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Surf and Turf: The Environmental Impacts of China’s Growing Appetite for Pork and Seafood

Susan Chan Shifflett

Half the world’s pigs – 476 million – reside in China. Increasingly prosperous consumers are eating fewer grains and demanding a more protein-rich diet, ballooning the pork industry to 15 times its 1960s-era size. In the last 30 years, Chinese demand for meat has quadrupled and China is now the largest consumer of seafood in the world.

Surf and Turf: The Environmental Impacts of China’s Growing Appetite for Pork and Seafood

Half the world’s pigs – 476 million – reside in China. Increasingly prosperous consumers are eating fewer grains and demanding a more protein-rich diet, ballooning the pork industry to 15 times its 1960s-era size. In the last 30 years, Chinese demand for meat has quadrupled and China is now the largest consumer of seafood in the world.

On March 25, the China Environment Forum held a panel discussion on how growing appetites for seafood and pork in China are altering the domestic, regional, and global food landscapes.

(Below are the photos from the event. Click here for event audio.)

Pigs, People, and Urbanization

Last year, 16,000 diseased, dead pigs were found bobbing down the Huangpu River, a main waterway flowing through Shanghai. In the aftermath, experts citedovercrowding on farms as an underlying factor for the mass dumping of hog carcasses.

By 2025, an estimated 350 million people – more than the entire U.S. population – will be added to China’s urban areas

Pigs have traditionally played a central role in Chinese agrarian society, said Fred Gale, senior economist at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The Chinese character for “family” (jia), for example, is a pig inside a house, and Mao Zedong once praised pigs for their ability to supply organic fertilizer.

But urbanization is redefining the relationship between pigs and people, said Gale. Today, China is undergoing a migration from rural to urban areas of epic proportions. By 2025, an estimated 350 million people – more than the entire U.S. population – will be added to China’s urban areas. City dwellers eat twice as much meatas their rural counterparts, driving demand for pork through the roof. To ramp up meat production, the pork industry has evolved from a predominantly smallholder farm structure to more massive, confined animal feeding operations or “factory farms.” China’s pork output is now seven times that of the United States, Gale said.

While factory farms are arguably a more efficient use of land, Gale said the manure created by such concentrated livestock often overflows and leaches into groundwater and is seldom used for fertilizer, posing grave environmental and food safety threats. In 2010, China’s first National Pollution Census found agriculture was a bigger cause of water pollution than industry. Pathogens, heavy metals, and high concentrations of nitrates hidden in dung can form toxic algae blooms that create dead zones, killing off fish and burning fishermen’s bodies. Pig farms account for an estimated 42 percent of nitrogen and 90 percent of phosphorus flows into the South China Sea.

Furthermore, with the animals living in such close proximity, diseases can spread quickly. “The fundamental problem is that they’ve brought in these Western breeds which were bred to be kept in a hermetically sealed environment, in a closed barn,” said Gale. “And they’re being put in these brick pens which are open to the air and to rats, mosquitoes, and flies, which easily transmits disease and makes them more vulnerable to disease than the traditional breeds.”

Haute Cuisine

Alongside pork, demand is also rising for seafood, especially “luxury” seafood. China is the leading market for species such as lobster, abalone, shark, and sea cucumber. According to Michael Fabinyi of the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, there are three key drivers to China’s luxury seafood consumption: the role of banquets in modern society, the prevalence of particular ingredients in Cantonese cuisine, and conspicuous consumption generally.

While China’s per capita luxury seafood consumption is still lower than many countries, there is a growing middle class that wants to enjoy these foods and display their newfound wealth through lavish banquets, said Fabinyi. Delicacies such as shark fin soup have traditionally been served at weddings and corporate events as symbols of status and wealth and are associated with honor and good fortune. Luxury seafood is prominent in Cantonese cuisine in particular, considered to be high class with its roots in coastal Guangdong Province and Hong Kong, areas associated with haute culture and wealth.

Delicacies such as shark fin soup have traditionally served as symbols of status and wealth

Higher demand has reduced seafood stocks across the Asia-Pacific region with ecological and social consequences. Smaller reef fish are preferred by Chinese consumers, meaning that fewer fish reach reproductive age, depleting overall populations. Fishermen face personal health risks too. In order to give small fish a better chance of surviving rapid depressurization and making it to the market alive, fishermen use needles to puncture their swim bladders underwater, a process called “fizzing.” However, these needles often come secondhand from health clinics, said Fabinyi, sometimes leading to infection if they puncture bare skin. He showed a photo of used, bloody needles from a village in the southern Philippines that were “sold at the general store next to the biscuits and eggs.”

Fabinyi noted it’s not just developing countries that are feeling the impacts of China’s growing appetites. He spoke to a representative of the Canadian province of New Brunswick at a tradeshow last year who said in 2012 exports of lobster to China increased 970 percent.

Transition From Self-Sufficiency

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Both in the case of the pork and luxury seafood, China’s rising demand is increasing the distance between food source and consumer. China’s transition to a factory farm approach changes what was once a circular system, where pigs provided food and fertilizer to smallholder farmers, to one that is linear and producing waste at dangerous levels. The prime position of certain seafood in Chinese cuisine, meanwhile, is depleting regional ecosystems and fish stocks, particularly in areas of extreme poverty, and could have long-term consequences for the health and livelihoods of fishermen and their families.

Despite legitimate environmental concerns, Fabinyi emphasized that in the short term, the rise in live reef fishing actually affords a rare pathway to improved standards of living in many poor areas of the Philippines and other coastal Southeast Asian countries. However, he said these countries “would do well to…explicitly plan for how they’re going to deal with increasing demand from China for seafood and other natural resources.”

Meanwhile, in China, there has been some effort to curb consumption of at least shark fin. As part of a crackdown on corruption, the government has banned shark fin soupfrom all state functions, and former NBA player, Yao Ming, recently partnered with WildAid in a public awareness campaign.

It may be a matter of trading crushing pollution in one place for land use in another

For the pork industry, there are signs of better regulation. In a widely watched business deal in May 2013, Chinese company Shuanghui acquired the American company Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion. Gale suggested this investment was in part so Shuanghui could “learn Smithfield’s management approach about quality control and take it back and use at home for the domestic market.”

Global trade offers a way forward as well, said Gale. As China has borne the environmental burden of producing goods for export to the West, it may be time for the West to bear the environmental consequences of China’s growing appetite for food. The United States has arable land that could be used to more sustainably meet the demand for pork in China, if the right policies were in place to incentive such investments. “Importing meat from more land abundant countries, like the United States…is probably going to reduce the environmental footprint of Chinese people eating more meat compared to China being self-sufficient, producing all its own pork and all its own chickens,” said Gale. It may be a matter of trading crushing pollution in one place for land use in another.


This article was first posted on the China Environment Forum’s column on New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program.

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About the Author

Susan Chan Shifflett

Susan Chan Shifflett

Former Associate, China Environment Forum
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China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge U.S.-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more