By Zhuang Pinghui
The prolonged drought in the southwest is threatening regions responsible for over 80 per cent of the world's production of star anise, source of a key ingredient in the flu-fighting antiviral drug Tamiflu.
Guangxi and Yunnan , two of the provinces hit hardest by the once-in-a-century drought, have forecast dramatic falls in star anise production and corresponding price increases.
Star anise, called bat gok in Cantonese and ba jiao in Putonghua, is a common cooking spice in northern cuisine and also a key raw material used to produce Tamiflu, one of two antiviral drugs recommended by the World Health Organisation last year to treat patients infected with swine flu. Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant that makes Tamiflu, buys huge amounts of star anise from China to extract shikimic acid, the active ingredient in the drug.
Industry insiders say the two provinces account for more than 90 per cent of China's star anise production.
In Guangxi, the nation's biggest star anise grower with 350,000 hectares of farmland devoted to the tree and an annual output of 80,000 tonnes, months of drought have disturbed the growing cycles, leaving many trees unable to produce flowers or fruits.
Yang Wende, president of Guangxi 's Star Anise Association, the province's biggest star anise farmers' union, said at least 30 per cent of trees had been affected by the drought.
'We have had no rain for more than six months. Few trees have grown fruit and some bloomed but soon wilted because of the water shortage,' he said. 'They will be hard- pressed to survive until the harvest season.'
Yang, who farms 200 hectares of star anise himself, said more than 2,000 individual members of his association and 36 corporate members had poor harvest prospects this year. Star anise is usually harvested in March and October.
'Last year was a small year and this year was supposed to be a big year,' Yang said. 'But who could have imagined such a severe drought? Some shoots we planted would not even grow.'
Yunnan, which accounts for around 5 per cent of the country's star anise production, seems to be faring even worse. Huang Yubo, deputy director of the Star Anise Research Institute in Funing county, where 80 per cent of the province's star anise is grown, said all 26,700 hectares of trees had been affected and losses of at least 31.16 million yuan (HK$35.43 million) were forecast.
He said production was expected to fall by 30 per cent. A Xinhua report quoted a supplier of traditional Chinese medicines as saying that star anise fruits had fallen from half the trees in some parts of Yunnan.
Swine flu had killed at least 16,455 people in 213 countries and regions by last month and the World Health Organisation says it is still too early to say the pandemic's peak has passed.
The Ministry of Health says cluster outbreaks are still possible in some areas and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is remaining alert.
Huang said star anise prices had fluctuated a bit this month but he expected them to soar when dealers began visiting production areas around June. The price climbed to more than 50 yuan per kilogram in 2000 after a severe drought. Dealers were able to buy dried star anise for only seven yuan per kilogram until last April, but the price had risen to around 24 yuan as the global swine flu outbreak prompted countries to store Tamiflu for prevention and treatment.
Mainland pharmaceutical companies are also strong buyers. In Kunming markets, the dried fruit sells for almost 50 yuan per kilogram.
Price rises were almost certain, Huang said, with farmers' stockpiles low because of the fierce demand last year due to the fears over swine flu.
A spokesman for Roche China said the company had not received any reports about shortages of star anise that would affect the production of Tamiflu.
In 2005, a temporary shortage of star anise led to worries about Tamiflu production.
Late that year, a way was found to making shikimic acid artificially by deriving some of the raw material needed from fermenting E. coli bacteria, but most of the company's shikimic acid still comes from star anise produced in China.