The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore reports that China’s total meat consumption has quadrupled in the last 30 years to twice that of America. Experts fear that efforts to satisfy this appetite domestically will cause social and environmental problems, and help to fuel food scares as producers cut corners. Meanwhile, growing dependence on imports threatens to leave China hostage to unpredictable and potentially destabilising price shifts.
China’s dependence on foreign food has already helped to trigger a spike in the price of corn and soybeans, both of which are used for animal feed. After a summer drought in the US, prices rose above levels which triggered mass riots in 30 countries in 2008 and 2009.
[…] The average Chinese still only eats half the meat that his American counterpart does. But American and European meat consumption has started to fall, while it is still rising strongly in the developing world. Leading water scientists have also issued warnings recently that the world may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.
Aside from rising food prices at home, changes in China’s import patterns could cause serious disruption abroad. From The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher, in February 2011:
“China’s grain situation is critical to the rest of the world — if they are forced to go out on the market to procure adequate supplies for their population, it could send huge shock waves through the world’s grain markets,” said Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, in the Philippines.
[…] World wheat prices are already surging, and they have been widely cited as one reason for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. A separate United Nations report last week said global food export prices had reached record levels in January. The impact of China’s drought on global food prices and supplies could create serious problems for less affluent countries that rely on imported food.
Isabel Hilton examined another aspect of China’s overseas food footprint at chinadialogue in July, noting environmental concerns about the American factory farming methods to which China is now also turning:
A number of factors are driving China’s appetite for imports: a wealthier population is spending more on larger quantities and a better quality of food, and successive food scandals in China have heightened fears about the safety of home-grown produce. At the same time, China’s own animal husbandry is scaling up, creating more demand for imported soy beans and corn to feed a growing volume of livestock. In a relationship sometimes troubled by trade disputes and geo-strategic rivalries, the US-China trade in food and agricultural products is quietly thriving.
[…] China is predicted to import some 1.4 million tonnes of pork in 2012, up from 1.1 million tonnes in 2011, or around 2% of the total pork consumed in China. China is, of course, a major pork producer itself, but outbreaks of disease among China’s pigs have affected supply, and since 2007 China’s pork imports have been rising steeply: in the first four months of 2012, US pork exports to China were up 142% over the same period in 2011.
Ironically, domestic consumption of pork in the United States has been declining since 2008, but production remains buoyant, largely because of the thriving export market. And while Chinese consumers see imports as a safer option than home-grown food, US environmentalists are increasingly critical of the environmental impacts of the factory farming methods that now dominate US pig production.