THE BLOG

What's the Connection to China's and the U.S.' Pigs and the Smithfield-Shuanghui Deal?

06/05/2013 10:52 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013
  • Mia MacDonald Executive Director, Brighter Green and Chair, Green Belt Movement International-U.S.

It's World Environment Day and this year's focus is on reducing food waste and getting people to shrink their "foodprints," particularly, of course, if they're large. Many are. In the U.S., between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is simply wasted, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, announcing a national Food Waste Challenge.

Some of the bad habits around food we've developed in the U.S. have gone global. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that 1.3 billion metric tons of food is wasted throughout the world every year, the amount of food that's produced in all of sub-Saharan Africa's 48 countries. A study by Chinese researchers concluded that the food wasted in a year by 2,700 families in differently sized Chinese cities could have fed 200 million people, about one-sixth of China's population.

World Environment Day's "Think.Eat.Save." theme probably wasn't on the minds of those shepherding last week's $4.7 billion deal to sell Smithfield, the world's biggest pork producer, to Shuanghui, a Chinese conglomerate with global investors that include Goldman Sachs (Morgan Stanley is providing some of the financing). And yet there is an important link.

A particularly wasteful source of food is industrial animal agriculture. Raising pigs in batches, thousands at a time in tight enclosures on factory farms as Smithfield does, is inherently wasteful. It demands large allotments of grain-based feed and therefore land, pesticides, and fertilizers; considerable amounts of water; and antibiotics and hormones to speed the pigs' growth. Most are slaughtered at the age of six months.

China already raises and slaughters about 500 million pigs a year. Since 1980, overall meat consumption in China has more than quadrupled to 128 pounds a year, about two-thirds of average U.S. levels. Similar to the pattern in the U.S., animal agriculture in China is becoming more vertically integrated, with large corporations increasingly owning not just factory-farm facilities, but also slaughterhouses and feed companies.

An estimated 576 gallons of water and more than four pounds of grain are needed to manufacture just one pound of pork. Factory-farmed pigs also produce titanic amounts of waste, pound-for-pound four times the volume people do. Moreover, the global livestock industry is "probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution," according to the FAO.

With the cash of its soon-to-be new owners, Smithfield is gearing up to sell more U.S. pork to Chinese consumers. Smithfield is also expected to expand operations in China. It's no stranger to the country. In July 2008, the state-owned China National Oils, Foodstuffs and Cereals Corporation (COFCO), China's largest food importer/exporter and a Fortune 500 company, bought a 5 percent share in Smithfield; the year before, Smithfield began exporting pork to China.

China is beginning to reel under the weight of its livestock population, the world's largest. Even though it's not yet a fully fledged "factory-farm nation," strains from its fast-growing livestock sector, and burgeoning appetite for animal-based protein, are showing -- in significant water pollution, soil degradation, rising rates of obesity and chronic disease, risks to food security and food safety, pressure on small farmers, and declining farm-animal welfare.

A report released in April by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Rural Development concluded that, in 2012, large-scale livestock and poultry pollution had become the biggest source of agricultural pollution in China.

China has also become a major importer of soy, for use as livestock feed. In 2010, China bought 55 million tons of soy in global markets -- a record. China's rising demand for soybeans has been met in large measure by the expansion of soy acreage in Brazil, in both the Amazon forest and the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah. Currently, China purchases more than 40 percent of Brazil's soy. Through buying Brazilian soy, China is also importing water, an increasingly precious resource for the country.

Although Smithfield gave a nod to environmental and animal-welfare concerns in the press release announcing the Shuanghui purchase, the company's business practices have raised numerous concerns. Manure from the company's hog facilities has polluted creeks and rivers in North Carolina. It has been accused of intimidating unions, hiring illegal immigrants, and violating labor laws. A 2010 undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S. exposed systematic cruelty at a Smithfield-affiliated pig farm.

It's hard to know how high China's consumption of meat will or can go; presumably Shuanghui and Smithfield are "all in" for boosting supply. But whether China will be able to intensify production on a level akin to that of the U.S. or expand its share of the world protein-export market are open questions. Among the challenges: concerns abroad and at home about Chinese food-safety standards; ecological limits; and rising prices of grain and oil, both essential inputs for large-scale industrial animal agriculture.

Increasingly, Chinese government officials, activists, and netizens alike are focusing on food waste and its effects on food security, natural resources, and climate change. On this World Environment Day, shouldn't we all be doing the same wherever we are, and with the global perspective that's required?

Much of the information in this article is drawn from Brighter Green's policy paper, "Skillful Means: the Challenges of China's Encounter with Factory Farming", which is available, along with other multimedia resources, on Brighter Green's website here.