The economics behind dead pig sales in China

In her article for FP today, Laurie Garrett wonders whether thousands of dead pigs washing up in Shanghai's rivers and two Chinese citizens dying of a new flu strain are early symptoms of the next big pandemic. What's more, she writes, the potentially contaminated pork has already entered the Chinese food supply. "On March 25," Garrett notes, "Chinese authorities seized manufactured pork buns that were found to be made from Zhejiang pigs that had died of the mysterious ailment."

The prevalence of dicey food products -- including dead, diseased, or otherwise dodgy pork -- has long been an issue in China. But the recent tide of dead hogs sweeping through Shanghai -- said to partially stem from a crackdown by authorities on the dead-pig trade -- has produced some fascinating reporting that gives us a more detailed look at the economics driving China's market for illegal pig meat.

It's pretty straightforward: farmers who can't send a pig to be butchered once it has died don't want to totally write off their investments -- not when there's a chance to still make some of the money back. But according to recent reports, Chinese authorities have some policies in place that aren't exactly making the problem better.

According to this report, from the Oriental Morning Post, a 100-kilogram (roughly 220-pound) pig sells for about 600 yuan ($100) -- still a hefty sum in rural China. Feed costs total at least 150 yuan ($25).

Since July 2011, the central government has had a policy in place to pay some farms -- those that raise more than 50 pigs a year -- compensation of 80 yuan ($13) for every dead pig, according to the South China Morning Post. But 89 percent of the pigs raised in the city of Jiaxing -- thought to be the main source of the hogs that wound up in Shanghai's Huangpu river -- come from small farms, according to the report, and don't qualify. Even those that do often don't see the money.

To make matters worse, this thorough Shanghai Daily primer on the illegal pig trade says farmers in Zhejiang province were supposed to pay 50 yuan ($8) per carcass to so-called "dead pig collectors" hired by the local government who would then dispose of the carcass. Not surprisingly, most farmers opted not to pay this fee when illegal pig traders were around who were happy to pay 1 yuan per 500 grams of pig flesh. The result? Jiaxing pig collector Lu Gensong told Shanghai Daily he didn't collect a single carcass between 2009 and 2012. ("You Shanghai residents just don't realize how many dead pigs you have eaten before," one restaurant owner told Xinhua.) 

And those illegal pork butchers? They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves -- perhaps well enough to pay even more than they're already shelling out for dead pig flesh if necessary. A CCTV investigation into the dead pig trade found that three butchers -- sentenced to life in prison last November -- had processed 77,000 carcasses, making almost 9 million yuan ($1.5 million) in profit.

If you're wondering why you'd pay to have your pig carcasses disposed of when you can be paid for them instead, well --it seems some farmers in Zhejiang province have been wondering the same thing.

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How fast can North Korea 'restart' its nuclear plant?

On Tuesday, North Korea vowed to restart a nuclear reactor capable of making one bomb's worth of plutonium per year in an act of brinksmanship even China called "regretful." But the Yongbyon reactor, a Soviet-era relic that has been idle for six years, is no spring chicken. Is it even operable? How much of a fixer-upper is it? Experts who've studied satellite imagery and visited the Yongbyon site's facilities disagree on the timetable for getting the reactor up and running (some say six months, others say longer than a year). But these are the major factors:

A New Cooling Plant

The Yongbyon reactor was originally shut down in a disarmament-for-aid deal with the United States in 2007, which preceded the complete dismantling of the cooling tower in 2008 (See GIF). It's believed that North Koreans extracted enough plutonium before the reactor was shuttered for six to eight bombs. But to bring the reactor back online, a functioning cooling system is a must, says Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "A new cooling tower or an alternative cooling system would have to be built and a fresh fuel load would have to be prepared by resizing and cladding a stash of fuel rods that were prepared many years ago for a different reactor project," Fitzpatrick writes in a new essay. It's always conceivable that North Korea has been working on fuel rods in secret, but it's unlikely that it built a cooling system without notice (the prying eyes of spy satellites tend to pick up on that sort of thing).


One reason North Korea's announcement is a big deal is that bringing the plant back online now gives the country two sources of fuel for atomic weapons: highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Unfortunately, when it comes to uranium, it won't take long for the country to kickstart its enrichment process, according to Siegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation who visited the Yongbyon facility in 2010. "The uranium enrichment facilities could be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium  (HEU) bomb fuel," he wrote at the time. "North Korea could produce up to 2 tonnes of LEU [low-enriched uranium] or, if the cascades are reconfigured, up to 40 kg HEU [highly-enriched uranium."


Before it was shut down, the Yongbyon reactor was a primary source of plutonium bomb fuel for the country. It's unclear why North Korea de-prioritized its plutonium program relative to its uranium program, but it may be because certain types of uranium bombs are easier to construct. In any case, now that it's been shut down for years, you can't just flip the switch back on and start churning out plutonium. As Hecker discovered, no new fuel had been produced since 1994 and the 5 MWe reactor hadn't been restarted since July 2007. "My assessment is that they could resume all plutonium operations within approximately six months and make one bomb's worth of plutonium per year for some time to come," he wrote. Fitzpatrick agrees. "His judgement that six months would be required for re-start is probably still correct."

The Unknown

When you're dealing with secretive, U.N.-defying regimes, there's always an X factor. In this case, no one knows what North Korea might be hiding. One of the key differences between plutonium and uranium is that uranium enrichment facilities are easier to conceal. If North Koreans have been secretly enriching uranium, it would throw off everyone's timetables, as Hecker notes. "The greatest concern is that a facility of equal or greater capacity, configured to produce HEU exists somewhere else," he writes. "Such a facility would be difficult to detect as demonstrated by the fact that this facility was undetected in the middle of the Yongbyon fuel fabrication site." On the other hand, we could also be over-estimating the regime. As Reuters notes, it's not even clear that Yongbyon is connected to the country's "antiquated electricity grid at all." So it could go either way, which is a frustrating conclusion, but that's why they call the DPRK "one of the most isolated and unpredictable states in the world."