokepoint in actually opening trade.

A Brazilian source told that a biotechnology equivalence agreement related to corn is still required and he suggested that China's approval of biotechnologies "needs to be more agile."

China's new agreement with Brazil seems to be part of a larger initiative to expand agricultural trade with that country. Brazil already supplied 22 percent of China's agricultural imports in 2021, far more than any other country. Authorities said they also reached agreements on soybean meal and peanuts and are making progress on protocols for soy protein, orange fiber granules from Brazil and Chinese pears. However, the timing of the corn announcement suggests that market developments have motivated Chinese officials to move the negotiations forward.

The architects of WTO trading rules for agricultural commodities envisioned "science- and risk-based" determination of standards, inspection and quarantine practices, and approvals of plant varieties, hormones, etc. to stop the use of such measures as protectionist trade barriers. China claims to support these principles but their authorities clearly view them as valves to turn on and off the flow of agricultural imports and exports. 

A 2011 paper by an agriculture ministry international trade policy advisor on maintaining "agricultural industry security" called for fully utilizing border measures, including plant and animal inspection and quarantine rules to protect the country's small-scale producers. The paper also calls for using animal and plant inspection and quarantine, tariffs and tariff-rate quotas, and technical measures.

Monday, May 23, 2022

China's Foreign Agricultural Investment Problems

Chinese investment in agriculture around the world is not the unstoppable "land-grabbing" juggernaut often depicted by news media and NGOs. A recent article identifying difficulties encountered by Chinese outbound agricultural investment indicates that the companies are often ill-prepared to do business outside China. 

An April 2022 article by the China International Economic Exchange Center repeats a series of complaints cited in other articles over the past decade that, arguably, arise from the insular nature of China's own agribusiness sector: a shortage of personnel with language skills, little understanding of foreign cultures or business practices in the host country, failure to interact with local business and government leaders, and lack of experience with international accounting, finance, law and tax practices. Some related anecdotal evidence not cited in the article: when Chinese companies hire foreigners with international skills and knowledge they are typically kept isolated within the company, and Chinese expatriates working abroad often retreat into their office compounds to avoid dealing with the locals. These problems are surely being worsened by the pandemic as China's leadership expels or drives out foreign merchants and teachers, shuts down foreign travel, ramps up nationalist rhetoric, peddles disdain for foreigners, and touts the superiority of China's economic system.

The recipe for agribusiness success inside China doesn't travel well outside the home ecosystem. Cutting cost to the bone is the primary Chinese business strategy at home, and the article faults Chinese businesses operating abroad for skimping on job training, wages and social insurance due to "cost considerations." China's strategy for foreign agricultural investment focuses on state-owned entities as the leading edge of development, including a couple of state-owned companies such as COFCO, the provincial state-farm ("Nong Ken") system, and the Xinjiang Production Corps. Communist leaders think "big" companies are "strong", but these big companies mostly operate as extensions of the government and rely on their Chinese government connections to tell them what to do, set up deals and arrange financing from state banks. Business leaders whose main skill is connections with the Chinese government find themselves adrift and helpless operating in other countries where they have no local government or business connections. 

Complaints about "incomplete" legal and regulatory systems in the host country echo complaints foreign investors make about doing business in China where laws and regulations are vague, fluid and selectively applied by legal authorities to favor Chinese companies over foreign investors. Chinese agricultural companies get a dose of their own medicine when they venture abroad elsewhere in Asia, Russia, and Africa. Companies accustomed to benefiting from a loosey-goosey legal environment at home in China don't know how to handle such a system when they are the foreigners. The article also frets that Chinese companies have no industry association to advocate for them in legal, policy and trade disputes (in China, virtually all such associations are quasi-government entities).

A complaint that regularly appears in such articles is that Chinese companies operating abroad were unable to ship grain, sugar, and cotton home due to the restrictive tariff rate quota system that Chinese authorities describe as a "firewall" to protect China's market. This suggests that Chinese companies launch business ventures abroad--say, growing rice in Cambodia--without thinking about how they plan to market their product. 

Another complaint is political instability and other risks in host countries. China's agricultural investment has gravitated toward impoverished and unstable countries to achieve their geopolitical aims. China has prominent agricultural projects in Pakistan, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and aims to sign an agricultural agreement with South Sudan during the next five years.

A couple of news outlets outside China noted that Russia's invasion of Ukraine threatened China's agricultural investments in Ukraine. Agriculture was a prominent part of China's Ukrainian investment plan launched in 2013 and Black Sea port and logistics facilities belonging to grain traders Nidera and Noble Agri were targeted in COFCO's multi-billion-dollar acquisitions of the two companies. In 2021 China imported ag products from Ukraine worth over $5 billion--composed mainly of corn, barley, and sunflower oil and meal--and COFCO probably handled much of the trade. 

"Sound of Hope" reported that Russia's invasion threatened $9 billion-worth of "Belt and Road" investments in Ukraine, citing specifically the shelling of COFCO-invested port facilities in Odessa. Freight shipments on a railway connecting China with Odessa have been completely suspended. Bloomberg News learned that a COFCO sunflower seed crushing plant built in 2012 was shot up in the Russian attack on Mariupol. Satellite imagery showed holes in the two main buildings and dozens of bomb craters and destroyed houses near the facility. A Canadian Chinese-language article raised concerns about threats to Chinese investments in Ukraine, including a COFCO edible oil storage facility in Kharkiv and multiple port facilities. In February, a company associated with Jiangsu Province's state farm system told investors plans for a $5-million oilseed-production, processing and logistics project in Ukraine had been suspended. 

Investigations of COFCO's emergence as a major buyer and trader of Brazilian soybeans in the Journal of Peasant Studies indicate that COFCO's main strategy was to pay significant premiums for soybeans to boost its market share over its "ABCD" competitors. The rationale for gaining market share was to prevent Chinese importers from being "overcharged" by ABCD companies, but it's unclear how paying extra for soybeans to gain market share achieves the objective of lowering the cost of China's soybean imports.

China's 5-year plan for "international cooperation" in agriculture and rural affairs calls for more outbound investment by Chinese companies. The central planning mentality in the document designates industries, commodities, and countries to focus on, coordination with government departments, a network of foreign agricultural demonstration zones, and the "belt and road" initiative. But the document has no mention of managerial expertise or marketing opportunities as a driver of investment projects. Business plans and language skills optional.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

China's Miraculous Sow Productivity😮

After African swine fever (ASF) virus landed in China in August 2018 it swept through every province of the country within a matter of months. Farmers killed off entire herds and even sent their sows to slaughter to prevent the virus from getting them. Monthly reports from the Agriculture Ministry indicate that the number of sows fell by 55%--from 44.7 million head in December 2018 to under 20 million in September 2019. Yet, the number of finished hogs slaughtered for commercial sale fell by only 24%.

Even more remarkably, China's agricultural officials reported in 2021 that the number of sows and the swine inventory had essentially recovered to normal. China's Central Television reported in October 2021 that the number of sows had more than doubled from a low of 19.1 million in September 2019 to 45.6 million in June 2021. 

Sow inventory is level at the end of the previous year.
Data from China's National Bureau of Statistics. 

Most commentators thought it would take years for China to rebuild its swine herd to pre-ASF levels, yet the agriculture ministry declared in 2021 that production capacity had already recovered to its normal level. These numbers are miraculous.

You can only produce pigs by breeding sows, waiting nearly 4 months for them to produce a litter, weaning the piglets and feeding them another 4-5 months until they reach a market weight. Sows can be bred maybe twice a year. Dim Sums calculated the productivity of Chinese sows since 2009 to prove that China's swine recovery was indeed a miracle. 

The number of slaughtered hogs per sow rose from 13.7 to 15.5 head between 2009 and 2018. These numbers seem plausible for China's level of development and indicate modest productivity growth--a 16-percent improvement over 9 years. The hogs-per-sow ratio dropped to 14.3 in 2019 after ASF hit the industry 😟. But the hogs-per-sow ratio soared to 26 head as China's 20 million sows in January 2020 produced 671 million mature hogs before the end of that year 😮. Then, in 2021 the hogs-per-sow ratio was down to 16.1--back on the trend toward gradually higher productivity that prevailed before ASF. (An agricultural official cited a 16 hogs-per-sow productivity figure last year in his assessment of annual production capacity.)
Calculated from hog slaughter and sow numbers published by China's National Bureau of Statistics.

Let's make the calculation a little more realistic by incorporating the biological lag with quarterly data. We'll lag the slaughter numbers by 3 months (assuming half the sows at the beginning of the year are near farrowing and the other half are just being bred). Let's also account for the fact that the increase in the sow inventory during the year had to be produced by the sows. This more careful productivity = (slaughtered hogs over four quarters + the increase in number of sows)/(starting number of sows in Q1).

This second productivity calculation (the red line in the chart above) also starts out at a realistic level of about 15-16 hogs per sow during 2016-2019, then shoots up to 29 pigs per sow in 2020. Then the ratio  falls to 16.9 pigs per sow--a little higher than pre-ASF.

Both measures suggest China's sows produced miraculous numbers of pigs during 2020. China achieved Denmark's level of sow productivity for a year, then returned to China's productivity level in 2021. 

The numbers are even more miraculous when we consider that it was widely reported during 2020 that Chinese farms began taking "third generation" females meant for the fattening barn and breeding them as sows to expand production at warp speed in order to maximize profit during a year of record-high prices. We heard that these females had low productivity--they had smaller litters and fewer litters than "second generation" sows. Moreover, core breeding farms were decimated by culling and disease and could not be restocked because imports of breeding stock was shut down during the ASF epidemic. But the massive one-year spike in productivity proves we were wrong about all that. Those sows popped out nearly twice as many pigs as previous generations did.

I don't know how to explain this miracle of pig productivity. It's right there in the statistics, and statistics don't lie, do they? In China's superior agricultural system pigs can be created out of thin air just when they're needed.