Monday, January 26, 2015

Governors' Responsibility System Reveals China Grain Worries

China's State Council has issued a directive establishing a new provincial governors' food security responsibility system which demands that local leaders shoulder more of the responsibility for boosting local food supplies, storing the food and ensuring that the food is distributed to consumers who need it.

A number of articles in Peoples Daily and other outlets tied to the government have emphasized that this new system reflects the government's top priority on food security. The articles indicate that top leaders are frustrated with provincial leaders for slacking off and expecting the central government to be responsible for national food security. Chinese officials portray a sense of urgency about the food security situation despite the fact that China has a serious glut of most major commodities.

The provincial food security system charges both the communist party secretaries and the governors of each province with ensuring local food supplies. They will be held accountable by including food security in the evaluation system for officials, requiring officials to make reports to the State Council, and subjecting provincial leaders to "criticism," "rectification," or other penalties if they fall short.

The new system goes beyond the "governors' rice bag" and "mayors' vegetable basket" responsibility systems installed in the 1990s--those just ensured there is "enough to eat" but the new responsibility system demands that governors pay attention to the entire marketing system for grains. The new system reportedly goes beyond grains to include vegetable oils and potatoes.

Part of the responsibility is to boost local grain production. Governors are expected to finance provincial "grain risk funds" and pay for farmer subsidies that have stronger production incentives than the existing subsidies. They are expected to finance model farming projects and high-yielding grain production districts.

Grain storage and distribution is a big emphasis of the responsibility system. Governors are expected to hold provincial reserves to supplement the massive central government reserves which are mostly held in remote grain-producing provinces. They are supposed to crack down on the practice of "round-tripping"--shifting grain around to collect subsidies on phantom grain reserves. Provincial governors are supposed to establish a new grain marketing system comprised of public-private hybrid companies. Poorly-operated state-run grain companies are to be merged and consolidated. Private companies are expected to take ownership stakes in these new state-owned grain companies.

The new system appears to be based on frustration that rich coastal provinces neglect grain production and storage while excess supplies of grain rot in remote grain-producing areas. According to a Development Research Center official, government reserves of corn, wheat, and rice are at record levels and inventories of each grain exceed 50 percent of annual production. Another unnamed official said that huge amounts of grain go to waste in government reserve warehouses. Most of the grain has been stored at least 2 or 3 years and has degraded to the point where it can only be used as animal feed or other uses (like making fuel ethanol).

This sounds like a recipe for even more waste, confusion and statistical subterfuge as officials mainly concerned with skyscrapers, subways and industrial parks are ordered to construct model farms, warehouses, and establish bogus grain companies. All the while filing fictitious reports showing their superiors that everything is fine.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Insurance Agents Assist Dead-Pig Trade

Since 2014, Chinese police have broken up networks of diseased pig-traders and butchers in eleven provinces, arrested 110 people, and seized 1 million kg of pork and 48,000 kg of "gutter oil." Among the miscreants are insurance agents who tip off traders on where to find dead pigs they sell at a discount to butchers who then sell the meat to consumers.

Dead pigs on the back of a truck
Jiangxi Province's Gao'an Prefecture, one of the top 100 pig-selling counties, a CCTV reporter claimed to have discovered that trade in dead pigs was an "open secret" and many of them were infected with type-A foot and mouth disease (often called "disease number 5" in China). The meat from the pigs was reportedly sold to seven provinces, including Guangdong, Hunan, Chongqing, Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Shandong.

According to the report, a taxi driver named Mr. Chen has a secret identity as a dead pig trader. He allegedly got phone calls from a friend who is an insurance adjuster who tipped him off on where to find dead pigs to buy. The insurance worker reportedly got a 5 percent commission.

Individual arrested in dead-pig-trading sting spills the beans.
Traders got info from insurance adjusters on where to buy dead pigs.

China began an insurance program for sows in 2007. In recent years it has been extended to finishing hogs. About two-thirds of the premium is subsidized by various levels of government. When pigs die, an insurance adjuster comes to verify that pigs died and takes a picture. Other insurance workers say the insurance adjuster could withhold photographs from the insurance company if he wanted to report information to traders who come to buy the dead pigs.

This is not new.

Three years earlier, a similar case was exposed in Hunan Province where the director of a veterinary station informed traders where they could buy dead pigs.

In 2013, Jiangxi Province allocated 67 million yuan to subsidize disposal of dead pigs to address this problem.

Officials and regulators place their loyalty to friends, relatives, and business partners above their responsibility to their organization or their responsibility to protect public health.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Chinese Livestock Industry: 7 Challenges

At a recent meeting of China's livestock industry association, a Ministry of Agriculture official proclaimed that the industry faces seven challenges as it enters a critical period of upgrading.

Vice Director Wang Zongli of the Ministry's livestock industry office offers a candid assessment of the livestock industry that mostly echoes the party line of upgrading and modernizing agriculture. His first challenge is the "tight supply-demand balance" for Chinese livestock products. He says improvements in living standards, urbanization, and population growth are boosting demand for livestock products. Production of livestock is outstripping the country's water, land and feed resources. Wang highlights an insufficient supply of high-protein feeds, reflected by soybean imports which surged to 63 mmt during 2013 and accounted for 80% of the Chinese soybean supply. He says the growth rate of livestock has accelerated, putting more and more pressure on supply.

Challenge two is cost pressure. Labor costs, raw material prices, water and electricity costs are all rising.

Third, Wang says the animal disease prevention and control situation is still "grim." There are still many disease outbreaks. Disease prevention and control organizations are not good enough. Disease problems affect consumers and hurt the confidence of livestock producers, says Wang.

Fourth, there are persistent hidden dangers in livestock quality and safety. Quality and safety is a major responsibility that influences public health. Wang says there have been exaggerations in the news media and "malicious speculation", but the news reports do reflect problems in the industry. Wang sees the low education, low awareness of laws and regulations and lack of integrity among livestock industry workers as a core problem. People employed in livestock farming, Wang asserts, are mainly low-educated laborers who are unable to distinguish fake feed and veterinary products. He says enforcement of regulations is poor and some people knowingly manufacture, sell, and use substances that are expressly forbidden by the government. Wang complains that there are still 54 million hog producers and 61% of hogs are supplied by small operations producing 500 or fewer head. The United States has only 70,000 hog farms, he says, and just 3.5% of hogs come from small farms.

Fifth, Wang worries that the Chinese breeding system is lagging behind. Quality breeds of swine, dairy cattle and poultry nearly all depend on infusions of imported breeding stock. He says one sow can supply 1800 kg of pork in developed countries, but only 1016 kg in China. Wang calls for linking up companies with research institutes as soon as possible to improve China's ability to supply breeding stock.

The sixth challenge is the increased prominence of environmental pollution. Wang identifies three problems. The number of livestock farms exceeds environmental capacity, crop and livestock production are not linked closely enough, and technology for waste treatment is lagging. He cites statistics from the 2007 national pollution census which showed 41.9% of chemical oxygen demand (water pollution) came from livestock and poultry waste. Now regulations governing livestock and poultry waste emissions are more strict.

Seventh, Wang is concerned that science and technology does not make a large enough contribution to livestock output growth. He says China has done pretty well at importing better breeds and adopting general science and technological achievements to increase output. However, China is weak at improving quality, lags behind in technology for environmental protection, doesn't develop indigenous technologies and fails to make scientific breakthroughs. Furthermore, Wang complains that scientific research is not linked with extension, so achievements are not disseminated to producers.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Urgent! Modernize Chinese Agriculture

Chinese leaders are calling for urgent attention to the transformation of the country's agriculture.

In a January 7 speech on developing agriculture under a "new normal", Minister Han Changfu said the demand to speed up agricultural modernization has become much more urgent as the economy enters the "deep waters" of reform, China enters a new stage of socioeconomic development, and agriculture undergoes profound changes.  Writing in the Communist Party journal Qiushi, Minister Han reveals that General Secretary Xi Jinping himself stressed the importance of accelerating the transformation of agriculture at last December's economic work conference.

Han says that China has made a lot of progress in modernizing agriculture, but it is stuck in a state where "modern" and "traditional" agriculture coexist. With rapid economic development, large numbers of laborers have moved out of agriculture, leaving empty villages and an aging agricultural labor force. Farming has become a largely part-time activity with low productivity. While a form of modernization is in place, the "capillaries" are not developed, Han said. China needs to explore new forms of agricultural businesses and nurture a cadre of professional farmers, Han wrote. Officials will encourage integration of crop and livestock production. More effort will be put into orderly transfer of land to develop new-type farming operations.

While China has made great achievements by increasing grain production 11  years in a row, it has come at a significant price, said Han, as problems of resource degradation and agricultural pollution became more prominent. China needs to pay down "environmental debts," Han said. China will now pursue environmentally-friendly agriculture, with plans to recycle the major pollutants--plastic sheeting, crop straw and stalks, and animal manure. Han promises an "environmental governance battle" at the local level.

The urgency is magnified by pressure from the external environment. Han describes it as "a floor" and "two ceilings." The "floor" is a steadily rising cost structure for agriculture, including rising costs of labor, machinery, and physical inputs. Prices need to rise to maintain profit margins, but Chinese agricultural prices are already substantially higher than international prices. The first "ceiling" is the price of imports that constrains Chinese prices from rising higher to give farmers incentives and increase their incomes. The second "ceiling" is WTO-imposed limits that constrain China's ability to increase domestic subsidies for agriculture. Han warns that China is approaching its limit on "amber box" subsidies imposed by its WTO agreement.

Han explains that China has to transform the model of agricultural development in order to increase farm income and make the sector competitive. It has to switch from reliance on physical inputs to boost output to reliance on science and technology to raise productivity. China is experimenting with plans to boost innovation in seed and other input industries. A seed propagation belt that includes Hainan, Gansu, and Sichuan is being developed. Farm production needs to be concentrated in regions that have comparative advantage. Farms need to be linked up with processing and distribution industries to form industry chains. New types of marketing arrangements will be pushed, including e-commerce and direct marketing from farmers to consumers.

Han emphasizes agricultural safety and quality. Now that Chinese consumers are adequately clothed and fed, Han surmised, they have zero tolerance for food safety problems. Therefore, Han said China must pursue "standardized production" at the farm level and strict supervision of marketing beyond the farm gate to achieve food safety all the way to the consumer's tongue. This year, China will set up 100 "vegetable basket" demonstration counties for supplying vegetables, meat, and fish with an emphasis on food safety supervision.

Han also embraced globalization: China should attract foreign capital, key technologies, expertise and management experience to help develop China's agriculture. China should improve its ability to control imports and exports, allowing imports of commodities that are in short supply and supporting export of Chinese products that have a competitive advantage, said Han.

In a more pithy speech at Tsinghua University in December, rural policy advisor Chen Xiwen also noted the exhortation to speed up agricultural transformation. He called attention to the pressure from imports, noting that China's grain soybean imports for 2014 could surpass 90 million metric tons, and described the surging imports as indicative of more fundamental and complex problems. Chinese agricultural prices were relatively low when China joined WTO, Chen said, but now they are high. While China has a system of tariff rate quotas to limit grain imports, Chen estimating that smuggled rice from Vietnam was probably greater than the volume reported as legal imports in customs statistics. Chen described the trend of rising farm production costs as "grim."

Chen also said that the environment "red light" is on, and China is approaching the "yellow line" on subsidies. Chen implied that there was great pressure to boost subsidies in this year's target price experiments. The target price for cotton was set at 19,800 yuan/mt, but the market price fell to 13,500 yuan/mt...implying a subsidy of 6,300 yuan/mt, or 47 percent of the market price. Outside the Xinjiang pilot area, the subsidy was set at just 2000 yuan/mt, which means that cotton production will concentrate in Xinjiang. Chen also noted that the soybean target price had to be set at a high level because it was essential to prevent any more declines in soybean area. His reason was that high-protein Chinese soybeans are needed for food uses both in China and in exports markets in Japan and South Korea.

Officials have been calling for "modernization" of agriculture for half a century, but they keep recycling the same ideas over and over without addressing the systemic problems. Chen Xiwen seems to share the frustration, exhorting officials not to "just talk about national features, development stages, and do research." Minister Han acknowledges that a build-up of problems has increased the urgency to radically change the development model for the sector, but he doesn't address the need to relax anachronistic "state secrets," constraints on land ownership, barriers to foreign investment and trade, and stove-piping and squelching of criticism that prevents effective governance. China has created a society where lying, bribes, and cheating are the norm (and consumers wonder why they can't trust food merchants).

China has indeed entered the deep end of the pool and needs to get some swimming lessons quick.

The graphic below summarizes the 2014 rural work conference. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

China Livestock Waiting for Rebound

China's swine and poultry industries are shedding capacity as cash resources get tight and peak season for disease hits.

After 13 months of decline, productive sow numbers in November 2014 were reported by China's Ministry of Agriculture to be 43.68 million, down 13 percent from their peak.

The current hog price is reported to be 13.07 yuan/kg. The price is depressed despite the approach of the spring festival, China's customary peak-demand period. After the extended period of losses, cash has been getting tight for farmers, so they have been culling sows.

Disease is contributing to the drop in animal inventories. In December, China Central TV reported that a large outbreak of foot and mouth disease occurred in Jiangxi Province. It was also reported that pork from the diseased pigs was sold in at least seven provinces. The Ministry of Agriculture announced that a district of Ma'anshan in Anhui Province had the first detected type-A foot and mouth disease. FMD outbreaks have been reported in Hubei, Hunan, Tianjin, and Liaoning. Chinese analysts think these reports may be "the tip of the iceberg"; they think disease problems may be spiking due to winter weather and cash-poor farmers skimping on disease control.

In Xiamen, two confirmed human cases of H7N9 caused sales of poultry to plummet at the city's wholesale and retail markets. Local authorities closed the markets on January 2-3 to disinfect them, and sales were one-tenth of usual after the markets reopened. This follows major outbreaks of avian influenza during 2013 and 2014.

Broiler and duck breeding flocks are down 20%-30%.

Over the past 5 years, China's hog cycle was compressed from the traditional 3-4 years to 1-2 years. Analysts say the current downturn, already extending 1-2 years could drag on quite a while longer. They note that severe declines in production capacity led to price spikes in 2011 and 2007.

Another article--perhaps trying to divert attention from severe problems in the domestic pork industry--warns consumers that imported pork could be laced with "lean meat powder" and salmonella. China's inspection and quarantine authorities have been carefully testing imported pork for ractopamine, and said they detected it in 17 batches of imported U.S. pork during November 2014. The ractopamine was found in pig feet, snouts, kidneys, tongue and other offal. All of the detections were at the Tianjin port. The Xiamen port also found salmonella in pork imported from Spain.

The article warns readers, "Don't think imported pork is so good-tasting; it could contain "lean meat powder!"

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dairy Companies Ordered to Buy Milk From Farmers

On January  7, 2015 China's Ministry of Agriculture issued an emergency notice urging local authorities to adopt measures to ensure that farmers are able to sell their milk. Local officials are ordering dairy companies to keep buying milk from farmers to prevent them from quitting the industry or killing off cows.

During 2013, China had a severe shortage of milk. Now, global market conditions of excess supply and falling prices are spilling over into China. 
China's farm price for milk fell from 3.92 yuan/kg last September to 3.75 yuan/kg in December.

A reporter for New Capital News went to several dairy-farming communities in Hebei Province's Xingtang County. A farmer at one community said local farmers have a contract with the Hebei subsidiary of a food company to sell them milk. However, in November 2014 the company told farmers they would only buy 80 percent of their milk. The farmers would have to figure out what to do with the other 20 percent.

The company had accumulated two months of product inventory they couldn't sell. Therefore, the company chairman ordered the Hebei subsidiary to limit purchases of new milk.

A county official said the milk price had fallen from 5.5 yuan/kg in the spring of 2014 to 3.6 yuan.

Hebei Province officials started to address the milk-selling problem in December. Provincial officials ordered local officials to "coordinate" dairy companies and farmers to address the difficulties selling milk, strengthen "supervision" of dairy farmers, requiring everyone to share the burden and risk. This appears to entail ordering companies to buy farmers' milk, telling farmers not to kill off their cattle, and ensuring the safety of milk.

When the reporter returned to visit the dairy farmers several days later, he was told that the farmers received a notice from the company eliminating the 80-percent limit and they are now able to sell all their milk at a price of 3.1 yuan/kg. County officials said the problem was "temporarily" solved.

Shandong Province has seen a steep decline in milk prices too. Ministry of Agriculture teams reportedly have been sent there to "coordinate."

The urgency of the milk measures seems to be motivated to avert another catastrophic problem like the melamine adulteration that was exposed in 2008. Hebei Province and its now-defunct Sanlu company was the epicenter of that incident. A similar period of depressed prices and culling of cows preceded the incident in 2007. When prices recovered later in the year, short supplies caused milk prices to spike and gave milk stations strong incentive to water down and adulterate milk.

The MOA emergency notice demanded that local governments strengthen oversight of dairy companies to ensure that they honor contracts and actively purchase milk. Echoing the 2008 problems, the notice called for maintaining orderly markets, for utilizing cooperatives to strengthen farmers' negotiating power, upgrading dairy-farming communities, supporting an alfalfa revival program, and implementing the improved breed subsidy. The notice called for local officials to fight for a subsidy to hold local reserves of milk powder.

The falling prices have been transmitted from the global market. Major dairy producers like New Zealand and the EU have seen prices fall 30%-40%. Some Chinese companies are importing cheaper milk from other countries, and reducing their local purchases. Further declines in price are anticipated in 2015.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Smithfield Pork Enters China

After buying Smithfield Foods in 2013, the new Chinese owners wasted no time in introducing pork from their new American acquisition into the Chinese market.

In May 2013, Shuanghui Group--China's largest pork processor--announced its acquisition of Smithfield Foods--the largest U.S. hog and pork producer--and the acquisition was complete by September of that year.
Smithfield sales counter at a supermarket in Zhengzhou.

In March 2014, the first 325-ton shipment of Smithfield pork arrived at a new temperature-controlled bonded warehouse at the Ningbo port in China. The pork was sold in special pilot promotions at "Smith" brand sales counters placed in supermarkets in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. Shuanghui is test-marketing the Smithfield pork in its home province and plans to expand to all key cities in Henan by next year. 

The advertising emphasized taste, nutrition and food safety. Consumers were told that pigs are fed nutritious grain and the meat is more tender and juicy than other pork. Consumers were assured that pork is fully traceable and is kept chilled in each step of the processing and distribution process.
Inspected by Chinese customs agents at the port in Ningbo

The promotional price is 15%-to-20% more than common pork. After the promotion, the normal price is expected to be around 14.9 yuan per 500g. (That's about $2.20/ how do they manage to ship it across the Pacific ocean and sell it cheaper than in this blogger's American supermarket about a five-hour drive from Smithfield?)

The imported pork has been blamed for depressing prices in the Chinese industry this year. Shuanghui points out that their 5000 tons is a tiny share of the 50-million-ton industry. They say they are just giving Chinese consumers more choice.

In November 2014, two Shuanghui executives explained that the traditional "kill pig, sell pork" approach is changing. The company's strategy is to concentrate on raising hogs in America and Europe while raising chickens in China. Shuanghui also acquired Spanish pork company Campofrio in 2014.  Shuanghui plans to build a 50-million-chicken project in China during 2015.
Shuanghui executive explains their China-U.S.-Spain company strategy.

Shuanghui set up a subsidiary company in Shanghai to manage the Smithfield pork business. It plans to set up processing plants for imported pork in Zhengzhou, Weiyang, Shanghai, and Shenyang. Construction on the Zhengzhou plant is planned for 2015.

Shuanghui subsidiary plants in Heilongjiang Province gained access to the Russian market in late 2014. The first shipments in November were about 6000-8000 tons. The Shuanghui shipments to Russia are taking the place of...Smithfield pork which was banned by the Russians last year because it's American. Shuanghui's Chinese pork is going to Russia, in effect, replacing Shuanghui's Smithfield pork which is now being shipped to China. Got it.