China’s appetite for pork is growing fast, and so is the size of Chinese pig farms. The government says that’s good for food safety, but it’s not so good for the environment. Elise Potaka reports from Beijing. Download MP3
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. In China, when your order meat at a restaurant, what you get is pork. Pork is among the favorite foods in China, and demand is booming along with the country’s economy. In fact, nearly half the world’s pork is consumed in China. More and more of it is now coming from large industrial pig farms in the country. The government says that’s good for China. But it may not be so good for the country’s environment. Elise Potaka reports from Beijing.
ELISE POTAKA: Two goats, some turkeys, chickens and ducks. But no pigs. 60-year-old Wang Fulian, whose family has a small farm near Beijing, sold her ten pigs last month. It’s a big change for the family. Like millions of other rural households in China, they’ve raised pigs for as long as they can remember. But Wang Fulian wasn’t sad to see them go.
POTAKA: Raising pigs is tough work, Wang says. She doesn’t want the responsibility anymore, nor do her two daughters. They’ve both chosen to work in factories instead of on the farm. It’s a choice more and more small farmers here are making. And the trend comes just as demand for pork is booming. Chinese love to eat pork, at home and in restaurants like this one. It accounts for more than two-thirds of the country’s growing meat consumption and demand has more than doubled in the last 15 years. Until recently, the vast majority of this came from small backyard operations like the Wang’s. But today, most comes from bigger farms. Places like this one, outside of Beijing where farmer Yue Wei raises his animals in a large enclosure with a line of concrete stalls, and crates where sows feed their young.
POTAKA: Yue says his operation currently houses more than 100 pigs, and he’s hoping to upscale to 500. But even that would still be modest in comparison to some other operations here.
KEVIN CHEN: It’s not unusual, now you see really huge pig facilities which can accommodate more than 100,000 piglets.
POTAKA: Kevin Chen is a senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Beijing.
CHEN: So it’s really big.
POTAKA: China is seeing a boom in what are known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. It’s an intensive method of raising livestock developed in the west, in which hundreds or even thousands of animals are raised in very close quarters. The trend is being encouraged by the government.
CHEN: The Chinese government certainly see the needs of rising large operations to supply more safer products.
POTAKA: Food safety is a big issue in China. Chen says the government believes it’s easier to supervise a small number of intensive livestock operations, than millions of backyard farms. But that’s not the only reason Beijing is backing big hog farms. Chen says in China, a steady pork supply is seen as vital to social stability.
CHEN: You saw when there’s a surge on the pork prices three years ago there was panic in the government in China. And they worry about people do not have enough pork, and they got unhappy and maybe something bad will happen. So they take that very seriously.
POTAKA: Last year, the government handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for large pig and other livestock facilities. But the transformation is bringing its own set of problems.
MA JUN: The livestock farming has been a major contributor to our water pollution.
POTAKA: Ma Jun is an environmental activist and author of the book China’s Water Crisis. Earlier this year the Chinese government reported that water pollution from agriculture is much worse than had been thought. Ma says that’s partly because animal waste from farms often runs untreated into waterways. That can be a problem on small farms, but it can be much worse with large ones. And Ma says CAFOs tend to create waste problems that aren’t found at all on traditional farms.
JUN: The discharge may contain more of pathogens and other toxic waste, because some of the feed contains some unfavorable materials.
POTAKA: Ma says these unfavorable materials can include heavy metals, antibiotics and hormones. He acknowledges that the rise of CAFOs in China may have some benefits. Larger pig farms can afford to invest in waste treatment systems, he says. And it’s harder for them to avoid government scrutiny. But that assumes that the government is watching closely, and there are often lots of incentives for officials to look the other way. But there are also incentives for farmers, and the government, to manage the growing volume of hog waste better. Among other things, the government is pushing the use of biogas digesters, a technology that’s becoming commonplace on many farms including that of Yue Wei.
POTAKA: Yue points to three large tanks, and describes how the waste from his hundred or so pigs is converted into a gas that can be used for cooking. The system also produces fertilizer that Yue can use on his own farm, or sell to others. The technology lets pig farmers get value out of what can otherwise be a problem. It also dovetails the Chinese government’s efforts to develop renewable energy. But biogas systems are expensive, and they don’t get rid of chemical contaminants. That means the Chinese government is under pressure to cultivate new solutions as the size of pig farms expand, along with the country’s appetite for pork. For the World, I’m Elise Potaka in Beijing.
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