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Marketplace

What would happen if China put itself on a diet?

Jed Kim Jun 21, 2016
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Customers select pork at a supermarket in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

A recent update to China’s dietary recommendations included restricting the amount of meat consumed by half. Some environmental groups hailed the guidelines because of the potential reductions in associated greenhouse gas emissions, estimated to be a billion metric tons by 2030, according to The Guardian.

If adhered to, what impact would such a behavioral change have on the U.S. livestock industry? First, remember that China has not imported U.S. beef for about a dozen years because of concerns about mad cow disease. Its demand for pork imports also depends on how much its own domestic farms can produce.

“China’s pork industry is just massive,” said Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation. “That country produces and consumes about half the world’s pork.”

Even so, the relatively small amount of pork the U.S. provides China can reach a significant amount. Within the past decade, sales have ranged from $100 million to $700 million. Schuele said sales to China through April of this year already totaled $220 million.

Schuele said, even with a reduction in per capita meat consumption, China would likely continue to be a significant export target for meat.

“Even if the red meat consumption levels remain flat or even go down for the people that currently consume beef and pork, you’re going to still add new users, because more and more people in China move into the middle class each year,” Schuele said. “More of them have access to modern supermarkets, modern restaurants, that kind of thing.”

Some have disputed claims that a reduction in meat consumption would limit greenhouse gas emissions. Frank Mitloehner, a researcher at UC Davis, has argued against estimates that livestock contributes up to half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, saying it contributes closer to 14 percent.

But he said in this case, hopes for lowered emissions are misplaced because of the growing appetite for meat in the country.

“The prediction is that they will increase their animal protein consumption drastically in China,” Mitloehner said.

Mitloehner pointed to inefficiencies within the Chinese livestock industry as the main reason for the new dietary guidelines.

“The reason that this recommendation comes up in my opinion is that they are fearful that they cannot satisfy that need,” he said.

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