China's Vertical Pig Farms Have a Massive Carbon Impact

As the housing industry crashes, it pivots from people to pork.

Young pigs stand in a pen at a farm in China.

Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

When the 2018 African swine fever (ASF) outbreak hit China's pig industry—the nation is the world's biggest producer and consumer of pork—it claimed the lives of roughly 43.5 million pigs and took a toll on the economy. According to a Nature Food study, the impact of the outbreak was felt "in almost all economic sectors" and there is "an urgent need for rapid ASF containment and prevention measures to avoid future outbreaks and economic declines."

"In China, small and medium-sized farms (those with fewer than 500 head) account for more than 95% of the pig farming industry. It is a common practice on these small and medium-sized farms to feed untreated swill to pigs. Waste management and sanitary conditions are relatively poor, and little is invested in the prevention and control of infectious swine diseases. Therefore, once a pig disease begins to circulate, those small farms will often be almost totally destroyed."

One approach for rebuilding the pig industry is to keep the pigs free of disease by building what has been called pig cities, vertical pig farms, and hog hotels. We showed a version a few years ago, along with MVRDV's Pig City proposed for the Netherlands.

Now, the world’s biggest single-building pig farm has opened in outside Ezhou in China's Hubei province. This latest iteration is described as a "pig skyscraper" by The Guardian.

There is a major real estate crisis in China now, and housing production has essentially stopped. As such, the project is being built by cement company Hubei Century Xinfeng Leishan Cement Co, which is apparently pivoting from building housing for people to pigs. According to Chinese news service Baidu, the cement company is in partnership with Sino-Singapore Kaiwei Modern Animal Husbandry Co., Ltd.

The chair of both companies, Zhuge Wenda, told China Daily: "Compared with traditional pig-raising farms, this saves land and is more environmentally friendly. With the decreasing number of infrastructure projects, the cement and concrete business is shrinking. However, the market always has room for high-quality meat, and the future of the pig-raising industry is bright."

It really should be called a pig bio lab, given the level of control to prevent ASF breakouts. According to Baidu, "The Sino-Singapore Kaiwei Biosafety Management Manual explains this step: employees entering the site need to take a bath one day in advance, sample swine fever virus, take a bath in the decontamination center on the same day, and enter the 65° drying room for half an hour, You can only enter the dormitory of the pig farm after taking a bath for the second time, and you have to wash once before entering the production area the next day, and each link is strictly supervised."

The company has also developed a high-temperature drying and disinfection system to act as "double insurance" to block workers from carrying the virus. But it is not all bad; there are treadmills, table tennis, and billiards to entertain the employees. And, "in order to improve the happiness of pig raising employees, the company has tried to let employees come out of the pig farm once a week."

The pigs go through a similar routine. French pigs were imported and delivered in fully sealed trucks and decontaminated on the first three floors. Then the breeding pigs have their own sealed area on the 3rd to 7th floors. The planned output is 600,000 pigs per year. They say it will be far more environmentally friendly than conventional pig farming, with all the pig waste being fed into anaerobic digesters and converted into biogas, used to heat the building and generate electricity.

According to The Guardian, we are going to see a lot more of this, with 64 multistory pig farms in Sichuan province alone. This raises another major concern for Treehugger types: that this is being driven by the concrete industry.

Baidu noted that Zhuge Wenda's Hubei Century Xinfeng Cement Plant cranks out 5 million tons of cement every year, and the area is an important limestone mining center. Cement output was down 15% due to the real estate crash and the pandemic—hence the pivot to pigs. Unfortunately, since making a ton of cement produces over half a ton of carbon dioxide, building these pork palaces are going to have a massive carbon impact.

Just like the old line about pig farmers using everything but the squeal, the cement plant's waste heat is being used to heat water that "passes into the pig breeding building to provide heat for the pigs, allowing the pigs to drink hot water, take hot baths, and use it as floor heating in the building." It's an integrated business, cement and pork. Unfortunately, we need less of both.

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  1. You, Shibing, et al. “African Swine Fever Outbreaks in China Led to Gross Domestic Product and Economic Losses.” Nature Food, vol. 2, no. 10, 2021, pp. 802–808., doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00362-1