Whenever food policy analysts talk about meat consumption in the future and the environmental impact associated with it, the most fearful projections circle around China. While meat consumption is plateauing in many of the developed countries (though at unsustainably high levels), per capita consumption in emerging economies is rising, as it is associated with higher levels of wealth and socioeconomic well-being. India, at least, still has a large share of the population that is vegetarian, but there is no such tradition in China – and the production of the meat of choice – pork – is leaving its marks all over the country and even on distinct continents.
This Economist Christmas special goes into a tremendous amount of detail and gives a great analysis of the attitudes of the Chinese toward pork. If you don’t have time to read the entire piece, here are some tidbits that caught my eye:
- 500 million swine a year are slaughtered in China – this is around half of the global production.
- Since the 1970s, Chinese pig consumption has increased sevenfold. When previously, people would eat pork three times a year, it is now common to find it on the table three times a day.
- The average Chinese now eats around 39 kg of pork (around 1/3 of a pig) a year – while this doesn’t sound like that much, and these numbers clearly hide inequalities between the rich and the poor, thinking of these numbers in the absolute is still jarring considering their population numbers.
- Until the 1980s, 95% of pigs came from smallholdings, many of which used them as personal “recycling and manure factories”, feeding them kitchen scraps and using the manure in their fields. Today, only 20% come from such backyard farms. The rest is raised at industrial scale, with facilities producing up to 100,000 individual swine a year.
- Chatham House estimates that in 2012, the Chinese government subsidized pork production by $22 billion – that amounts to $47 per pig. Crazy!
- Since each kg of pork requires 6 kg of feed, Chinese pork production is projected to utilize almost half of the world’s feed crops (in particular, soy and corn). This way, the Chinese hunger for meat is a major contributor to land use changes in Latin America.
- Furthermore, the manure produced at industrial scale is also one of the main contributors to water and soil pollution in China, and the use of antibiotics in the production may contribute to superbugs that are antibiotics-resistant.
It is so disheartening to face this basic socioeconomic challenge head-on – how do you react? From my personal (vegetarian) perspective, I would love to argue that Chinese could express their rise in social status in other ways than a sizzling plate of Szechuan pork for dinner every night, but how fast can you change such cultural customs, and whose prerogative would it be to do so? In addition, who are we as Europeans and North Americans to tell Chinese what they may or may not eat, when considering the “foodprints” of our diets?
This problem of the interlinkage of development and the unfathomable environmental impacts of a general rise in living standards across the world is something that comes up time and again and is ignored just as often because it is so uncomfortable. Still, whether in Lima or in Paris, whether in relation to greenhouse emissions or to pork consumption, at some point we have to talk about whether it is possible to consume at the level we do for the foreseeable future – and that discussion ain’t gonna be pretty.
Find the entire (well-written) article here.
What do you think about the level of meat consumption in your home country?