Flying cows: Australian cattle board 747 to China

Signal of change / Flying cows: Australian cattle board 747 to China

By Will Ingram / 16 Nov 2015

On October 21, 150 live cattle were flown from Australia to China for slaughter on a Boeing 747 cargo plane.

Crates containing the animals were placed on the plane’s cargo deck in Melbourne and delivered to the inland city of Chongqing, where the Chinese authorities found them all to be healthy.

Australia’s export to China comes three months after a free-trade agreement between the two nations. Breeding cattle have been air-freighted from Australia to China before, but this is the first shipment of cattle destined for the abattoir.

Cameron Hall from Elders Ltd., the Adelaide based company behind the import, points out that “If you’re sending them in by sea, then that limits you very much to the coastal areas.”

Regulations require imported live animals to be slaughtered within 90 kilometres of their point of entry to China, which has thus far restricted access to the interior.

The weight of the cattle’s meal and drink before take-off was limited to reduce cargo load, and any waste from the cows fell onto absorbent matting which was later discarded.

Image caption: Cattle cross the road in Queensland, Australia

Image credit: Marc Dalmulder / Flickr

So what?

This signals the massive shift in diet that China is undergoing. Rapid urbanisation and the rise of wealthy middle classes are allowing more Chinese to eat much more meat. 

China’s recently launched five-year plan for 2016-2020 outlines a proposed increase in imports of food and animal feed to help meet demand. If China’s dietary changes will be fed by imports, with a focus on resource-expensive beef, what does this mean for the sustainability of global protein? 

Once known as ‘millionaire’s meat’, beef is becoming a common meal. China will eat an extra 2.2 million tons of the meat a year by 2025. Demand has quadrupled beef prices since 2000 to around 10 dollars per kilogram, one of the world’s highest prices. China is smacking its lips in anticipation of the $60 billion-per-year beef industry the country is predicted to have.

Pork consumption (traditionally associated with China) in the country might have peaked already, and the proportion of total protein demand coming from pigs has fallen from 90% a few decades ago to less than 60% today

China’s agricultural imports reflect its relative scarcity of land resources: a result of massive urbanisation, degradation of soil and huge pollution and waste.

Australia’s land use is already heavily dominated by livestock grazing. By sourcing meat (and feed) from overseas, the Chinese diet looks set to become one of world’s major land-use drivers.

Could Australia’s beef industry become more like New Zealand’s massive milk industry, which has NZ$6.6 billion in investments from China, which imports the vast majority of its milk?

 “This is a good example of the mutually beneficial trading relationship Australia and China have built over many years”, says the Australian Minister for Agriculture.


Bloomberg Business (November 8, 2015) The real cattle class: cows fly to China on 747s

Australia’s Minister for Agriculture (October 21, 2015) Historic cattle consignment arrives in China

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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