Arguments - Impact
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
|Two questions are
important for analyzing the impact of diet change in China:
||How does a
diet rich in animal protein affect the environment?
the impact of increased meat consumption on grain production in China?
|How harmful is animal protein consumption for the environment?
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.
||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.
||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
||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
|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
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 Food Balance
Diet Change: Trends
Impact Data Quality Prediction Error Intervention Possibilities Intervention Costs
Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)
- Copyright © 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright © 1999 by IIASA.)