Photograph by ILRI
Photograph by ILRI

Chinese Pigs are Changing the World

We’ve all heard about China’s incredible pace of development. Now, finally, we have a symbol of that runaway growth: pork.

Demand for pork in China is growing so fast, farmers can’t keep up. The average Chinese person eats 86 pounds of pork a year, more per capita than any country, and five times more pork than in the 1970s. China has traditionally preferred to be self sufficient with food production, but it now needs to look abroad for ways to feed those pigs. Imports of soybeans, the primary feedstock for pigs, are rising so quickly that demand in countries far away from China are pumping out as many soybeans as possible to sell to China. The Economist explains it:

As a result, land use is changing drastically on the other side of the world. In Brazil, more than 25m hectares of land [61 million acres]—parts of which were once Amazon rainforest—are being used to cultivate soy (Chinese companies have not signed up to the “soy roundtable”, a voluntary association, the members of which agree not to buy soyabeans [also known as soybeans] from newly deforested land). Entire species of plants and trees are being sacrificed to fatten China’s pigs. Argentina has chopped down thousands of hectares of forest and shifted its traditional cattle-breeding to remote areas to make way for soyabeans. Since 1990 the Argentine acreage given over to that crop has quadrupled: the country exports almost all of its whole soyabeans—around 8m tonnes [8.8 million short tons]—to China. In some areas farmers harvest two or three crops a year, using herbicides that have been linked to birth defects and increased cancer rates.

By one estimate from the International Institute of Social Studies, within the next decade, more than half of the world’s feed crops will be eaten by Chinese pigs.

In the short term, there’s some good news buried in that stunning statistic. Dependence on other countries holds China accountable on some thorny issues, like currency manipulation, human rights questions, even its support for North Korea. But it’s not hard to see an unsustainable pace, especially as more countries—namely the MINT nations (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey)—add similar strain on the planet to increase their quality of life, too. Can it be stopped? Certainly not easily. Stress on farmland is more likely to be alleviated by farming innovation than by asking developing countries to simply demand fewer pigs. Just ask the average Chinese man, who has just begun to experience the delight of pork . Good luck convincing him to give it up.