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China encounters factory farming

The emergence of swine flu has raised fears about the potential public health impacts of industrial animal agriculture. Mia MacDonald asks if China can avoid the mistakes made by factory-farming nations in the west.

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“Swine Flu Fears Grow” read a typical recent headline in a New York City tabloid. The article spoke of emergency rooms being “swamped” and schools closed as “panic” spreads. Meanwhile, on the Chinese mainland, there have been at least 441 cases of swine flu, but as yet no deaths. The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, and his wife were quarantined in a Shanghai hotel last month after a passenger on their flight showed “flu-like” symptoms.

As in New York, many Chinese are unsettled by the arrival of swine flu. “I suddenly had a temperature and was facing the difficulty of whether or not to go to a hospital or quarantine myself,” a Beijing-based colleague wrote recently about his delayed travel. “It revealed to me very vividly how epidemic changes us socially and psychologically.”

Swine flu cases have been documented in 100 countries so far. The outbreak’s origins have yet to be established, although large-scale pig facilities in Vera Cruz, Mexico (run by a subsidiary of US agribusiness giant Smithfield Foods) where the flu was first documented, remain a locus of interest. Such “factory farms” confine thousands of pigs and other domesticated animals in small cages or crates in indoor sheds. The crowding, wastes and stress create conditions in which diseases can spread from animal to animal – and sometimes beyond – often rapidly. China today has more than 60,000 of these factory-style facilities.

Over the past 60 years, vast changes in agricultural production, including use of chemical-based fertilisers and adoption of intensive confinement systems have made meat much more widely available and affordable than it was in the past. Perhaps nowhere else than China has this “livestock revolution” and the shift from diets based on plant foods to those much heavier in animal products been more striking or more visible.

As its rapid economic expansion has allowed more and more Chinese to enter the new middle class, meat has moved from the side of the dinner plate to the centre, particularly in China’s many metropolises. Since 1980, overall meat consumption has quadrupled to its current level, 54 kilograms (119 pounds) per person each year.

That’s still only about half the annual meat consumption per capita of the United States, which hovers around 100 kilograms (220 pounds). But with every fifth person in the world Chinese, even small increases in individual meat and dairy consumption will have broad environmental, climate, health, and food security impacts. What China eats, and how it produces its food, affects not only the country, but also the world.

And while China is not yet a bona fide "factory-farm nation" like the United States and most of Europe, the strains of its fast-growing livestock sector are becoming harder to ignore. Indeed, swine flu comes on the heels in China of recent, deadly outbreaks of avian flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and 2007’s “blue ear” scare that killed tens of thousands of pigs, all of which have rattled food markets around the world.

Even as the shift in China from small-scale to industrial-scale production continues, recent research in several Chinese provinces found that concentrated farming systems were hardest hit by the avian flu, not small-scale or backyard producers, whose free range methods have been accused of incubating animal disease. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has cautioned against a wholesale adoption of factory-style systems. “Excessive concentration of animals in large-scale industrial production units should be avoided,” it said in 2007, “and adequate investments should be made in heightened biosecurity and improved disease monitoring to safeguard public health.”

But China’s farmed animal population is in the tens of billions, and it is the world’s largest producer—and consumer—of agricultural products. Factory-style methods of production and processing are becoming increasingly embedded. The government has welcomed investments by major multinational meat and dairy producers and animal feed corporations, including Tyson Foods, Smithfield and Novus International, in producing and slaughtering facilities. (A joint venture between Tyson and China’s Jinghai Poultry Industry Group aims to process one million chickens a week at a facility near Shanghai, when it is operating at full capacity.) Fast food is now a US$28-billion-a-year business in the country. McDonald's, a major sponsor of the Beijing Olympics, has nearly 1,000 restaurants across China.

“When I was a child, every person was allotted one pound of pork a month,” recalls Peter Li, who grew up in Jiangxi province in southeast China and is now a professor of political science at the University of Houston in Texas. “We could not eat more than that. You could not get it. Now, though, more people have access to more meat and want to eat a lot of it.” In becoming an agricultural powerhouse, and a leading protein producer, China is overcoming a bitter historical legacy. The Chinese, Li suggests, are now “eating meat in revenge” for past disastrous government actions.

Over the past 10 years, consumption of pork, China's most popular meat, has doubled, and China has surpassed the US as the world's top pork producer. It raises and slaughters more than 700 million pigs a year. In 2008, the largest ever such tranche ever recorded, 1.925 million tonnes of pork were imported (about 5% of China's overall pork consumption). China’s is also the world’s leading producer of “meat” chickens.

The industrial model of animal agriculture is, by its proponents, valued for efficiencies of scale unavailable to small- and medium-sized farms. But factory farms also carry significant environmental and social costs, costs that have become increasingly evident in recent years in the US and Europe.

A multi-year, multi-disciplinary commission established by the U.S.-based Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded in 2008 that the negative effects of industrial farm animal production are “too great” and the scientific evidence “too strong to ignore.” In a preface to the commission’s final report, its executive director, Robert P Martin, wrote: “The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals raised for food.”

Meat and dairy production use 30% of the earth’s land surface, 70% of agricultural land and account for 8% of the water humans use, mostly to irrigate feed crops. The global livestock industry is, according to the UN FAO, “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution,” and one of the key agents of deforestation. In the Amazon, for example, 70% of cleared forest is now pasture; feed crops including industrial soy, grown for livestock, including in China, cover much of the rest.

On the crucial issue of climate change, meat and dairy production have a significant role, the FAO’s 2006 study of the sector found. Fully 18% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions stem from the livestock industry, surpassing total emissions from the entire global transportation sector. In 2008, China leapfrogged past the US to become the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide: as the country's farmed animal population expands, emissions will rise, too — specifically those of methane and nitrous oxide, both far more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

Animal waste is also a large and growing concern. China's farmed animals produce 2.7 billion tonnes of manure every year, nearly three-and-a-half times the industrial solid waste level. Xu Cheng, a professor at China Agricultural University, estimates that only 3% of China's large and medium-sized livestock operations have facilities to treat animal wastes. Runoff from livestock operations, mainly pig facilities, has created a large “dead zone” in the South China Sea that is virtually devoid of marine life.

For decades, researchers and policymakers asked, "Who will feed China?" Today, the question has changed to, "Who will feed China's pigs?" In northern China, overgrazing and overfarming lead to the loss of nearly a million acres of grassland each year to desert. The resulting dust storms have hit Beijing, Korea, Japan and even crossed the Pacific Ocean to blanket the west coast of North America. Currently, a quarter of China is desert, an area that is expanding by around 5,000 square kilometres a year, north and west. The government estimates that more than 150 million Chinese will need to move, from regions where water resources have been over-exploited and the desert is engulfing homes and farmland.

As demands for meat, milk, as well as China’s dietary staple, rice, grow, and as available land and water resources dwindle, the government is looking abroad to ensure food security. It is not only accessing international food markets, but also turning to Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia to access land on which to produce food for both people and livestock. As it does, it is encountering charges of a new agricultural imperialism. In 2007, world grain prices shot up by 42% over 2006 levels, putting millions of already poor people at greater risk of hunger and malnutrition. While this phenomenon has many causes, one is the steady growth in demand for grain for feed for farmed animals.

China’s changing diet is also affecting public health. Data from China's Ministry of Health show that in the 1930s, 97% of calories in the average Chinese diet came from grains and vegetables, compared to only 63% in 2002. China's health profile is being reshaped in the US image, and for the worse. A study last year by Barry Popkin, a North Carolina-based professor of nutrition, found that nearly one-in-four adults in China were overweight. Eighty percent of Chinese now die as a result of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer, often tied to diets high in animal fats and sugars.

In addition, the World Health Organization warns that many "first-line" antibiotics, such as penicillin, are no longer effective against more than 90% of certain bacteria in Asia due to the drugs' overuse in farmed animals. Just before the Beijing Olympics, China's chief veterinarian in the Ministry of Agriculture, Jia Youling, indicated that some Chinese farmers were still using banned growth-enhancing drugs, food coloring, and other chemicals, while feed additives with high concentrations of metals were polluting water and crops.

The recent economic downturn has not spared China’s meat sector. In March, China's poultry “stock” fell by an estimated one-third. Tens of millions of migrant workers have been laid off, so they are not buying as much chicken, nor are their factory lunchrooms serving the quantities they once did. Many chicken slaughter plants have shut down, and feed sales have been affected.

Effects have also been felt far from China. The Chinese drop in demand for chicken has been noted as a major factor in a worldwide fall in the price of soy, a prime chicken feed. Some Chinese orders for US soy have been cancelled. However, most analysts foresee demand for, and production of, meat, dairy products and eggs in China continuing to intensify over coming decades, in line with recent trends.

China's development is proceeding at a pace and scale without precedent in modern human history. Environmental, economic, public health and animal welfare challenges that took decades to become obvious in the west require only years to become visible in China. Will China be able to replicate the industrial animal production model, the myriad costs of which are now being heavily scrutinised in the industrialised world? Perhaps the more important question is this: when the facts are carefully examined, will it want to?

Mia MacDonald is executive director of
Brighter Green, a New York-based public policy action tank working at the intersection of environment, animals, and global development. She is also a senior fellow of the Worldwatch Institute.

Brighter Green recently published a study on the issues raised in this article in both English and Chinese, Skillful Means: the Challenges of China’s Encounter with Factory Farming. The full publication in English in PDF format is available here. For the full report in Chinese (a Word document), click here. A Chinese summary is also available here.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Linden 中外对话 (美国)
由Jennifer Yip翻译

a complex issue

Im for small farms and reduced meat consumption, but I felt this article over simplified the issues. In this article, Mia blames livestock for dead zones in the South China Sea, desertification in China’s north, and antibiotic resistance. In fact, China still has fairly few livestock: ocean dead zones are a combination of organic wastes from municipal, industrial and agricultural sources. Desertification in the north and west is actually due to a variety of sources both natural and man-made, some studies have even shown that grazing animals help grasslands cope with higher temperatures. In terms of antibiotic resistance, animals are only a small part of the problem compared to rampant over prescription in hospitals.

Additionally, food safety remains a major concern. Large farms are easier to manage and regulate hygienically. In China, a pig is usually raised on a small farm, sold to a distributor and mixed with other pigs. There is thus little incentive for safe and healthy pig raising practices as individuals are impossible to track. There are still many people in China who do not get meat regularly, and we must not forget them either.

chinadialogue US

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





I don't think that Ms. MacDonald oversimplified the issue at all. She is right on target when she says "For decades, researchers and policymakers asked, Who will feed China?" Today, the question has changed to, "Who will feed China's pigs?"

Animals,like humans, use most of the calories they consume living their lives and producing excrement. It's much more efficient to feed food directly to humans. And better for human health, too. I hope people heed her warning before it becomes too late.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Poor animals

Poor animals, they are kept in such narrow spaces for a lifetime. They are killed for meat as soon as they are grown up. What a pathetic life for them. There is not much differences between the people treating animals this way and the Nazis keeping the Jews in concentration camps.
Translated by Jennifer Yip

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Very Shocking

As consumers, we eat lots of meat and drink lots of milk everyday, but we don't know where these products come from. It wasn't until after I read this article that I came to realize our meat comes from such a vile environment, and that its production puts such a heavy burden on the environment. I think Chinese people should think more critically about our present way of life and the way we consume so much meat. Not only is this harmful to our own health, but it also has a harmful influence on the environment. The old way of relying on grain and vegetables as sources of food is still healthier. (trans. Jerry Stewart)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The author is stealing the concept

Admittedly, Chinese people should change their diet; however, shouldn’t Americans change their own as well, with their meat consumption per capita doubling that of Chinese? The article says “But with every fifth person in the world Chinese, even small increases in individual meat and dairy consumption will have broad environmental, climate, health, and food security impacts.”. As it has been acknowledged that China has a huge population (every fifth person in the world Chinese), it takes a long time to increase, even slightly, the amount of meat and diary consumed by all Chinese. Try to think about this: “Since 1980, overall meat consumption has quadrupled to its current level,…. That’s still only about half the annual meat consumption per capita of the United States”. This shows that it took China thirty golden years after the reform and opening up to reach the level mentioned. So when Chinese finally see the amount of increase mentioned by the author in their per capita consumption of meat and diary, the Americans have already seen thousands times of growth in theirs. Moreover, it is just in recent two or three decades that Chinese can have meat constantly (let alone God knows how many Chinese in poor areas are still short of meat), while it has been hundreds of years since Americans began to have meat, which God knows has done how much harm to the global environment, climate, health and food safety. And, one more question for the author. Is McDonald’s indeed a Chinese or American restaurant, one that results in sharply increased slaughter rate and earns lots of RMB back to USA? Americans are just pretending innocent after taking advantage by making money through coaxing Chinese to eat too much environment- endangering meat which they condemn. By Zeming Translated by Garvey Yan

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



time to act, not argue

It's not time to argue who, US, China, or another country, shoulders the greatest responsibility for the current public health and environmental crises. It's time to act, or the problems stemming from industrial animal agriculture as mentioned in the article will "devour the earth".
Mia's article is a timely warning to Chinese people (and people from the rest of the world also), who are wrongly copying the west in pursuing a diet based on animal products. And, because of China's huge population, the globalized health and environmental consequences of a national dietary change are threatening the entire planet.
The current crises are multi-faceted and interconnected, stemming from the "ills" of the industrial civilization. As the world population grows, the expansion of industrial animal agriculture seems inevitable to meet the increasing demand for meat and dairy products (that symbolize affluence) while ensuring profit and efficiency, the core values of the industrial civilization.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





time to act, not argue 2

Without tougher dealing with groups who have vested interest in sustaining factory farming practices, it'll be like addressing symptoms but not root causes. Efforts on the part of governments and international bodies to build a green planet will also be crucial and the public should be enabled to make evidence-based healthy food choices.
I'm pessimistic in a way that most people are like frogs in warm water (I'm not referring to the poor here). Most people are meat and dairy consumers but hardly do they know where those meat and dairy come from or how they are produced, processed, and transported. Either they're concealed from such facts or they have no interest in knowing it at all. Climatic changes and disease outbreaks sound farther away to most people than satisfying the appetite.
It'll be too late if China and every other developing and less developed country decide to act when their people are eating as much meat and dairy as American people today. However, I'm very much concerned if China and these countries can leapfrog to help avoid a global crisis.

by Stella Zhou

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


translated by diaoshuhuan

A Sound Warning

Last year, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production produced a report examining factory farming in the U.S. and the adverse impacts on the environment, public health, rural communities and farm animals. They warned, just as MacDonald has done, about the implications of this model of production being expanded globally.

More scrutiny of factory farming is needed in both the U.S. and in China. MacDonald has done a great job addressing some of these critical issues.

As we think about global food security, water resources, climate change and the welfare of billions of animals, it is important that governments and individuals-- both in industrialized nations and in the developing world--understand the huge social and environmental cost of factory farming.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Farm efficiently

Ms. MacDonald is right on target. Raising plants instead of animals for food is far more efficient. The animal based food system in the U.S. is not sustainable over time, nor will it be in China.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


米亚的理论是扎实的。任何一篇讨论农业工厂化对环境和公众健康影响的学术文章,都可以从中找到至少30个负面影响。但当我们把焦点过多地集中在拒绝投资农业工厂化的少数负面因素上时,反而浪费了不少时间,没有能够及时切实地作出改变。对抗气候变化的运动也面临同样的情况。那些污秽能源的既得利益者已尽一切所能把农业工厂化变成一个议题,包装成一场辩论。其实,气候变化是不可抗辩的事实,不论在中国还是其他地方,关于农业工厂化对环境影响亦是无可争辩的。趁为时未晚,我认为该立刻采取行动了。 -马里萨
由Jennifer Yip翻译

Solid science

Mia's science is completely solid. For every one scientific article that may cast doubt about this or that aspect of factory farming and how it affects the environment and public health, you will find 30 that confirm the negative impacts. The more we focus on the minute few that don't pay factory farming in such a negative light, the more time is lost to make real change happen. The same thing has happened in the movement to fight climate change. Those who have vested interests interest in dirty energy have done everything in their power to make it a question--to frame it as a debate. Truly, there is no real debate about climate change, and there is no debate on the effects of factory farming on the environment--in China or elsewhere. I agree that it's time to act...before it's too late. - Marisa