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British pigs fly – to China

Britain and China have agreed a US$80 million (UK£50 million) deal that will see British pork heading to China, the world’s biggest market for pig meat. In announcing the agreement during a trade mission last week, a delighted UK agriculture minister Jim Paice noted that much of the pork to be exported will be animal parts popular with Chinese diners but not with Britons. (While many Chinese enjoy eating the “fifth quarter” of a pig – offal, ears and feet – Britons generally consider it waste.)


British pigs are in demand in China for their fertility and lean meat.

In China, domestic pork supply alone can’t fulfil consumer demands, given the country’s fast-rising taste for meat as it grows richer. In Britain, meanwhile, top-quality meat producers and the government are looking for new markets amid a “double dip” economic recession.

Coming at a time when UK farmers are stepping up exports of live breeding pigs to China, then, the accord – reached after five years of negotiations – sounds like a win-win situation for both countries.

But (and there’s always a “but”) raising livestock uses a great deal of water, land and feed-crop production; it has also been linked to climate change. Those facts haven’t reduced the continued growth of meat production and consumption globally. Since 2000, production has risen by 20% – and pig-meat production alone increased by about 3% in 2010, roughly 100 million tonnes. Average meat consumption worldwide, said WWF’s Living Planet Report 2012, has risen from 34 kilogrammes per year in 1992 to 43 kilogrammes today.

As the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs 2012 report explained: “Livestock account for about 18% of all human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and produce nearly 40% of the world’s methane (a GHG 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and 65% of nitrous oxide (which is 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide).”

Livestock also account for about 23% of all global water use for agriculture, equivalent to 1,150 litres of water per person per day, according to the report, which examines the trends shaping the planet’s future. Feed-crop production in developing countries, it noted, requires one- to two-trillion cubic metres of water per year, while the production of animals themselves takes another 536 billion cubic metres.

Globally in 2010, pork accounted for 38% of meat production, followed by poultry at 34%, beef at 23% and sheep and other products (including buffalo and yak) at 5%. In China, the average person eats seven times as much pork as does a Briton – 37.8 kilogrammes per year compared with 5.1 kilogrammes – according to Euromonitor consumer-research figures cited by The Guardian.

“More than a quarter of all the meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China,” according to the Earth Policy Institute, “and the country’s 1.35 billion people are hungry for more.” The country’s annual consumption of about 65 million tonnes is more than double that in the United States, where meat consumption is falling while China’s is rising. China overtook the United States as the leading meat consumer in 1992, the institute noted, “and it has not looked back since”.

Half of the world’s pigs – about 476 million – are said to live in China. They’re now being joined by increasing numbers of UK-produced animals being exported for live breeding. The British newcomers, one breeder told The Guardian, are arriving at up to 900 at a time on 12-hour jumbo-jet flights. “They get full lie-down beds and water all the way,” the breeder said.

All the comforts of home, then.

As the Earth Policy Institute noted, an ancient written Mandarin Chinese character for “home” depicts a pig under a roof, signifying the animal’s domestic importance. That importance is sure to grow in the foreseeable future, climate change or not.

Image from thornypup.

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