China, Meat, & “Sustainability”
As populations and per capita incomes increase in certain parts of the world, some studies report that meat consumption is also on the rise. In areas where dispersed, pastoral production may have once been the norm, more and more factory farm operations have cropped up and are centralizing and intensifying production to meet the demand. If the trend is to continue, the push towards higher meat consumption and factory farming production in places like China presents not only an ethical concern – more and more animals will be raised and slaughtered for human consumption – but an environmental concern as well, as the system will place a heavy strain on local environments.
Meat products are widely recognized as “among the most energy-intensive, ecologically burdensome, and ethically concerned foods.” Finding a “sustainable” level of meat consumption (if that is one’s goal) involves finding a balance of “behaviors related to maintaining a healthy level of meat consumption,” as well as taking steps that will “minimize damage on ecosystems, and protect the welfare of animals.” Setting those goals is one thing; achieving them in practice and actually changing consumption patterns is another. Some have delineated two approaches, such as a reduction in the quantity of meat consumed (“less meat approach”), and the enhancing of environmental and ethical attributes of meat (“better meat approach”). In China, where meat consumption is rapidly increasing, the question of sustainability is a crucial one. In 2013, China’s annual meat consumption was more than double that of the United States, mostly because China’s consumption of pigs (56 million metric tons) is more than six times that of the United States. The situation is grave, and in many ways, critical.
Using a comprehensive set of data, this study from the Journal of Integrative Agriculture looks at the issue of meat consumption in China and the issue of “sustainability.” They identify various key obstacles for the “less meat approach”: First and foremost, they note that “consumers’ increasing preference for meat follow[s] economic growth;” in other words, as income and urbanization increases, the demand for meat also goes up. The authors of the study question whether it may be possible to slow the trend of increasing consumption by increasing prices. Based on their data, “estimates imply that the effect of a 1% increase in income can be offset by the effect of a 1% increase in the price of pork and poultry.” However, even this theory may be flawed because pork consumption has risen steadily despite spikes in prices.
As for taking a “better meat approach,” promoting environmentally better meat has numerous problems on the supply side. Specific to China, the authors note that:
First, animal husbandry often involves non-point sources of pollution which are more difficult to supervise and regulate. Second, the diffused nature of agricultural sources also makes it difficult to account for their contribution to surface water pollution.
So, they note, environmental problems caused by animal agriculture have gotten much less attention in China. Combine that with the fact that there are major institutional and political obstacles, and it makes identifying and rallying around environmental problems even more difficult. What’s more, since many people in China depend on agriculture for their livelihood, there is a built-in aversion to too much upheaval against growing the system of concentrated animal farming.
The authors highlight a range of possible solutions for the challenges facing China. These include increased use of certification systems, which Chinese consumers respond to strongly, or putting more effort into reducing loss and waste in the supply chain. This study highlights numerous issues for farmed animal advocates, not the least of which is the incredible scale of animal suffering that we still need to address worldwide. The problems in achieving a “sustainable” level of meat consumption in China can be applied to other geographic areas as well. Although meat consumption in North America appears to have largely plateaued, there is a long way to go before environmentally destructive and ethically horrible practices like factory farming are a thing of the past. The scale of meat consumption is already unsustainable in both “developed” and “developing” countries. All in all, the study offers some interesting suggestions, not only for Chinese advocates but also for North American and other western advocates to consider.