Pigging Out: How China’s Pork Consumption is Changing South America’s Rainforests

During the recent Chinese New Year, many families filled their dinner tables with pork products. The word “pork” is essentially synonymous with the word “meat” in China. In fact, China produced and consumed about 500 million pigs in 2014. That’s an average of one-third of a pig per person in China.

This high demand for pork is not just rooted in its taste; it also has a long history with a great deal of cultural significance. The writing system of the Chinese language evolved from pictographs. The Chinese word for pig, 猪 zhū, is related to the word 煮 zhŭ, meaning “to cook,” because the ancient Chinese extracted pig fat to use as base for cooking. Furthermore, the word for family, 家jia, comes from adding a roof to豕, a component related to the word pig 猪 zhū, because to the ancient Chinese, being able to domesticate pigs meant having achieved a certain standard of living that comes with food stability and prosperity.

Pigs have historically symbolized prosperity, and average middle class families in China have only recently been able to afford pork for regular consumption. As a result, many people use their ability to consume pork as an index to measure their standard of living. Just as gasoline price is a source of worry and political debate in the United States, pork price plays such a role for consumers in China. Pork prices can fluctuate based on internal factors like feed prices, wages, and demand. In addition, external issues like climate, diseases, and trade agreements can also affect the prices of the pig. For the people of China, rising pork prices is an indicator of rising prices in other consumables.

Therefore, in 2007, China established a strategic national pork reserve in order to control prices. Similar to the strategic petroleum reserve run by the U.S. Department of Energy, the pork reserve tries to cap rising food prices by releasing pigs into the market in times of high demand and high prices. Conversely, when pork prices are too low, the reserve buys pigs from the market, ensuring farmers’ profitability.

China also purposefully maintains genetic diversity among its pigs in order to ensure long-term health of the industry. In 2013, China agreed to spend almost $70 million annually to purchase British pig semen. Cross breeding with European pigs diversifies the genetic pool and reduces the likelihood of conditions like swine flu or blue ear disease to prevent the deaths of large numbers of Chinese pigs.

The rise of pork consumption is a reflection of the larger economic boom that China has experienced in recent years. The measures China has taken to preserve the economy are laudable, but there are a number of sustainability issues that require the government’s attention.

A major component of pig feed is processed soy and corn. Each kilogram of pork requires, on average, six kilos of feed. China’s large and growing population combined with the scarcity of fertile lands means the country cannot provide food for both the people and the pigs. Therefore, China must buy pig feed that has been produced elsewhere. China is now the largest importer of soy, accounting for over half of the global market.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that, by 2023, China will need to import over 70% of all soy grown in the world. It will also need to more than double its current corn import level.

Soybean yield is difficult to increase without increasing acreage, so in order to meet Chinese demands, more land must be converted into soybean farms. Much of this land will be found in South America. In 2013, Brazil, the largest soy exporter, provided the world with 1.6 billion bushels of soy, most of which went to Chinese pigs’ stomachs. The conversion of forests into soy farms is threatening large swaths of lands in South America. Countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina contain large forest areas characterized by flat terrain with rainfall, which is suitable for soy farming and is being converted to that purpose.

Increasing land dedicated to soy farming is decreasing forest coverage, threatening biodiversity, and contributing to climate change. In addition to the reduction of ecosystems, soy production is contributing large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. It is estimated that 35% of all pesticide usage in Brazil is for the purpose of soy farming and causing damage in the environment and humans alike. A study done in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, a region of high soy production, found traces of agrochemicals associated with soy in 100% of 62 collected samples of human breast milk.

Soy farming has social consequences as well. While some may argue that increased farming has created more jobs and allowed for economic expansion, economic growth has been very unequal. To meet the high demand, soy production has become very commercialized, favoring large-scale production. Foreign investors have exerted pressure on the local community and practiced hostile take-overs in what has become known as “land grabs” in order to increase their farm land ownership. Powerful investors have governmental and media relations that silence local voices in order to take over lands to produce soy and in the process deepen income inequality.

I grew up in China and had been to the local market to purchase meat many times, but never realized the far-reaching effects of my actions. Of course, my individual meat purchase and consumption did not cause parts of the rainforest to disappear, and merely giving up pork will not save the rainforest. Perhaps the best an individual can do is to recognize that a chain reaction does exist and advocate for sensible policy reform. Groups such as the soy roundtable, actions such as empowering the local community to fight against land grabs, and knowledge not only about the rainforests but also about pigs’ deep cultural significance for the Chinese are all vital elements in crafting a more mutually beneficial global community for the people and the planet.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons by Vemenkov.

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  • reader

    would have appreciated some hard numbers. The fact that pork consumption in China has increased and the fact that soy production in Latin America has increased do not really support the argument that China’s pork consumption is changing Latin America’s forest. (Yu says “In 2013, Brazil, the largest soy exporter, provided the world with 1.6 billion bushels of soy, most of which went to Chinese pigs’ stomachs,” but how do we know that most of the additional production went into Chinese pigs’ stomachs?)

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