Over the past decade and a half, meat consumption in China has more than doubled. And to keep up with demand, the country’s livestock industry is shifting from backyard to intensive farming.
Intensive farming is the name of the new game in China
The Chinese penchant for pork is nothing new, but it is growing in tune with the average disposable income and changing the face of farming across the country.
For centuries, small-holders with up to ten pigs a piece were the main suppliers of the favorite national meat, but many have now sold their stock and are leaving the business of pig-rearing to western-style concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Kevin Chen, a senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Beijing says the Chinese government welcomes mass-scale farms which it believes facilitate the supervision of food safety and quality, and enable the production of enough meat to maintain social stability.
"When there was a surge in pork prices a few years ago, there was panic in the government," he told Deutsche Welle. "They worried that people might not have enough pork, and that it would make them unhappy and that maybe something bad would happen, so they take it very seriously."
In recent years this very concern has seen the Chinese government offer millions of dollars in subsidies which in turn have given outsiders such as Germany's Deutsche Bank and US-based Tyson Foods a doorway into China's livestock industry.
Pork is a favorite among Chinese meat eaters
But as environmental activist Ma Jun told Deutsche Welle, what is good for the economy and social stability is not without side-effects.
"Livestock farming has been a large contributor to our water pollution," Ma said, adding that CAFOs could generate a new type of waste not seen on traditional farms.
"They feed them with more factory-based feed and the discharge may contain more pathogens and other toxic waste, because some of the feed contains some unfavorable materials."
Antibiotics, hormones and heavy metals are common contaminants found in the discharge from intensive livestock farms, and they are a problem Beijing has been trying to solve.
The government is encouraging the installation of biogas digesters and is currently trialing Japanese technology that mulches the waste into fertilizer.
Although it is a good way for farmers to get value out of the waste, biogas systems are expensive to install, and they don't filter out chemical pollutants.
Wang Jimin from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences believes the best solution would be to simply avoid intensive animal-raising.
"Perhaps we need to go back to the most basic method which is to limit the number of animals in accordance with the size of the land," Jimin told Deutsche Welle.
"In places like Australia, they mostly use this method, but in China lots of farms are already large-scale and follow the US standard."
What's good for the pigs is good for the land
As with the rise of factory farms in the west, the trend towards bigger facilities in China has also raised concerns about animal welfare.
Having inspected the conditions in 26 farms, Geng Ailian from the Beijing Agriculture and Forestry Science Institute, says most farmers understand that healthier animals mean a better product, but that many keep their livestock in crowded conditions.
She does not envisage Chinese consumers railing in protest just yet.
"The overseas idea of animal welfare is a little controversial here," Geng told Deutsche Welle. "Many believe China still hasn't satisfied the welfare of its own people in terms of food and clothing."
But Zhao Hong, who runs a medium sized free-range chicken farm just south of Beijing, says many Chinese people don't want to buy meat from large factory operations.
Small scale farming for large scale flavour?
"We do not like to eat those kinds of things because we do not think the flavor is good," he said. "Right now people have money, they want to buy something good. They want something to have good flavor."
Zhao says regulations currently favor the large-scale intensive operations, and it can be expensive for small farms to get the paperwork required to sell in supermarkets, a growing point-of-sale for meat products.
Yet he hopes this will change as growing numbers of Chinese consumers demand meat raised in a more traditional way.
Author: Elise Potaka (tkw)
Editor: Nathan Witkop