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Arguments - Impact

China's change in diet has already affected agriculture in two ways. First, land formerly used to grow grain and especially land for cultivation of roots, tubers, and pulses is increasingly being used for vegetable and tobacco cultivation, orchards, or fish ponds. Second, the increase in meat consumption has required a massive expansion of feed grain cultivation, such as soybeans and maize. Due to the low energy efficiency of cycling grain through animals, more valuable cropland is needed to support a meat-based than a vegetarian diet.

Crucial Issues
Two questions are important for analyzing the impact of diet change in China:
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) How does a diet rich in animal protein affect the environment?
WB00860_.gif (262 bytes) What is the impact of increased meat consumption on grain production in China?
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How harmful is animal protein consumption for the environment?
Many environmentalists have criticized the high levels of meat consumption in human diets because meat production is less energy efficient (see Table 1) and more environmentally harmful than the production of grains for direct human consumption. China already has a high level of meat consumption, especially of pork. China's per capita supply of meat is almost twice that of Japan. It might seem that China could only improve energy efficiency and reduce negative environmental impacts by promoting a lower level of meat consumption. However, the issue is more complicated than it appears. Diet and Grain Demand
Table 1

Per cap. Production of Selected Commodities
Figure 1

1. Not all types of meat are equally energy inefficient. Poultry, for instance, has a much higher energy efficiency than pork. If China were to increase the percentage of poultry in its overall meat supply, it could improve energy efficiency without reducing meat consumption.
2. Not all animals are fed with grain or soybeans. Currently, China has relatively low feed grain consumption for its level of meat production. Apparently, many farmers feed their animals organic waste from farm households or agricultural residuals that are unsuitable for human consumption. Small-scale pig farms in close proximity to cities and towns often use organic residuals from restaurants and the food industry as fodder. If animals are part of an integrated farm production system, they can actually increase the overall energy efficiency through better utilization of organic waste.
There are, however, predictions that feed grain consumption in China will increase with the number of large specialized livestock production units. Mass production of pigs and poultry in specialized stables with tens of thousands of animals is difficult or impossible without special feed crops and animal medicine. Similar trends have been reported in fish ponds and fish farming systems. An increase in capacity and productivity will be only possible with optimized feed. Increased demand for feed grain produced in areas where food for human consumption could be grown would certainly increase energy inefficiency.
3. There are large grasslands in China that are unsuitable for any agricultural use other than ranging cattle, goats, yak, sheep, or camels. Particularly in those areas with steep slopes, high altitudes, or climate characteristics that prevent the growth of crops, animal husbandry may be the only rational choice for producing food.
Meat production is certainly energy inefficient and environmentally harmful when done in industrial-sized stables with intense use of feed crops such as maize and soybeans. In particular, the large amounts of manure produced by thousands of animals living in one place usually causes environmental problems. It is also a problem when forests are cleared for ranging animals, such as in Brazil. However, few practical alternatives to mass production of livestock and fish farming exist if a population of 1.48 billion must be supplied with protein. It is certainly not an alternative to harvest the ocean for protein. The few remaining fisheries would be quickly exploited if China were try to supply its protein demand through fishing. This might be possible for Japan, but not for China, whose population will be 13 times as large in 2050.
What is the impact of increased meat consumption on grain production in China?
There can be no doubt that China's increasing meat supply has already affected the country's grain production. As we can see from production statistics (see Figure 1) and in more detail from FAO food balance sheets, a massive increase in the production of feed grain has occurred during the past 20 years.

In the mid-1960s, China had a total domestic feed grain supply of some 12 million tons (including all kinds of grains). By the mid-1990s it had increased to 107 million tons. The trends are most obvious in maize production. In the mid-1960s farmers produced about 25 million tons of maize, of which 8.5 million tons (or some 34%) was used for feeding animals. In the mid-1990s China's farmers had more than quadrupled maize production to 113 million tons - and they used almost 91 million tons - or more than 80% - for feeding animals. There has also been a significant increase in the production of soybeans (see in-depth analyses and Tables 2 and 3).

To read this section you should print out the corresponding tables with food balance sheets from 1964-1966 (Table 2),  1994-1996 (Table 3),  change between 1964-1966 and 1994-1996; and  percentage change between 1964-1966 and 1994-1996.

China's Grain
China's (Feed) Grain Production

China's Food Balance
China's (Feed) Grain Production

Food Balance Sheet: 1964-1966
Table 2

Food Balance Sheet: 1994-1996
Table 3

Related Arguments

Diet Change:   Trends     Impact    Data Quality    Prediction Error    Intervention Possibilities    Intervention Costs

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Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)  - Copyright 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright 1999 by IIASA.)