|Pigs are seen at a backyard farm on the outskirts of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China on September 5, 2018. Reuters file photo|
HONG KONG — The Year of the Pig may be at hand, but in China the animals themselves — central to Chinese cuisine for thousands of years — are disappearing.
Across the country hog breeds are vanishing rapidly, taking with them some of China’s signature dishes and, more worryingly, exposing the remaining swine to increased risk of disease, agricultural specialists said.
As the world’s biggest producer and consumer of pork, China has been domesticating pigs for 8,000 years.
But indigenous Chinese pig species dropped from 90 per cent of the market in 1994 to less than 2 per cent in 2007, the last year the Ministry of Agriculture made such figures available to the public.
Breeds like Jinhua and Chenghua, which used to be associated with specific regional dishes, have been depleted because of changing market demands and diets that have allowed Western breeds to increasingly take over the Chinese market.
“The Jinhua pig has always been used in Cantonese cuisine,” said Mr Paul Lau, chef de cuisine at the Michelin-starred Tin Lung Heen restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Hong Kong. “It is used to make the broth, which is the soul of Cantonese cuisine.”
The number of Jinhua sows, or female breeding pigs, from eastern China’s Zhejiang province — famed for the Jinhua ham that is widely used in Cantonese dishes — plunged in Jinhua city from 250,000 in 1980 to 10,000 in 2007 and just 5,000 in 2012, according to government figures.
“Without the Jinhua pig, it would be very difficult to achieve the intended effect [in the food],” Mr Lau said.
According to analysts, shifting pork market requirements and the emergence of an increasingly health conscious consumer who prefers less fatty foods paved the way for Western pig breeds to gain a bigger share of the Chinese market and spur the decline in indigenous breeds.
Professor Jiang Yanzhi, a Sichuan Agricultural University professor affiliated with a livestock breeding farm in the provincial capital Chengdu, was quoted by state media last year as saying the number of purebred Chenghua pigs, considered the most suitable for making authentic Sichuan twice-cooked pork, had plunged to “only 50 or 60” in recent years.
The decline meant that the prized traits of the breed, including its thick skin, were in danger of disappearing, he said.
But government measures helped pull it back from the brink of extinction. The core breeding group now has 20 boars and 300 sows, according to reports from Chenghua pig breeding farms cited by China Youth Daily.
Meanwhile, the higher fat content in native Chenghua pigs is pushing them out of favour with consumers who prefer leaner meat. Prof Jiang said that only about 40 per cent of their meat was lean, while that figure could be as high as 60 per cent with Western white pigs.
Chinese pig breeds also are seeing their popularity diminish with farmers as it typically takes about a year to get them ready for slaughter. The process for Western pigs takes only six months.
Of China’s 90 indigenous pig varieties, 37 are nearing extinction, according to the agriculture ministry.
Mr Lau from the Ritz Carlton said that indigenous animals were traditionally used to make Cantonese roast suckling pigs, as they were larger and fatter, but changing consumer preferences had made breeding them less lucrative for farmers.
“Native pigs contain more fat, and people nowadays are more health conscious,” he said.
“We had a customer who complained that there was a lot of fat underneath the skin. Without the fat you lose the special aroma, but we skimmed it because the customer didn’t want it.”
Mr Lau said he now used Vietnamese animals, which have become increasingly popular in China since the 1990s, as his roast suckling pig dishes.
Other Western pig breeds — such as the Danish Landrace, the Duroc from America and the Yorkshire (or Large White) from Britain — which are commonly used in crossbreeding systems geared towards lean meat production, began entering China’s pork market and finding a foothold on Chinese farms towards the end of the 20th century.
At the same time, the number of sows belonging to native Chinese breeds began to decrease rapidly.
Between 1980 and 2000 the number of large spotted sows in south China’s Guangdong province fell from 13,000 to just a few hundred, according to a report by China Youth Daily.
Many pigs, including the Bama from Guangxi province, the Wujin from the mountainous regions of Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan, and the Bamei from Yunnan are all endangered and have a place on China’s list of protected genetic resources of livestock and poultry.
Some native Chinese breeds, including the Longyou black and Ding county, have already vanished.
The outbreak of African swine fever in China, first detected in north-east Liaoning province in early August, has further complicated matters. There have since been more than 100 outbreaks in 25 provinces, according to Xinhua.
Authorities in Hong Kong suggested halting the supply of live hogs in the city over the first three days of the Lunar New Year holiday period to conduct thorough cleansing operations amid concerns about the spread of the disease.
Dr Zhou Jinfeng, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, said African swine fever had no bearing on the biodiversity of pigs, but pigs raised using industrial methods were more vulnerable to it.
“It brings down cost and expands scale, but it also means disease can travel fast among them,” he said, echoing fears that greater industrialisation has increased the risks of diseases like African swine fever.
Although humans cannot contract African swine fever, the physiological similarities between humans and pigs suggest that future mutations of the virus may be a threat.
Pigs are by no means the only animals at risk because of industrial farming methods. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that as of the end of 2017, more than a quarter of the world’s local farm animal breeds were at risk of disappearing, and that almost 100 livestock breeds went extinct between 2000 and 2014.
Indiscriminate cross-breeding was mostly to blame for the genetic erosion, it said, adding that other threats included the increased use of non-native breeds, and weak government policies.
Researchers at the Chengdu breeding farm were quoted by state media as saying they hoped to breed a new thick-skinned pig similar to the Chenghua breed, making it suitable for the Sichuan twice-cooked pork dish, but with the same amount of lean meat and growth speed of Western breeds.
Mr Lau said he thought Chinese breeds were marketed less effectively than prized Western ones like the black Iberico.
“The only famous Chinese pig breed I know is the Jinhua used to make Jinhua ham,” he said.
“Jinhua pigs have always been in demand. If there is a demand, then people will find a way to breed them.”