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China Gobbles the World

Meat consumption is skyrocketing in China – and that's bad news for the environment

When the world’s biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, was bought by China’s largest pork company last year, early coverage provoked fears of putting US hogs in the hands of foreigners.

However, in time the deal may come to be seen as symptomatic of something much more troubling: the meatification of Asian diets and the spread of the environmental disaster that is American-style industrial farming.

Chinese pig farmerphoto by by ILRI, on FlickrChinese pig farmer.

The speed of the growth in meat consumption in China during the past three decades is staggering. While the amount of meat eaten per person annually in China remains around half the US equivalent, it still managed to jump from 4 kilograms to 61 kilograms between 1961 and 2010.

And with a population roughly one billion persons larger than the US, this translates into a lot of meat. One-third of the world’s meat, to be precise, is produced in China. And China alone consumes half of the world’s pork.

As its meat production and consumption has risen, China has looked enviously at the US, not just in terms of its large-scale commercial pig, poultry and beef rearing systems, but also its comparative abundance of resources.

With not-so-distant memories of famine, China has long been wedded to self-sufficiency in key food staples, including meat. Yet, as Chinese officials recently admitted, such a policy is unsustainable. Its water availability per capita is around 2,000 cubic metres (cm) compared to 9,000 cm in the US. China’s per capita arable land availability is about one-quarter of the average for developed countries.

There just aren't enough resources in China to produce such large quantities of meat.

And what resources it does have are rapidly being degraded by livestock production. Livestock is the main source of both soil and water pollution, according to data released by the government.  Animal feed production is leading to severe soil degradation and water shortages in the North China Plain  –  the most important agricultural region in the country.

For a solution, China has looked West – to Brazil, to offshore some of the resource strain by importing its oilseeds to feed livestock, and to the US for expertise on how to intensify production and control environmental and public health problems.

As a recent report on China’s food system points out, Chinese officials believe that fewer, larger, and generally confined systems of production may be easier to regulate, allow better control or use of waste, and management of animal health and disease. This means less backyard pigs reared on food waste and more specialised and commercial pigs reared on grains and other human food crops.

A separate report by the US-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), published last month, disagrees. Replicating a US model of meat production, it says, will bring unmanageable levels of pollution, further water stress, and a rise in antibiotic resistance.

Already nearly 50 percent of antibiotics in China are used by the livestock sector. In comparison, the figure is thought to be closer to 80 percent in the US, where intensive farming practices, in which large amounts of antibiotics are used to prevent disease, are more entrenched.

On top of this, the IATP report goes on to warn, promoting higher levels of meat production and consumption is likely to worsen existing health problems in China. Earlier this year, the China Center for Disease Control said nearly 28 percent of Chinese eat more than 100 grams of meat a day, far in excess of the daily recommended maximum.

Diets high in processed meats have already been linked to an emerging epidemic of diabetes in China, with half of the population showing a prevalence of pre-diabetes and 11 percent already diabetic (up from 1 percent in 1980).

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental NGO, said intensive farming was putting pressure on ecologically fragile regions in China and that the country needed to avoid the excessive levels of meat consumption seen in the US.

Forrest Zhang, an associate professor at Singapore Management University and who has studied agribusiness in China, said small scale livestock farming was not a major source of pollution, with much of the waste recycled on farm. “From what I’ve seen in China once you scale up livestock farming into confined feeding lots, like in the US, that’s when it becomes a major pollution problem.”

Jiang Gaoming, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, agreed. “I have visited many meat production farms in China and pollution is very serious. They also use a lot of water, especially large-scale producers and will not put the environment before profit. Copying the American model blindly will not help China.” 

The purchase of Smithfield Foods could enable increased imports of meat, allowing China to offshore its resource constraints and pollution. Perhaps more significantly, though, it points to the growing strength of Chinese agribusiness. Industrial agriculture has gone global. And with it an ever-growing share of the world’s resources is being given over to producing ever-greater quantities of meat.

In China itself, agribusiness is already a political force and significant block on any hope of a switch to more sustainable forms of livestock farming and lower meat-based diets. Shefali Sharma, co-author of the IATP report, calls it a “symbiotic relationship”, with, for example, many agribusiness leaders serving as representatives in the National People's Congress (China’s parliament).

As Jeff Zhou, the China representative of the campaign group, Compassion in World Farming, says: “I think at a governmental level – the think tanks and officials – are aware of the environmental costs, but still the priority is to feed the people. They [agribusinesses] have been leading the development of the industry for many years and are considered as successful models by other followers, as well as the government.”

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