TOPICS > World

Food for 9 Billion: Satisfying China’s Growing Demand for Meat

November 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As China's economy has grown, the way of life for many Chinese has changed, especially diet. Per capita, consumption of meat has quadrupled in China over the last 30 years. PRI's The World correspondent Mary Kay Magistad reports on how China is dealing with this growing demand.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

MARY KAY MAGISTAD, PRI’s “The World”: China’s people are on the move, from the countryside to the city. Hundreds of millions are coming in search of a better life in the biggest migration in human history.

More than half of China’s 1.3 billion people now live in cities. In 20 years, it may be two-thirds. As China’s economy has grown, it has transformed lives and diets. And that’s especially true when it comes to meat.

This is Ms. Xiong, a Beijing meat seller. She grew up in a village in one of China’s poorest provinces.

MS. XIONG, Meat Seller (through translator): When I was young, my family could only afford to have pork once or twice a year. We were poor and our clothes were covered with patches.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: She says things got better when the family started raising pigs, instead of just working in the fields.

Over the past 30 years in China, meat consumption per capita has quadrupled, and city dwellers eat twice as much meat on average as those back in the countryside.

Pork reigns supreme. China both produces and consumes about half the world’s pork. And that increase isn’t just about appetite. It’s about aspiration, says CornellUniversity’s Mindi Schneider.

MINDI SCHNEIDER,CornellUniversity: Now that many people who have the income to do so can buy meat every day if they want to, there’s this idea that they’re eating meat in revenge. And it’s the revenge against the past of sort of poverty and scarcity and what felt like struggle. And it symbolizes progression.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: But this is creating a huge challenge for the Chinese government. China has almost a fifth of the world’s population. But it has just 9 percent of the Earth’s arable land and a chronic shortage of water. Both are needed to raise and feed livestock.

So how to provide so much meat and dairy to so many people? One answer, modernize. These cows at China Modern Dairy get music piped in while they get milked on carousels. This year, as many as 100,000 cows will be shipped to China from Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay and passed into a facilities like this.

And these pigs live snout by jowl in enclosed buildings where visitors are only allowed to view them remotely to prevent the spreading of disease. They belong to the Chuying company, a major player in China’s industrialized farming boom.

Chuying’s vice president is Wu Yide:

WU YIDE, Chuying Agro-Pastoral Company (through translator): This large-scale way of raising livestock is becoming the world’s standard. In order for China to raise our standards and meat demand, our entire system needs to be upgraded. It’s inevitable.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: And one of the government’s top priorities is ensuring it can meet that demand, says Jim Harkness, head of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.

JIM HARKNESS, Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy: In America we have our Strategic Petroleum Reserve. China actually has a strategic pork reserve. And I was there once when they sort of: Release the pigs. They released a tremendous amount of pork on to the market because the government was concerned about prices going up.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Drought, disease and rising feed prices have periodically sent pork prices in China soaring. Rising prices can drive inflation. And inflation can lead to discontent.

But keeping those pigs fed can come at a steep environmental cost. Sun Jing’s family has farmed here in the northern China plain for generations. In his own lifetime, he says he’s seen the water table plummet.

SUN JING, farmer (through translator): The level of the water underneath is getting lower and lower; 300 meters? You won’t find water. We have to dig deeper and deeper now, up to 500 meters.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Five hundred meters deep, that’s more than 1,600 feet. Because of its shortage of water, China now imports 70 percent of its soybeans and increasing amounts of its corn from the United States, Brazil and Argentina. Intensified farming is also causing other water problems.

MINDI SCHNEIDER: Agriculture is the number one water polluter in China. And part of that is from fertilizer and pesticide runoff from crop fields. But the number one source of water pollution in China today is manure. And that is coming from all of these industrial livestock production systems.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Manure releases nitrogen and phosphorous into waterways and causes toxic blue-green algae blooms, blooms like this one on Anhui Province’s Chao Lake, China’s fifth largest.

Fisherman Miao Lingshen says his profits and the number of fish in an average catch have dropped by half since the algae started to appear on the lake each summer.

MIAO LINGSHEN, Chinese fisherman (through translator): If it gets any worse, we will need to ask the government to give us money because we won’t be able to make enough money to live.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Miao says he might have to sell his boat and become a migrant worker, something he doesn’t want to do.

MIAO LINGSHEN (through translator): Of course not. My home is here. My family is here. Why would I want to leave?

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Perhaps to get safe drinking water. Miao says every fishing boat here has a kit to treat the water so fishermen can drink it. Even then, it stinks.

MIAO LINGSHEN (through translator): If the water touches your skin, it burns you. I’m not joking here. You immediately get a rash and an infection.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Across China, people are feeling the effects of the rapid ramping up of food production.

A wave of food safety scandals drove Shanghai resident Wu Heng to start a food safety blog early this year when he was still a graduate student. Within months, his blog was getting five million hits.

WU HENG, Chinese blogger (through translator): I created a map that shows the intensity and number of scandals by color. Those places with a high number of food scandals are marked with red. And those with a lower number are marked in blue.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: And over here, we have a butcher?

WU HENG: Yes.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: So what would you worry about when buying meat here?

WU HENG (through translator): If you want to buy work here, you have to make sure they haven’t put an additive in the feed called clenbuterol. Clenbuterol makes the pork leaner, and lean pork can be sold for higher prices.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Clenbuterol can cause heart attacks in humans and has been at the center of one major food scandal here.

Another was when middlemen watered down milk and added a toxic chemical called melamine to help pass protein tests. That made 300,000 people sick and killed infants.

Wu Heng says his government can and must do better to protect consumers. He acknowledges the government now seems to be trying and is even open to learning from the U.S. experience.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now has an office in Beijing and has done training for hundreds of Chinese companies, government inspectors and officials. Blogs and other social media have helped push food safety issues front and center, says FDA representative Chris Hickey.

CHRIS HICKEY, Food and Drug Administration: I think the blogosphere is one of the freest forms of speech in China. Having public attention paid to this issue is vitally important, I think, for any country that wants to have truly world-class system for food safety.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: The Chinese government now has 11 overlapping and overstretched agencies monitoring hundreds of thousands of food companies. The FDA says the government is relying too heavily on inspections and needs to focus more on prevention.

Chinese fed up with waiting for that to happen have started to find other ways to access safer food, like buy imported processed food, opening the market for companies like Hormel, or buy organic, organic produce, even organic pigs.

Pig farmer Wan Xi Qing says his pigs get room to roam and special feed. He says it costs more to raise organic pigs, but it’s worth it, because their pork goes at a premium. And who buys that pork?

WAN XI QING, Chinese pig farmer (through translator): Very rich people in Beijing, like members of private clubs, retired professors, military and government officials, mainly people with high disposable incomes.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: So there are boutique organic pigs for the elite, industrially raised pigs for masses, and a lingering question of what is the best way forward to feed China’s changing appetite safely and sustainably.

Jim Harkness has some ideas.

JIM HARKNESS: You have had an overall economic model that has focused on keeping workers’ wages down and keeping farmers’ incomes down.

And I think if you had better wages for workers, allowing them then to pay for better quality food, you would see the investments that are needed starting to flow into agriculture, so that you could grow food that is grown in ways that are more sustainable environmentally.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: The Yellow River lies at the heart of China’s most fertile region. Time and again, it has seen China’s farmers rise to the challenge of feeding evermore people.

But never before have so many Chinese people eaten so well and been so vocal in demanding both safe, affordable food and an environment worth living in.

China’s leaders will need to show creativity and balance to meet those demands. The Chinese people are watching to see that they do.