Given the planned purchase of U.S.-based Smithfield, the world’s largest producer of pork, by China-based agribusiness Shuanghui, an exploration of the ecological impacts of China’s fast-expanding meat production and consumption is in order.
More Than Just Cars and Factories
It has long been known that China suffers from serious environmental challenges. The relationship between livestock agriculture and environmental pollution is nothing new, either. But a report released on April 10th, 2013, by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Rural Development Institute, the China Rural Economic Situation Analysis and Forecast (2013) stated that in 2012, the pressure of agricultural environmental pollution continued to increase and large-scale livestock and poultry pollution had become the biggest agricultural source of pollution in China.
The report stated that increased pressure comes from the modernization of agriculture as well as agricultural inputs, which lead to both environment pollution and food safety problems. Among these, livestock pollution is the biggest source of pollution in agricultural production. According to the general survey of pollution sources dynamically updated data, in 2010 chemical oxygen demand and ammonia emissions from China’s livestock and poultry breeding industries reached 11.84 million tons and 65 million tons respectively, accounting for 45 percent and 25 percent of national emissions, respectively. Chemical oxygen demand and ammonia emissions from the national livestock and poultry breeding industries accounted for 95 percent and 79 percent of agricultural emissions by source, and thus, large-scale livestock and poultry breeding has become the biggest source of agricultural pollution.
The report also stated that in 2012, pollution prevention and control of livestock and poultry farms have been included in “Liu Chang, Yi Che” operations, (loosely translated as “Six Fields, One Car”). These are a categorization of Chinese operations that generate heavy emissions, namely thermal power plants, steel mills, cement factories, paper mills, municipal waste water treatment plants, livestock and poultry farms, and motor vehicles, and are the focus for major pollutant reduction by the Chinese government.
Meat Consumption Trend: Increase vs. Decline
At the beginning of this year, marketing and communications consulting firm, J.Walter Thompson, identified global food and beverage trends to watch in 2013. “Faux” meat, humane food, vegan baby food, and allergen-free foods topped the list of most popular choices. In the U.S., for the first time in history, per-capita meat consumption has declined for four consecutive years, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This change has occurred because consumers are becoming more aware of the health, environmental, and social impacts that each and every personal choice can bring to the world.
Additionally, it has become increasingly evident that the so-called efficient industrial model of animal agriculture has brought with it more and more significant environmental and social costs in developed countries such as the U.S.
In China, ever since the floating dead pigs near Shanghai incident earlier this year, the outbreak of avian flu H7N9, and rat meat adulteration, more Chinese have started replacing animal foods with plant-based foods. At However, over the past ten years, consumption of China’s most popular meat, pork, has doubled. It is estimated that more than a quarter of all the meat produced worldwide is eaten in China. China has also become the biggest importer of soy feed from Brazil, one of the drivers of deforestation in the Amazon. Though China has just 10 percent of the Earth’s land and 6 percent of its water resources, it is the world’s largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. The growing adoption of diets high in saturated fats, sugar, and salts, is contributing to epidemics of obesity and diabetes among the Chinese adults and children. Almost 40 percent of China’s population are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization. With at least 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions coming from the global livestock sector, China’s booming livestock industry contributes to the country’s rank as the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitting country. In addition, water pollution from livestock operations can be seen throughout China, perhaps most clearly in the Pearl River Delta. Guangzhou, a major city in the region, has in recent decades become the world’s factory. Industrial pig facilities have sprung up to supply factory cafeterias and consumers.
Currently, livestock and poultry production is the pillar industry of China’s agricultural sector. In 2012, national annual output had reached more than 79 million tons of meat, 27 million tons of eggs, and 38 million tons of dairy. According to estimates, a pig farm with an annual output of 100,000 pigs emits 148 kilograms of ammonia, 13.5 kilograms of hydrogen sulphide, 24 kilograms of dust, and 1.4 billion bacterial microbes into the atmosphere, every hour. Furthermore, the radius of contamination of these pollutants can reach up to 5 kilometers, while dust and disease-spreading microbes can reach up to 30 kilometers, when dispersed by wind.
The government’s proposed solution is to intensify large-scale livestock and poultry farming by integrating small scale farms, in order to reduce the chemical oxygen demand (COD) and to increase the ammonia reduction capacity. Even though these pollution control projects may decrease overall greenhouse gas emissions, the real impact in effectively decreasing these gases is questionable, not to mention incomplete because of heavy pollution to underground water, deforestation, and other irreversible factors that seem to have been completely overlooked.
Fact: Large-scale livestock and poultry pollution are the biggest agricultural sources of pollution in China. And although the Chinese government is waking up to the devastating costs of the industrialized livestock and poultry farming systems and their long-term damage, maybe it’s time to look into alternative food production systems to minimize or replace animal farming and other holistic solutions, which take into consideration all aspects of people’s and the planet’s health. The recent Gates Notes: The Future of Food (and similar projects, such as Like Meat, a 2 year R+D project that is being funded by the EC’s Seventh Framework Program under the specific program Capacities – Research for SMEs) is definitely a good place to start and an excellent source of inspiration to lead China into a healthier, greener future.
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