By Helen Roxburgh
Sun Dawu sighs sadly when asked about the death of thousands of his pigs, killed by the African swine fever outbreak that has been decimating hog herds across China.
"The pig farm was completely destroyed," he says quietly, fanning himself from the heat and flies on his large Hebei province farm outside Beijing.
"It's a painful process, it's painful to watch them die. We buried all the dead pigs five metres (16 feet) underground."
More than a year since swine fever began to spread across the country, China's pig farmers are wary of replenishing their stock—and the disease could become a political and economic liability for the government.
Frustrated after a month of official stonewalling, Sun posted pictures of the dead pigs on social media platform Weibo—quickly attracting tens of millions of views and forcing the local government to respond.
Pigs that were not killed by the fever were culled.
Eight months later, his restocked herd is healthy, but under government restrictions his pig farm is still sealed off.
His livestock is quarantined and can't be sold for consumption until at least the second half of next year.
China's swine herd is down by about 40 percent, and the shortage has pushed prices of the country's meat staple up by at least half.
A Rabobank report warned China could lose 200 million pigs during the epidemic, and Sun said he believed the number of those affected is higher than official estimates.
"Some pig farmers dare not declare sick pigs, so they quietly sell off even dead pigs," he said.
Trade war fallout
By the time swine fever broke out on his farm and killed his herd of 15,000, Sun says "all the pigs of the other farms were dead".
But only one case of swine fever has been officially reported in Hebei, according to the agriculture ministry—Sun Dawu's farm.
The province was declared free of the disease in April.
The shortage is being exacerbated by stuttering imports from the US in a painful trade war.
And as it wears on, it is not just a problem for farmers, but also for the country's leaders—afraid of social repercussions and spiralling economic costs.
"Historically, high food inflation has triggered bouts of urban protests," says Victor Shih, the Hi Ho Miu Lam chair professor at University of California San Diego.
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