Skillful Means: The Report on China and Meat-Eating: 2008

Skillful Means: The Report on China and Meat-Eating: 2008

Breeding Sow in a Medium-Sized Farm, Eastern China (Picture: Peter Li/HSI/CIWF)

New York-based policy action tank Brighter Green’s new report, Skillful Means: The Challenges of China’s Encounter with Factory Farming (PDF) explores the emerging superpower’s “livestock revolution,” which is having serious impacts on public health, food security, and equity in China—and the world. The Beijing Summer Olympics are showcasing a resurgent nation, which only two generations after a devastating national famine is eating increasingly high on the food chain. In the past ten years, consumption of China’s most popular meat, pork, has doubled. In 2007, China raised well over half a billion pigs for meat.

Given that every fifth person in the world is Chinese, even small increases in individual meat or dairy consumption will have broad, collective environmental as well as climate impacts. Increasingly, what the Chinese eat, and how China produces its food, affects not only China, but the world, too.

“When I was a child, every person was allotted one pound of pork a month,” says Peter Li, a professor of political science at the University of Houston in Texas who grew up in Jiangxi province in southeast China says in Eating Skillfully. “We could not eat more than that. You could not get it. Now, though, more people have access to more meat and want to eat a lot of it.”

In yuan terms, meat is the second largest segment of China’s retail food market. China has also opened its doors to investments by major multinational meat and dairy producers, as well as animal feed corporations, including Tyson Foods, Smithfield, and Novus International. Western-style meat culture has gone mainstream. Fast food is a U.S. $28-billion-a-year business in China. McDonald’s, a major sponsor of the Olympics, had more than 800 restaurants in China, with at least a hundred more set to open by the time the games began. Four McDonald’s are operating in Olympic venues, including the press center and the athletes’ village.

“China is not yet a bone fida “factory farm nation” like the U.S.,” says Mia MacDonald, Brighter Green’s executive director and co-author of Skillful Means. “But the strains of its fast-growing livestock sector are becoming harder to ignore. In the U.S., a re-examination of the multiple human, environmental, economic, and ethical costs of factory farming is taking place. Such a process needs to get underway in China’before it’s too late.”

Although these realities won’t be fully obvious to the millions of people cheering on the Olympic athletes in China and across the globe, they demand attention:

  • China’s livestock produce 2.7 billion tons of manure every year, nearly three and a half times the industrial solid waste level. Run-off from livestock operations have created a large “dead zone” in the South China Sea that is virtually devoid of marine life.
  • In northern China, overgrazing and overfarming lead to the loss of nearly a million acres of grassland each year to desert.
  • Diet-related chronic diseases now kill more Chinese than any other cause, and nearly one in four Chinese is overweight.
  • More than 90 percent of some bacteria in Asia can no longer be treated effectively with “first-line” antibiotics like penicillin’due to their overuse in farmed animals.
  • China can still feed itself. But this is likely to change as its meat and dairy sectors expand and intensify. The Chinese government is looking abroad, not only to international food markets but also to Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia for land on which to produce food for people and feed for livestock.
  • In 2008, China surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2). Per capita emissions of CO2 in China have more than doubled, from 2.1 tons of CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 5.1 tons today. Meat and dairy production have a direct relationship with global climate change: fully 18 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stem from the livestock industry.

Even though the Chinese government seems set on emulating industrialized nations’ meat and dairy culture, a small but growing number of Chinese non-governmental organizations and individuals are questioning this path. To them food quality, not quantity, is important, along with issues of sustainability and animal welfare.

Eating Skillfully recommends the following actions to both the Chinese government and civil society:

  • The government ought to redefine its conception of short- and long-term food security so it doesn’t give priority to a meat-centered diet. Meat in China ought to be, as it was, a condiment and not the mainstay of a meal.
  • Government subsidies that now support the expansion of industrial-scale livestock operations, owned by Chinese or foreign companies, should be ended.
  • The “externalities” on which animal agriculture is dependent’such as riverine and marine water pollution, contamination of soil and groundwater, and land degradation’should be paid for, in full, by the industry and/or specific facilities that cause them.
  • Increased sharing of information and experiences of industrial animal agriculture should take place among policy-makers, academics, and civil society groups in China and other countries, both developing and developed.
  • A forum for dialogue between the government and China’s and global animal welfare, environment and other civil society organizations should be established.
  • The growing environmental movement in China ought to include the issue of intensive animal agriculture within its analysis, awareness-raising, and advocacy activities, and collaborate with civil society groups working on related issues.

Contact: Mia MacDonald, Brighter Green, New York, E-mail: (After August 26: Tel: (1) 917 202 2809).

Peter Li, University of Houston, Texas
Tel: (1) 832-647-6518. E-mail: