THEAt a dinner at a busy barbecue restaurant in Shenzhen, Lei Yong and Zhao Xu, two businessmen in their 40s, reflect on how Chinese meat consumption has changed dramatically in their lives, particularly in the past 10-15. years.
“Maybe 20 years ago, people in the villages and smaller cities didn’t eat a lot of meat, but those in the big cities did,” says Zhao, referring to the bustling megacity where he and Lei are raising their families. . “Now people in the bigger cities are more health conscious and eat more vegetables, but those who live in smaller cities have more money. Now they are actually eating a lot more meat. They think being rich means eating more meat. “
Voracious demand from China has helped Brazilian beef sales soar to record levels, but the boom comes at a high environmental cost.
Brazil’s economy has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and more than two million people have lost their jobs. But agriculture continues to flourish and the country is the world’s largest beef exporter.
Brazil supplied 43% of China’s meat imports in 2020, calculated consulting firm Safras & Mercado using government data, and beef exports to the country rose a staggering 76% last year compared to 2019.
“There has been this boom,” says Thiago de Carvalho, professor of agribusiness at the University of São Paulo, highlighting the quality of Brazilian beef and its low price after the Brazilian currency, the real, plummeted last year . “Brazilian meat is [among] the cheapest in the world “.
Sales are expected climb even higher this year, as China’s swine industry struggles to recover from the deadly swine disease, African swine fever.
“China’s need to buy meat last year was impressive,” says Fernando Iglesias, an analyst at Safras & Mercado, which translates as Harvests and Market. “Brazil is more than capable of supplying what the Chinese need.”
Although Chinese eat less meat per capita than Americans, consumption has increased in recent decades as the economy grows. Traditionally, China’s favorite meat is pork, but in 2018 and 2019 more than half of the country’s 440 million pigs they were killed by African swine fever or euthanized to stop its spread. Beef imports increased as China sought to replace protein.
Consumer surveys also show that more Chinese are turning to beef. A survey of wealthy Chinese consumers by the marketing company Beef and cattle Australia found that a third had eaten more meat in the past year.
Almost 70% of China’s Brazilian meat imports It came from the Cerrado, the vast region of the tropical savannah, and the Amazon in 2017, according to Trase (Transparency for Sustainable Economies), a European network that monitors supply chains. About half of the Cerrado and about 20% of the Brazilian Amazon have been cleared, with a devastating impact on global warming, as both are major carbon sinks.
“The Amazon provided about a fifth of China’s imports, but actually accounts for half the risk of deforestation,” says Erasmus zu Ermgassen, a researcher at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and one of the authors of a study on the impact of beef exports.
“Exports are expanding to the Amazon,” says Zu Ermgassen. “When demand increases in the Brazilian agricultural system, it is pushing agriculture further into the forest.”
Since 2019, China has allegedly authorized 22 Brazilian slaughterhouses for export – 14 of them are in the Amazon, while four are in the sprawling Amazonian state of Pará, which has the fifth largest cattle herd in Brazil.
This had a great impact on the price of meat, says Maurício Fraga Filho, rancher and president of the Pará ranchers’ association.
Under Brazil’s far-right populist president Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, the deforestation of the Amazon has risen to a maximum of 12 years. Investors and large Brazilian companies have pressured the Brazilian government to act, and ranchers like Fraga Filho are concerned about possible boycotts.
“This is a great concern,” says Fraga Filho. “The market should not ban products from the Amazon. This will be chaos. “
He says more efforts should be made to help farmers solve legal problems, such as land embargo due to environmental crimes, allowing them to supply meat companies legally. This would prevent them from selling to a black market that “exists and has always existed,” says Fraga Filho. “Today there is no longer a need to deforest.”
Brazil’s big three beef exporters, JBS, Marfrig and Minerva, handled 72% of Brazil’s beef exports between 2015 and 2017, according to Trase. All three have invested heavily in developing systems to monitor their “direct suppliers,” farmers like Fraga Filho, who sell to slaughterhouses, for environmental crimes. But they have not been able to control their “indirect suppliers”, the farms that raise or raise livestock that supply the “direct suppliers”.
Last year, JBS and Marfrig promised full monitoring of their supply chain by 2025 and Minerva is testing a system to control its suppliers.
While China has yet to show concern about the connection between Brazilian beef imports and the deforestation of the Amazon, there are at least signs that its government wants to reduce meat consumption, which would improve public health and reduce carbon emissions. Last September, President Xi Jinping surprised many when he said that China would aim become carbon neutral by 2060.
But while the market for plant-based alternatives is growing, turning people away from meat, and the sense of richness it brings, may prove more difficult than you expect.
Subscribe to the Animals farm monthly update for a roundup of the best agriculture and food stories around the world and keep up to date with our research. You can send us your stories and thoughts at [email protected]
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism