With billions to feed and relatively little land to farm, the changing Chinese diet is a global issue.
As the world’s most populous country, China consumes a lot of food. As an emerging economic powerhouse, even despite recent financial woes, China consumes a lot of food in greater quantities than it did three or four decades ago—meat, in particular. And with a growing population and a growing middle class, the demand for meat in China is expected to continue to rise. As a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopersposits, it “will place enormous burdens on an already challenged domestic food system and have significant ramification on international trade in agriculture.”
The report, released Monday, is mainly concerned with the economic effects of China’s changing diet, but the rise of meat consumption—and increasing dependence on imported animal feed required to meet that demand—are tied up in global land use, resources, and climate change too. While estimates vary, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization attributes 14.5 percent of global emissions to the world's livestock farms. As the report notes, China feeds 20 percent of the world’s population but only has 8 percent of the world’s arable land, which means that when the Chinese diet changes, the echoes will be felt beyond the country’s borders.
Much has been made of the rise in that nation of meat consumption, which went from representing just 125 calories of the daily diet in 1971 to representing 691 in 2011. Between 2003 and 2013, consumption jumped by nearly 25 percent, and raising more hogs, far and away the livestock of choice in China, means buying more feed—both activities have a significant carbon footprint. But the PWC report points out something important in the broader conversation about meat consumption and its environmental woes: Even with the rapidly increasing appetite for meat, the average Chinese person still eats less meat than the average American. In 2015, Chinese residents will eat about 130 pounds of meat annually, while people in the U.S. will eat more than 230 pounds per person per year.
“It could be justifiably argued,” the report reads, “that the American number reflects excessive levels of consumption and that China is unlikely to ever reach those peaks.” Instead, the authors expect China to peak at 165 pounds per person per year, which is the amount eaten in Taiwan. If it were to hit that level of consumption immediately, “almost the entire expected corn output of Brazil and Argentina in 2014” would be required to feed the animals.
Already, China is irrigating more of its own farmland, trying to buy up arable land elsewhere in the world, and becoming an outsize player in the global commodity crop market—all of this from a country that has a long-standing policy of being agriculturally self-sufficient.
While it is far from the worst offender when it comes to having an unsustainable diet—again, Americans can claim that honor—the sheer scale of its population makes China’s changing diet a global concern.