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Got Pork?

A look into China's secret pork reserves, and how the pig is hogging the world stage

01·31·2013

In 1945 George Orwell transformed a farm into a “fairy story.” His leaders restored order, provided food for the community and kept social harmony. Little did Orwell know, his predictions on the leading breed of animal were true. They are China’s new Red Army. Collectively, they weigh in at 220,000 tons.

The government’s secret stash of pork (猪肉 zhūròu) illustrates how the pig is king in China. As a hot commodity, pork indexes the inflation of an economy holding together 1.3 billion people. As a cultural symbol, pork reflects the ever-changing and modern Chinese society. With Spring Festival approaching on February 10, now is the perfect time to check-up on our favorite piece of meat.

An Army of Pork

China’s pork reserves may be one of the government’s best kept secrets. In 2006-7, an outbreak of “blue ear pig disease” destroyed an estimated 2 million pigs, not accounting for the fact that China loses about 25 million pigs annually to other diseases. CCP addressed the shortage by creating a pig reserve. These pigs exist alongside China’s grain and oil reserves.

As you might imagine, most of the reserves are icy warehouses stocked full of pork. This is a tricky situation, as frozen meat expires after four months. To ensure a steady supply to the reserve, the government keeps a virtual reserve. In Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, for example, the government subsidizes farmers 20 RMB for each pig it keeps alive.

The drive behind maintaining an, at times, expensive and burdensome industry is to curb inflation. Fluctuations in demand and unpredictable weather patterns cause pork prices to  rise and fall. China’s Consumer Price Index is referenced jokingly as the “China Pork Index.” When food prices account for nearly a third of this index, the CCP knows the higher chance they have of keeping commodity prices down, the lower the chance they have for social upheaval.

Year of the Pig

In 2011, the Chinese consumed 50 million tons of pork or more than half the world’s total. To a certain extent, the Chinese people’s love of pork is not new. It is seen in dishes ranging from pork floss to guobaorou. It is especially popular around Chinese New Year, when the Chinese hang lawei in their kitchens and practice the tradition of “slaughtering pigs”(杀猪 shāzhū) or “cutting meat”(割肉 gēròu) on the 26th day of the last month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

However, an increased consumption of pork points to China’s growing economy. At a college reunion, classmate-turned-city-judge Qian Yingjie recalled his childhood experiences, when spending 1.5 RMB on a kilo of pork still cost a pretty yuan.

“If I heard there was meat at school,” he said, “I’d line up twice in a row. . . . Back in those days, all I could think about was eating meat!”

Thus, meat became a treat reserved for Spring Festival activities. Today, the average Chinese consumer quadrupled his intake of pork in 2007 compared to the 1990s. As Co.Exist predicts, “In the future, it will always be the Year of the Pig.”

An Expensive Oinker

As China struggles to feed it’s hungry population on less than 10 percent of its arable land, pig farms provide a solution. China invested £1bn between 2007 and 2010 into massive, industrial farms . There certainly is room for development, as pork production is only located on 22 percent of China’s industrial lots compared to 97 percent of lots in America.

When pork becomes so valued in the Chinese market, it can almost be guaranteed that its repercussions are global in scope. While China produces about the same amount of pork as it consumes, it struggles to provide pig feed. Soybeans and corn are the fuel behind the fire. In 2012, China imported 60 percent of the world’s soya beans, reserved exclusively for pigs. Its main trading partners are the U.S. and fellow BRIC, Brazil.

The real question becomes sustainability. Can the world support China’s hunger for pigs? Much like the air in China’s biggest cities, greenhouse gases and water pollution are the outcomes of an increased pork supply. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that livestock pollution makes up 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So far, the Chinese have not opened their coveted pork reserves. But this silent army will continue watching, waiting to be eaten.

Image courtesy of jwen83 by Flickr.

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