The Environmental Impact Of China’s Food Demand
Over the past 20 years, China has become the world’s second-largest economy. This has resulted in growing demands for food, particularly for animal products. China’s development has had effects on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss. For example, agriculture in China is now responsible for 13% of all GHG emissions worldwide.
In a recent paper, a team of researchers looked at the future of food demand in China and how it will impact domestic and international environmental outcomes. Based on the current trends, they made predictions about the environmental effects of China’s food demand from 2010 until 2050. The environmental effects of agriculture can be split into two categories:
- Domestic production — crops or animals being farmed in China.
- International trade — imports of crops, animal feed, and animal products from other countries.
The researchers first consider what effects are likely to happen in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, if trends continue as they currently are. By 2050 the researchers predict that China’s demand for animal-sourced food will increase by 45% compared to 2010. This will mostly be because of increased demand for products from pigs and chickens. China is also likely to see a large increase in the demand for cereals (like wheat and maize), mostly for animal feed. Most of this demand will be covered by domestic production in China.
In terms of international trade, China will also likely see a large increase in the import of soybeans from other countries. Imports will mostly come from the U.S. and Brazil. Again, this is primarily for animal feed. In 2010, China’s imports were responsible for 35% of the global soybean trade, and this may increase to 46% in 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario. Notably, this would account for 40% of Brazil’s total soybean production, perhaps leading to further deforestation in the Amazon. China not only imports crops for animal feed, but also directly imports animal products including cow meat and dairy. China’s demand for these imported animal products is predicted to double in 2050.
Increasing food demand in China is predicted to also increase the size of land used for farming, both in China and in other countries. The authors predict that increased overseas land use in 2050 will mostly be caused by China’s soybean demand, but it will also be attributed to pasture for farmed animals, especially in countries that rely less on industrial animal agriculture.
While China’s overall GHG emissions from agriculture are expected to increase by 2050, this may be lessened by plans to capture carbon by planting forests. If this optimistic afforestation target is met, China’s net domestic emissions from agriculture, forestry, and land use may actually be lower in 2050 than in 2010. Furthermore, emissions from international deforestation may even become carbon negative by this point due to demands for imports levelling off after 2030.
However, the researchers also consider that business may not continue as usual. In a ‘high-development’ scenario, China’s share of overseas land use could be 32% higher than currently predicted. In this scenario, China would cause 46% of total global environmental impacts. On the other hand, in a ‘restricted-development’ scenario, overseas land use may be 20% lower than currently predicted. China would only cause 26% of global environmental impact in this case.
The future of China’s food system is therefore not set in stone. These scenarios could be affected by several things, including reliance on trade, gross domestic product (GDP) growth, and shifts to more meat-heavy diets. China’s future sustainability will be largely affected by the intensity of production of animal products, which presents a potential tension for animal advocates: the authors explain that reducing China’s environmental footprint may be achieved by increasing “productivity” in the global animal agriculture sector.
On the other hand, the environmental effects of farming and importing animal products could be reduced by shifts to less meat-intensive diets in China, including a focus on plant-based substitutes. This humane solution would reduce China’s environmental footprint while providing people with essential nutrients. But this may be a difficult change to make, as there is currently a lack of awareness from consumers in China about the effects of meat consumption on health and the environment. Here is where animal advocates can play a role by helping raise awareness of this important issue.
Overall, as one of the world’s biggest food importers, China can have a large effect on the global environmental consequences of animal agriculture. Steps will need to be taken to avoid environmental destruction. This includes stronger policy interventions, enforcing environmental standards, and the promotion of less meat-intensive diets. Vegan and vegetarian activists in China can make a difference by educating the public on the environmental impacts of animal farming and pushing for dietary change.