Chinese appetite for meat puts pressure on scarce resources

Staggering growth means China now produces a third of the world’s meat, and it hopes to increase production by using intensive farming methods commonly used in the US

By Tom Levitt  /  The Guardian

Thu, Mar 13, 2014 - Page 9

The scale of growth in China’s meat production over the past three decades is astonishing.

Today, one-third of the world’s meat is produced in the country and half of all pigs live there. While per capita annual consumption may still be below the US and Europe for now at least — China still managed to jump from 4kg to 61kg per person between 1961 and 2010.

Unlike the US, though, it must produce this meat with a comparative scarcity of resources. Its water availability per capita is around 2,000m3 compared with 9,000m3 in the US and per capita arable land availability is about one-quarter of the average for OECD countries.

Although China’s leadership has been wary of admitting it until recently, the country’s policy of self-sufficiency has become unsustainable. Huge increases in grain and meat production have not been enough to prevent a growing food trade deficit, which stood at US$31 billion in 2012, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The solution, outlined by officials recently, is to allow imports of commodities such as wheat and soybeans, freeing up land and water for a further intensification of domestic meat and dairy production.

However, China has already paid a high price for its rapid increases in meat production over the past three decades, with livestock now the main source of both soil and water pollution, according to data released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in January. Besides, intensive production of animal feed, in particular maize, has resulted in severe soil degradation and water shortages. Water tables in the North China Plain — the most critical agricultural region in the country — fell by 61 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to one study, which questioned the area’s future sustainability for farming.

Environmental officials have been pointing the finger of blame for pollution at large-scale farms, yet these same operations are expected to take over the vast majority of meat production within China over the next two decades. Also, as last year’s takeover of Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork producer, by Shuanghui International (recently renamed WH Group) confirmed, Chinese companies are keen to tap into US expertise to help them boost intensive meat production.

However, replicating the US model of meat production is likely to bring a host of new challenges, according to a recent report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). As well as the strain on resources, it also warns of a rise in antibiotic resistance (nearly 50 percent of antibiotics produced are already used by the livestock sector in China) and dietary-related diseases.

The adoption of Western diets high in meat and processed dairy has already been linked to an emerging epidemic of diabetes in China, with 50 percent of the population showing a prevalence of pre-diabetes and eleven percent already diabetic (up from 1 percent in 1980).

“Chinese policymakers see the US intensive pork production model as the solution to China’s food safety problems. Yet it is precisely this system of factory farming that has led to drastic environmental, public health and animal welfare problems in the US,” the report says.

“There are those that say China is just not cut out for the highly polluting US meat industry model which it seems to be embracing,” report co-author Shefali Sharma says.

Ma Jun (馬軍), director of the Institute of Environmental and Public Affairs (公眾環境研究中心), a Beijing-based green NGO, said intensive farming was putting pressure on ecologically fragile regions and that China was wrong to try to follow a Western model of excessive meat consumption.

“It can affect the environment and is not beneficial for human health. China should not model itself on Western countries and promote this kind of consumption,” Ma said.

Chinese Academy of Sciences (中國科學院) ecologist Jiang Gaoming (蔣高明) agrees: “Copying the American model blindly will not help China. I have visited many meat production farms in China. Pollution is very serious. They either don’t have sewage facilities at all or do not bother to use them. They also use a lot of water, especially large-scale producers, and will not put the environment before profit. There are many past lessons to be learned.”

However, the IATP report goes onto warn of a new and powerful agribusiness lobby in China, led by companies such as WH Group, blocking any restraints on the livestock sector.

Sharma said there was a “symbiotic relationship” between the meat industry and officials, which was likely to be giving so-called “dragon head enterprises” — powerful organizations at the top of the food production chain — which have been tasked with promoting new forms of intensive agriculture, a strong influence in policymaking.

“The government supports the formation and strengthening of dragon heads and the dragon heads support the policy direction China is heading, which is further consolidation and control of agribusiness over the food system,” she said.

Jeff Zhou (周尊國), the China representative of Compassion in World Farming (世界農場動物福利協會), agreed.

“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,” he said.

Tom Levitt is managing editor at Guardian Environment Network partner and Chinese environmental news site, Chinadialogue.