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China not in hand

A recent Guardian article was naïve about China's aspiration to reduce its climate-damaging meat production and consumption

China is going to reduce its per capita meat consumption by half to help meets its commitments under the Paris deal on climate change. That’s how the Guardian newspaper reported recently in a lengthy article that quoted from a Chinese government nutrition guideline published by the National Health and Family Planning Commission which recommended that Chinese people should restrict daily meat intake to 40-75g per day. That compares to a 50-75g recommendation issued by the same body in 2007.

The Guardianarticle, while quoting the 40g to 75g recommendation but not the 2007 figures, suggested “the Chinese government has outlined a plan to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50%, in a move that climate campaigners hope will provide major heft in the effort to avoid runaway global warming”. Should the new guidelines be followed, it speculated, “carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from China’s livestock industry would be reduced by 1bn tonnes by 2030, from a projected 1.8bn tonnes in that year”.

Sounds great, but where does the 50% reduction comes from?

The Guardian quotes a Chinese official, Li Junfeng, director general of China’s National Center on Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (also China’s head negotiator in Paris) as saying: “Through this kind of lifestyle change, it is expected that the livestock industry will transform and carbon emissions will be reduced’.

China's production of meat is increasing
China’s production of meat is increasing
Really? A senior official like Mr Li should know his colleagues are pouring huge government resources into increasing China’s consumption and production of meat. An elite of enormous state-backed (and some state-owned) firms, known as ‘dragon heads’, has been consolidating China’s livestock industry along the lines of their US, European and Brazilian counterparts.

Partly driven by government desire to improve food safety and food security, and reflecting the US model, ‘consolidation’ is the watchword of government policy for the meat industry, with ever-larger farms contracted to or owned by meat companies.

One of these dragon heads – a company called the Shuanghui Group owns Smithfield Foods, the biggest pork processor in the US. Not surprisingly, American-style pig meat products like barbecued pork are now appearing on Chinese supermarket shelves and Shuanghui executives and butcher crews fly back and forth between Zhengzhou and Virginia for training.

Government-paid experts, principal among them the China Animal Agriculture Administration (CAAA), a government-funded body charged with improving breeding locally, are cheerleading the industry. The CAAA has been embraced, indeed clutched, by international processing, breeding, feed and veterinary medicine companies which eagerly provide free advice and overseas trips to potential Chinese customers.

The average Chinese ate 3.7 kg of beef last year but that figure should rise further says Xu Shang Zhong, head of the China Beef Cattle Association. He cites “bottlenecks” in breeding programmes and a “lack of scale” among the challenges.

Meat consumption has jumped alongside rising incomes in China where the term “meat eater” has long been used to describe the wealthy. At 47.1 kg per person China’s average per capita meat consumption is half the equivalent figure in the US but is already reaching levels seen in wealthier nations like Japan (35.5 kg) per capita, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

China eats more (calorie-rich) pork than its neighbours – 32 kg compared to 24.3kg in Korea and 14.9kg in Japan. An average Chinese consumed 11.4 kg of chicken compared to 13.6 kg in Japan.

godfrey-china-2China’s appetite for meat is already causing enormous, visible environmental cost locally. Tackling this damage has had little to do with China’s climate change official Li Junfeng and more to do with filthy drinking water. The expansion of China’s pig herd over the past decade in particular happened with little thought for the water supplies of towns and villages in provinces like Guangdong, Hunan, Shandong and Sichuan.

The past year has seen a surge in reporting by local media of illegal pig farms. National government is forcing the creation of a national registry of water pollution which requires data from local officials. Hence the dash to shut down the worst polluters.

Over-pollution at home however is also prompting firms to export the problem in order to continue to cash in on rising Chinese meat consumption. Another Chinese ‘dragon head’, the Shanghai-based Shanghai Maling Aquarius Co is in the process of buying 50% of New Zealand’s biggest meat processor, Silver Fern Farms. A lack of experience in the beef industry hasn’t deterred other Chinese investors from getting in on what’s seen as a high-margin business – certainly compared to over-capacity heavy industries like coal and steel. The automotive-focused Tianma Bearing Co purchased Wollogorang Ranch in Australia for AUS$47m while other deals include the purchase of the Bindaree Beef group for AUS$140 million by Chinese pork processor Shandong Delisi.

China’s massive animal feed producer New Hope Group recently told Chinese media the company would invest RMB 17BN overseas up to 2021.

Chinese is inevitably suffering an explosion in lifestyle diseases like diabetes among young and wealthy Chinese in particular, from eating more meat and l western diets.

While its meat companies acquire peers around the world China has no intention of reducing its meat consumption by 50%, whatever the well-meaning Guardian thinks.

By Mark Godfrey