What will it take to meet China’s growing demand for pork?

Sensemaking / What will it take to meet China’s growing demand for pork?

China's appetite for meat, and especially pork, is growing, and seems insatiable. But what are the sustainability consequences of this trend?

By Laura Picot / 03 Jun 2015

Pork consumption in China has increased sevenfold since the late 1970s, when the Government under Deng Xiaoping liberalised agriculture, dividing the commons into private plots and enabling farmers to keep the output of their land, driving up standards of living. The increase in pork demand has mirrored the country’s rapid economic rise and recent growth of the middle class: more people can afford meat. The nation now consumes over 500 million pigs annually, equal to approximately half the pigs in the world. Pork has been a cornerstone of Chinese cuisine for millennia. In Mandarin, “meat” and “pork” are the same word, but up until as late as the 1990s, most people could only afford it rarely.

The average Chinese citizen now eats 39kg of pork each year, approximately 17kg more per capita than in the US, where beef is preferred. Overall, daily meat consumption is now 160g (up 130% since 1990), compared to 322g in the US. Consumption is expected to increase at the fastest rate of any country by 2021, over four times that of the next fastest-growing consumer, Brazil. Pork consumed in China is mostly from domestic pigs (as opposed to imports), 80% of which are now raised on industrial farms owned by the state or by multinationals. Lack of genetic diversity and disease resistance in industrial pigs is a major issue, as over 95% are comprised of just three foreign breeds. Large quantities of antibiotics are commonly used to keep the livestock healthy, although this is not always successful; for example, 45 million pigs died in 2007 from “blue ear pig disease”.

The pork industry has a huge economic impact in China, where the Government controls the world’s first pork reserve (comprising both frozen meat and state-controlled live pigs) which they use to stabilise prices. Moreover, the state heavily subsidises pork production; it spent $22 million in 2012 alone, according to Chatham House. While China’s pigs are domestic, their diet is not. Pork production relies on imported feed, mostly soy and corn. Total soybean imports have grown from $75 million worth in 1995 to $38 billion in 2013 and China now imports over 50% of the global market. Mindi Schneider, of the International Institute of Social Studies, estimates that more than half of the world’s feed crops will soon be consumed by Chinese pigs. Land use in export nations has been greatly affected by feed production and thousands of hectares of forest and rainforest have been clear to grow the crops. In Argentina, where almost all soy grown is exported to China, the area used for soy production has quadrupled since 1990, and 25 million hectares are used in Brazil.

Reliance on foreign imports is a potential food security risk, so the Chinese state and companies are buying land abroad to grow feed or raise pigs for the Chinese market. The International Institute for Sustainable Development estimates that 5 million hectares of land in developing countries have been purchased so far. China’s increase in demand for meat will predominantly be made up of higher pork consumption and this will have a considerable effect on climate change. Although pigs produce less greenhouse gas emissions than cows, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from waste will be significant. Livestock waste is also the main source of water and soil pollution in China and improper disposal and dumping of manure and diseased carcasses have caused disease outbreaks in recent years, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Meat consumption in China is beginning to plateau among the very rich, and the percentage of vegetarians is rising. In 2013, approximately 4-5% of the Chinese population (over 50 million people) were vegetarian, according to Public Radio International, comparable to the 5% of the US population. In a study by Chatham House, respondents from China (alongside those from Brazil and India) were among the most accepting of anthropogenic climate change, most likely to consider climate change in their food choices, and most willing to modify their consumption behaviour. Overall, however, it seems unlikely that this will significantly influence China’s rapidly rising demand for pork.

Photo credit: Harvey Barrison / Flickr

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