As Chinese grow richer, hunger for meat strains farms

A butcher chops up pork at a farmer's market in Beijing, June 14, 2008.
A butcher chops up pork at a farmer's market in Beijing, June 14, 2008. Natalie Behring / MCT

BEIJING — To understand the changing dietary habits of Chinese, it helps to listen to 6-year-old Lin Xingni talk about her favorite foods.

"I like to eat chicken and fish. I also like pork ribs," she said.

"You see? Everything is meat," said her father, Lin Yong, an entrepreneur.

Not finished with her list, Xingni chattered on: "There's a McDonald's near my home. But my father doesn't let me go."

Chinese are eating more meat than ever. In 1980, the average Chinese ate 32 pounds of meat per year. By 1995, per-capita meat consumption had climbed to 86 pounds. Last year, Chinese wolfed down more than 117 pounds of meat on average, a little more than half of what an average American eats. Yet the carnivorous trend line keeps going up.

A steady dietary transition is under way in China, as the country grows more prosperous. Barely half a century ago, the nation suffered a famine so severe that several million people died of hunger. Back then, the Chinese diet was mostly limited to rice, a limited selection of vegetables, soybean-based tofu and the rare meat dish.

Now supermarket shelves sag under an array of foods. Meat is widely available. Fast-food restaurants dot the urban landscape, ranging from domestic noodle chains to familiar foreign brands. One chain in particular, KFC, is all over China, with 2,200 outlets in 450 cities. McDonald's trails with 930 restaurants in the country.

And Chinese are consuming not just more meat. Lester Brown, the head of the Earthwatch Institute, a research center based in Maynard, Mass., described the phenomenon as "moving up the food chain," noting that Chinese also are eating more eggs, milk and high-protein foods.

How China will satisfy its rising hunger for high-protein foods is yet to be seen. Its agricultural sector already has made a remarkable transition to satisfy a population that's swollen to 1.3 billion. China produces half the world's pork, 30 percent of the world's rice, 20 percent of the world's corn, a fourth of the world's cotton and 37 percent of the world's fruit and vegetables, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

But China now is running up hard into constraints. It imports two-thirds of its soybeans, and wheat production is falling. It's at the threshold of becoming a net meat importer.

"This is the last year of China's self-sufficiency in meat," said James M. Rice, the head of China operations for Tyson Foods Inc., an Arkansas-based food conglomerate that's the world's largest meat processor.

Lin Yong, who provides Outward Bound-style outdoor training courses to Chinese, said he restricted family trips to McDonald's for health reasons but was an avid meat eater.

"We eat meat several times a day," he said. "Most Chinese people prefer pork, but we like beef. It gives me more energy and is lower in fat."

While father and daughter enjoy their meat, the grandmother still recalls when it was a rarity. Cao Jialian, a 69-year-old retired worker at a plastics factory, reminds impish Xingni that food was rationed a generation ago under China's "iron rice bowl" system of cradle-to-grave socialist welfare.

"We'd get half a pound of pork once a month," Cao said, adding that beef was rarely available and chicken provided only at holidays.

China is already the world's largest grain producer, ahead of India and the United States, but experts such as Brown say that the nation's rising meat consumption will force China to go abroad in the future to search for grain to fatten its cows, pigs, chickens and farmed fish.

That's because converting grain to animal protein takes a heavier toll on farmers. It takes 2 to 3 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of chicken, 4 to 5.5 pounds of grain for 1 pound of pork, and about 10 pounds of grain for 1 pound of beef.

China has yet to promote agro-industry seriously — a move that would improve yields — because doing so would throw many of the country's 345 million small-scale farmers out of work.

"One American farmer does what a village does here," Rice said.

Chinese farmers already use every available bit of land. With 20 percent of the world's population and only 7 percent of its arable land, Chinese farmers till steep hillsides, drained lakes, dry riverbeds and other areas that Western farmers wouldn't touch. Other problems include falling water tables, overuse of fertilizers and heavy pesticide residue.

Yet incomes are rising fast, and mainland Chinese certainly will strive to reach levels of meat consumption approaching those of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China 11 years ago.

That leaves a lot of room for growth. Average Hong Kong residents eat 114 pounds of chicken per year, nearly four times more than on the mainland.

For older Chinese such as Zhang Yundong, a 66-year-old retiree practicing tai chi exercises in a Beijing park one recent morning, the carnivorous ways of China's younger generation are a bit of a puzzle. She said that the nation's once-simple diet was healthier.

"They eat fewer vegetables," she said. "They want to eat meat every day."

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