I recently discussed an article reminding us how much food we need to produce over the next 40 years to feed an average population of nearly 9 billion during that time. In Chapter 11 I note that one way to accomplish this task is for humans to reverse the trend toward eating more meat per person. This does not have to mean being vegetarian (although that would actually be best), rather it means limiting the meat intake. Last week's Economist had a genuinely scary story about the rise in pork consumption in China--calling it "a danger to the world."
Until the 1980s farms as large as Mr Ouyang’s were unknown: 95% of Chinese pigs came from smallholdings with fewer than five animals. Today just 20% come from these backyard farms, says Mindi Schneider of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. Some industrial facilities, often owned by the state or by multinationals, produce as many as 100,000 swine a year. These are born and live for ever on slatted metal beds; most never see direct sunlight; very few ever get to breed. The pigs themselves have changed physically, too. Three foreign breeds now account for 95% of them; to preserve its own kinds, China has a national gene bank (basically a giant freezer of pig semen) and a network of indigenous-pig menageries. Nevertheless, scores of ancient variants may soon die out.
But China’s pigs are far from the only victims of their popularity. Demand for them worries the Communist Party, underpins what will soon be the world’s biggest economy and threatens Amazon rain forests.
The Communist Party prizes self-sufficiency in food. Most of the pigs China eats are indeed home-grown. But 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.
Ms Schneider reckons that more than half of the world’s feed crops will soon be eaten by Chinese pigs. Already in 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.So, that gets us back to the story of why people want to buy agricultural land. The land grab is not about feeding the world--it is about making money selling animal food to rich customers.