Meat And Soy Consumption: China Is The World Leader


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They say what goes up must come down. It’s been true of every global superpower throughout history; the Roman empire, the British, and now America’s economic dominance is drawing to an end.

You would have to be living under a rock not to know that China the next rising superpower and with it a surge of resource use that’s never been seen before. As the number of farmed animals grown for food explodes so does the amount of associated forest, savannah and grasslands that are cleared for agriculture use, both for crop production and housing of these animals. This threatens biodiversity, depletes ecosystem services and emits vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

But what many people don’t realise is the dramatic and intensifying impact that the soybean is having on our planet—many people who consume an omnivorous diet argue that adopting a plant-based diet is completely futile because of the devastation of the soybean.

China’s Meat And Soy Consumption

It is estimated that by 2016 China will overtake the economic dominance of the United States and place itself as the world’s leading nation in terms of economy.

With the rise of such an economy, the 1.3 billion strong Chinese population will continue to boom. During the 20th century alone, the global population grew from 1.65 billion to 6 billion. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to be over 9.6 billion people.

That is certainly a lot of people to feed on a planet with finite space, resources and waning tolerance for greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal Meat Demand

In 1978, China’s animal meat consumption of 8 million tons was 1/3 of the US consumption of 24 million tons. But by 1992, China had overtaken the United States as the world’s leading meat consumer and hasn’t looked back since.

By 2012, China’s annual meat consumption of 71 million tons was more than double that in the United States. With US meat consumption falling and China’s consumption still rising, the trajectories of these two countries are determining the shape of agriculture, both animal and crop, around the planet.

While all farmed animals around the globe suffer immensely at the hand of humans, there is one species of animal that suffers in the greatest number at the hand of Chinese consumers: Pigs.

Pigs accounts for nearly 3/4 of China’s meat consumption and more than half of the world’s number of pigs live in China—some 680 million. During 2012, the projected consumption of pig flesh was projected to reach 52 million tons—leaps ahead of the 8 million tons eaten in the United States and bounds ahead of Australia, where chicken and cow flesh are more popular.

Soy Production

Soy was introduced to Europe and North America in the 18th century mainly as a forage crop and soy wasn’t grown on a significant scale outside Asia until relatively recently. Large-scale soybean production took off in the US after World War II and by 1970 it was producing 3/4 of the global crop. But after years of expansion, the US had few options for bringing new land into production, and soy began its march into South America.

Along with grain, the other dominate component in typical farmed animal feed is the soybean. When most people think about soy, they tend to associate it with tofu, soy milk and generally those today who consume a plant-based diet. However, soy consumption has a far greater reach in our diets than what most people realise.

Products Derived From Soy

The vast majority of soy today is milled into high-protein soy meal which has become the world’s number-one animal feed. Soy oil is used for cooking, in margarines and in other consumer goods, such as cosmetics and soaps. Soy oil is also increasingly used as a biofuel. And soy derivatives, such as the emulsifier lecithin, are used in a wide range of processed foods, including chocolate, ice cream and baked goods.

With the rise of industrial-scale factory farming of animals, soy has undergone the largest expansion of any crop. Since 1970, the area of land devoted to cultivating soy has more than tripled. And demand continues to increase, particularly in China: projections suggest that global soy production could almost double by 2050.

Soy Consumption

While soybeans can be eaten directly by humans, most are crushed to produce protein-rich soy meal, vegetable oil and by-products. The meal is used primarily as a high-protein feed for farmed animals which causes them to grow quickly, and soy oil is used both in food and, more recently, as a biofuel.

In regards to the global production of soy, currently:

  • 3/4 of soy is turned into soy meal which is used for animal feed.
  • Only a small portion of soybeans are consumed directly by humans—approximately 6%. Whole beans may be eaten as a vegetable, or crushed and incorporated into tofu, tempeh, soy milk or soy sauce. 2% of the meal is further processed into soy flours and protein additives.
  • Soy oil is also used to produce biodiesel, although this remains a small proportion—just 2%—of total soy production.

China overtook the United States in the amount of soybean meal fed to farmed animals in 2008, but it was not able to do so without help from the outside world. In 1995 China produced some 14 million tons of soybeans and also consumed 14 million tons. By 2011, China still produced 14 million tons of soybeans but it consumed 70 million tons.

As soy meal is fed mostly commonly to pigs and chickens and more than half of the world’s number of pigs live in China, more than 60% of world soybean exports, nearly all from the US, Brazil, and Argentina, go to China.

In order to sustain the 9.6 billion people who are predicted to inhabit the earth by 2050, the amount of land designated to grow farmed animal feed alone would have to increase by 42%. Unfortunately even using highly productive croplands to produce animal feed, no matter how efficiently, represents a net drain on the world’s potential food supply where around 1/3 of global cropland is used to grow animal feed.

Market Share

A relatively small number of big companies control large volumes of the soy value chain.

In Europe these include, for pig meat, Danish Crown (Denmark), VION (Netherlands) and Tönnies (Germany); for chicken meat, LDC and Groupe Doux (France) and Plukon Food Group (Netherlands). In Brazil, pig and and chicken meat processing is concentrated: JBS, Brasil Foods and Marfrig have a joint market share of around 30% for poultry.

Similarly, the top 3 chicken meat processors in the US–TysonFoods, Pilgrim’s (a subsidiary of JBS) and Perdue–have a 45% market share. For pig meat, Smithfield is by far the largest player in the US market.

Smithfield has recently been acquired by the Chinese Shuanghui (Shineway) Group in the largest ever takeover of a US company by a Chinese company.

Environmental Impact of Soy Consumption

China’s insatiable appetite for animal meat has altered the landscape of the western hemisphere, where the land planted in soybeans now exceeds that in either wheat or corn. Rainforest and savanna have been cleared to make way for a vast soybean monoculture and as more and more of China’s 1.3 billion people become financially well-off, its soybean imports will almost certainly continue to climb.

The massive growth in soy production has led to the devastating loss of natural ecosystems in South America on a vast scale and soy expansion remains one of the biggest threats facing the natural world today.

Millions of hectares of forest, savannah and grasslands have been destroyed in recent decades, threatening biodiversity, depleting ecosystem services and emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Today, soy consumption continues to put extreme pressure on forests considered the “lungs of our planet” including the Amazon, the AtlanticForest and the ChiquitanoDryForest, as well as mixed landscapes, savannahs and natural grasslands such as the Cerrado, the GranChaco, the Pampas in Argentina, the UruguayanCampos and the NorthAmericanprairies

The area of land in South America devoted to soy grew from 17 million ha in 1990 to 46 million ha in 2010, mainly on land converted from natural ecosystems. While this approach to agriculture has lead to an increase animal meat production and brought economic benefits to the countries that produce and trade it, converting natural ecosystems carries an extremely heavy cost and one that we potentially will not recover from.

Since the planet is not growing, this means more forests will be converted to crop land and larger amounts the two primary greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide (CO2) and relating methane (CH4), will enter our atmosphere contributing to the worsening of climate change.

Soy, Where To From Here?

In the coming decades, carrying on with “business as usual” will mean further loss of forests and other natural ecosystems. And when they are gone, they are lost forever–irreplaceable biodiversity, priceless natural and cultural heritage, essential services that we take for granted, from clean water and productive soils to disease control and a global climate that doesn’t threaten our very way of life.

But it doesn’t have to go this way.

Many people who consume an omnivorous diet argue that a complete abstinence of eating animal meat and dairy is a completely futile approach to climate change, deforestation and resource drain because plant-based diets (often consisting of many soy-based products) result in dramatic deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. While direct human consumption of soy does play its small part in the on-going required agriculture involving land use and its associated greenhouse gas emissions, it is still absolutely dwarfed by the immense amount of soy consumed by farmed animals–3/4 of the global production.

There is certainly no doubt that we are in this together as a species and playing the us versus them blame-game results in very little progress. All of our choices do ultimately contribute to resource use and a resulting environmental impact, but the question is, to what extent do your choices impact our world?

Adopting a plant-based diet reduces the amount of animals grown by the agriculture industry and thus, reduces the demand for crops, such as soy, to be produced to feed the farmed animals who are destined for the slaughterhouse.

Stating that a plant-based diet does not help our environment is a completely false statement. When climate change is undeniable, we must certainly continue to work to towards more efficient, environmentally conscientious industries across the globe–agriculture is not exempt. In fact, it is one of the most important. It is very clear that animal agriculture results in a larger resource use and detrimental environmental impact, and thus, the resulting climate change increase.

The more people who adopted plant-based diets across the world, the more we will reduce the burden on the amount of land cleared, the amount of animals and crops grown, and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated.

It’s time to act now.

Sources: News, Earth Policy, Tree Hugger,One Green Planet, WWF, Soyatech, WWF Growth Of Soy, National Geographic.
Meat And Soy Consumption: China Is The World Leader
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