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Is the World Becoming China's Factory Farm?

News Icon 09/07/2014

My research for Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat (Bloomsbury) took me across the world.  One of the most fascinating and frightening destinations was China, to which I dedicated a chapter in the book. We also filmed our findings and these can be seen in our Farmageddon on Film series. More recently, I was struck by an article that really captured the pivotal role China could have in the future of food worldwide. Here, is that article, thanks to my guest blogger, Benjamin Cost, the Food Editor at

Looks like heirloom, free-range, grass-fed food may not be long for this world. Not only is China turning to factory farming to appease its insatiable appetite, but it’s apparently forcing the rest of the world to follow suit, sparking major environmental concerns. Quartz reports:

Late last year, in the wake of a Chinese state-owned pork company’s controversial takeover of US-based Smithfield, Mother Jones magazine posed a provocative question: Since US pork production costs are below China’s, and China’s meat consumption was growing fast, did the deal mean that the US was becoming China’s factory farm?

High production targets based on exports to China have raised fears for Scotland’s salmon farmers, because environmental rules designed to protect the industry might have to be weakened to meet production increases of 32% over the next six years, which would be needed to yield promised exports to China. Scotland’s salmon farms have already been plagued with outbreaks of sea lice and are prone to accidentally releasing fish into the wild.

On the other side of the world, in New Zealand, China’s consumption of dairy products has been a huge boon to the economy. Dairy and forestry products contributions to GDP grew four-fold largely thanks to China. But once again, the industry’s plans to keep up with China’s future demands is raising concerns. One proposal from dairy giant Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest company, is to put New Zealand’s famously grass fed, free range cattle into “indoor housing”—essentially creating factory farms where none had existed before.

Unfortunately while transforming New Zealand into a giant feedlot might satisfy China’s appetite for kiwi cattle, it won’t do the same for sheep. Despite the fact that New Zealand’s 31-million-strong flock outnumbers its people seven to one, it’s not nearly enough, and Australia might have to step in to fill the void.

And as China’s upper class grows, so will its already ravenous appetite for meat, putting a strain on the world’s meat and grain supply. China’s grain consumption is growing by 17 million tons per year, and it now buys around two thirds of soybean exports in the world, a crucial ingredient in animal feed.

China is already buying up vast tracts of arable land in foreign country to meet this demand, one of its latest purchases being 3 million hectares of Ukrainian farmland.

All this is exacerbated by the fact that rampant domestic food scandals are prompting Chinese consumers to turn to foreign imports, despite ridiculous ‘protectionist’ measures to get Chinese consumers to buy local. Not to mention the Chinese market’s aversion to GMOs.

Okay, elephant in the room: obviously, Chinese demand is stimulating economies and helping keep food industries afloat – British and American meat companies, to name a few. However, in the long term, experts say the environmental ramifications could be irreversible.

Reproduced by permission from Benjamin Cost, Food Editor, Shanghaiist.


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