If you are British, you know all about Chinese pork dishes. They are delicious. Not surprisingly, pork consumption in China is growing, for the Chinese also like pork a lot.
But it’s not just the Chinese increasing their meat consumption; it happens wherever wealth is created.
In 1961, the average global citizen consumed 93 grams of meat daily.
Meeting this demand required 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—more than double the number of people eating nearly double the meat quota.
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 consumption in China to illustrate the speed and magnitude of change.
Pork consumption in China
I’m on my favourite food app and order a 72 and 43, please, sweet and sour pork and Special fried rice. Delicious.
While my order from the local Chinese comes to me via Uber Eats, 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.
If only I knew what the sugars were doing to my mitochondria.
Whilst no self-respecting Chinese person would eat such a tragedy offered by a British takeaway, they eat a lot of 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, consumers in China devour roughly 54 million tons of pork annually, the highest total worldwide. No surprise given the size of the population, but the per capita consumption has also grown steadily since the early 1980s.
When I was born in 1961, per capita pork consumption in China was roughly 5kg per year, whereas by 2000, it was over 30 kg per annum. After a decline in the 2010s to a low of 23 kg in 2020, primarily due to an outbreak of African Swine Fever in China in 2018 and 2019 that killed over 130 million pigs, another increase is predicted to 30 kg per annum by 2026.
Security of pork supply
Chinese companies have met the demand for pork consumption in China by increasing domestic production and acquiring foreign capacity.
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. Reserve capacity comes 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.
Food security is not just about calories. Nutrition matters too, but the real reason for food reserves is to buffer against the effects of higher food prices that typically 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.
The purchase of overseas production capacity and maintenance of stockpiles has happened alongside growth in local pork production in China.
Maintaining local pork supply
Pork production is increasingly intensive.
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 more affordable than ever and sold to 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
Chinese farmers raised hundreds of pig breeds with different sizes and attributes, adapted to local climates and diseases.
Animals from these breeds could be fed leftovers and generate rich fertiliser for the fields. The regenerative, internal cycling of nutrients was vital to agricultural production in rural areas.
The small-scale and holistic production works well for the smallholding but fails to complete with the economies of scale from the industrial processes.
Ideal pigs reared to a uniform size in factory farms make for tough competition in urban markets.
Not every pig needs to be the same size, shape, colour and breed.
Is future pork production sustainable?
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 the African swine fever outbreak, but projected to return to this output.
Intensification stabilises the market, increases profit and creates a near-perpetual demand curve. However, the likelihood of sustainable food production under these conditions decreases with every technological input.
High production at low prices meets but also creates demand.
The challenge for feeding everyone well is to balance several factors affecting supply and demand, each with its values and advocates. Four of these are tough to balance together
- 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
- the long-term capability of producing food under these conditions.
Maintaining future production becomes less and less likely when this balance becomes unstable.
Technology can increase production at the cost of greater energy and nutrient inputs, but at scale, this can still keep prices low.
Intensive production makes yield dependent on inputs and reduces resilience to disease outbreaks or supply chain disruption. Pork consumption in China has already been affected by both of these outcomes, with swine fever and COVID-19 supply chain disruption affecting supply.
Pork production is sustainable if these dependencies hold but not if they fail.
Be sure that the Chinese government knows all about this risk.
What sustainably FED suggests
The growth in pork production in China is a success story.
Production of pork has increased, and the cost of pork meat has fallen as disposable income has risen. More and more people have access to high-quality protein at affordable prices.
But this is only the start.
China has created a massive demand for pork from a growing population and a maturing economy, giving everyday people more buying power. People spend some of that money on better food for their families.
What happens next?
More and more pigs—until the inputs fail.