plate of chinese food

The staggering growth in pork consumption across China

China produces a lot of pork at prices citizens can afford. Supply and demand are fuelling each other into a massive sustainability challenge.

In 1961, the average global citizen consumed 93 grams of meat per day. 

Meeting this demand was the production of roughly 285,510 metric tonnes of meat per day, a hefty 104.2 million tonnes per year. 

In 2011 there were 7.04 billion people, up from 3.07 billion in 1961, and the global average Joe consumed 173 grams of meat per day — that’s more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota. 

infographic with two pig icons, one several times bigger than the other

Recently Alloporus looked at How much more meat are we eating? It is a lot and requires a vast appropriation of net primary production. Here we use pork in China to illustrate the speed and magnitude of change.


Pork consumption in China

I’m on my favourite food app and order a number 72 and a number 43 please, sweet and sour pork and Special fried rice. Delicious. 

While my order from the local Chinese scooters its way to me, I dream of the little delights of pork in the fried rice and those sickly sweet chunks of pork in their gooey, sugary coats of deep-fried loveliness. 

Whilst no self-respecting Chinese person would eat such a tragedy, they eat a lot more pork. 

Pork has been a big part of Chinese cuisine as far back as 7,000 BC, and by the 1900s, at least 70% of animal calorie intake in China came from pork.

Today, Chinese consumers devour roughly 54 million tons annually, the highest total worldwide Per capita consumption has grown steadily since the early 1980s.

graph of the rise in pigmenat per capita consumption in China

Chinese companies have met the demand by increasing domestic production and acquiring foreign capacity. 


Security of pork supply

In 2013, the WH Group (formerly known as Shuanghui International Holdings) brought the American pork producer Smithfield for $4.7 billion, then the largest acquisition of a U.S. company by a Chinese business. Smithfield Foods boasts more than 40,000 U.S. employees with nearly 50 facilities across the U.S. 

China is the only country with a pork reserve consisting of millions of live pigs and unaccountable tons of frozen pork. Capacity is kept in reserve from both domestic and foreign sources. 

In 2008 when the country experienced food price rises, the government drew on these pork reserves to stabilise the price. These structural effects are happening worldwide because higher food prices will always result in public discontent. Few governments want to risk destabilisation from the impact of food insecurity and will maintain food supply to stabilise food prices. 


Maintaining local pork supply 

The purchase of overseas production capacity has not slowed local pork production in China.

Local producers use artificial intelligence to build capacity with two-thirds of China’s pork production from large corporations using technological tools including computational genetics and biotechnology to breed pigs. Genetic control, automatic feeding, water dispensing systems, and strict exercise times mean pigs are farmed to a precise size, perfect for industrial farming.

What the pigs eat has become a combination of genetically modified soybeans, grains, protein powders, and sometimes treated food waste. The food waste can contain pork; the added protein powders are often derived from pigs. In other words, the pigs are being fed to pigs. 

This is a classic intensification of production. Simplifying the product, in this case genetically modified pigs, and making sure that the food components are as cheap as possible. 

The scale and efficiency of these systems are undeniable. Pork products are cheaper than ever and are sold to more and more consumers. What used to be a luxury is consumed by the majority.

The market sees this as a virtuous cycle.


Small scale production of pigs

In the recent past, Chinese farmers raised hundreds of pig breeds of different sizes and attributes, adapted to local climates and diseases. These breeds could be fed leftovers and generate rich fertiliser for the fields. The regenerative, internal cycling of nutrients was vital to the production in the rural areas. 

The small-scale and holistic production work well for the sustainability of the smallholding but fail to complete with the economies of scale from the industrial processes.  

headshot of a rare pig breed
Photo by Johnny Peterson on Unsplash

Not every pig needs to be the same size, shape, colour and breed.


Is future pork production sustainable?

Intensification stabilises the market, increases profit and creates a near-perpetual demand curve but the chance of producing food sustainably under these conditions decreases with every technological input. 

China has increased the volume and efficiency of local pig production, secured some foreign supplies, and stockpiled as much pork as possible. 

Production in 2020 was 41 million tonnes, down from 54 million tonnes in 2018, due to a major African swine fever outbreak in the country, which started in mid-2018 and lasted for over a year.

High production at low prices meets but also creates demand and brings the difficulty of maintaining supply.

The challenge then is to make the balance between 

  • technology providing the capacity
  • market pressures to produce food at low prices 
  • food security requirements of making sure that the prices don’t become too volatile and cause instability
  • long-term capability of producing food under these conditions. 

Those four components are tough to balance together. One element of the supply-demand balance is always pushing the other. 

Maintaining future production becomes less and less likely when this balance becomes unstable.


What sustainably FED suggests

The growth in pork production in China is a success story. 

More and more people have access to high-quality protein at affordable prices. The cost of pork meat has fallen as the disposable income has risen. 

But this is only the start.

China has created a huge demand for pork from a growing population and a maturing economy giving everyday people more buying power. People go on to spend some of that money on better food for their families.

What happens next? 

More and more pigs.


Hero image modified from photo by Hanxiao on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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