In the last two decades China has been transformed from a predominantly vegetarian society to a society that is responsible for consumption of one-fourth of the world’s meat supply. This transformation is the result of several factors, including China’s rising discretionary income, the global food trade, meat’s long held status of social elitism, and the rapid spread of Western-style fast food, including McDonald’s locations.
But as a result, China is facing a huge challenge. It’s one that’s unlikely to be on the agenda this week as China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition takes place. It lacks the physical space required to sustain a high meat diet. China’s per capita volume of arable land is the lowest in the world, at only fourteen percent, and the amount of land needed to produce the grain to sustain a meat-based diet is three to seven times higher than the land needed to sustain a plant-based diet.
China, although traditionally self-sufficient in food despite its huge population, the world’s largest, has turned to feed and meat imports for the first time in decades. This comes at a high cost, however, as China’s dependence on foreign imports contribute to price spikes for commodities like corn and soy.
Furthermore, China has turned to increasingly controversial global land deals to overcome its lack of arable cropland and to meet domestic demand for livestock feed. The country is eyeing new sources for feed across the globe, recently forming an agreement with Ukraine’s largest agri-business. And the former head of China’s Tyson Meats suggests China look to the fallow lands of the United States and Brazil as viable prospects for land for feed growth.
Scientists note that this strained demand for animal products and the required cropland is a path to global crises. Chinese agricultural expert and dean of Renmin Agricultural University, Wen Tiejun, asserts, “It’s not possible to feed everyone so much meat.” A recent Stockhold International Water Institute report warns that a worldwide predominantly vegan diet must be reached by 2050 to curb global food and water shortage crises. These are only two examples of many.
Agribusiness has spoken and experts have spoken, but who will the world listen to? As the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization projects a significant rise in meat consumption by seventy-three percent in the next forty years, will policy-makers heed expert warnings and overturn this projection, or is China’s current path a forecast for what’s to come the world over?
Photo courtesy Xie Zheng