Empire of the pig: China’s insatiable appetite for pork
Of all the meat options, pork reigns king in China. To keep up with demand, China now rears (and eats) nearly 500 million pigs a year—more than half of all the swine in the whole world.
The Economist says that while most of the pigs China eats are home-grown, each
kilogram of pork requires 6kg of feed, usually processed soy or corn. Given the
scarcity of water and land in China, it cannot feed its pigs as well as its
people. The upshot is that Chinese swine, which previously ate household scraps,
increasingly rely on imported feed.
Mindi Schneider of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague has estimated that more than half of the world’s feed crops will soon be eaten by Chinese pigs. By 2010 China’s soy imports accounted for more than 50% of the total global soy market. From a low base, grain imports are rising fast as well: the US Grains Council, a trade body, predicts that by 2022 China will need to import 19m-32m tonnes of corn. That equates to between a fifth and a third of the world’s entire trade in corn today.
Land use is changing drastically on the other side of the world and in Brazil, more than 25m hectares of land—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 from newly deforested land).
The newspaper/ magazine says 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—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.
However, the significance of pork goes deeper than culinary tastes. They have been at the centre of Chinese culture, cuisine and family life for thousands of years. So why are pigs so important to China?