China’s serving up a dilemma for Canadian agriculture

Canada's meat industry will suffer if China's move to lower consumption is successful

Sylvain CharleboisChina consumes 28 per cent of the globe’s meat, including half of its pork. But changes could be coming that will have a dramatic impact on Canada’s agriculture industry.

Years ago, the average Chinese consumer ate about 13 kg; now the average is 63 kg per person and could increase by another 30 kg by 2030.

These are staggering numbers for a country with a population of 1.3 billion and, if nothing changes, they will only go up.

But Chinese public health officials recommend that consumers eat only 40 to 75 grams of meat per day – 50 per cent less than current levels – and look at alternative sources of protein.

Less meat consumption will not only cause changes for China, but also for the rest of the western world, particularly for Canada, and would affect our relationship with animal proteins.

China, like many nations, revisits its food policies once a decade and issues a new food guide to influence consumer behaviour. Since the last guide, the food landscape has changed dramatically. In China, people even consider KFC a great place to have a romantic encounter.

The increase in animal proteins consumption occurred in part because the Chinese believe that to be rich or perceived to be rich, you must eat meat. That attitude, however, is slowly eroding.

The new food guidelines recommend a reduction in meat consumption per capita, from 63 kg per year to between 14 kg to 27 kg. While the underlying intent is to reduce obesity and other health challenges, the implications also include the environmental impact.

In fact, because livestock production is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global climate change emissions,  environmental groups are likely to welcome China’s change in consumption guidelines.

For Canada, this may mean a change in how we approach Asian markets. We currently look at trade deals as gateways to untapped markets where consumers crave more animal proteins. Discussion on protein quality is slowly going mainstream and many governments are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of livestock production. So the potential of Asian markets may need to be revisited as a result of these new guidelines.

There will always be a market for animal protein, but it can only grow by recognizing value-added features. Chains such as A&W, McDonald’s, and even Earls Kitchen and Bar, with its recent humane beef misstep, can speak to how complicated meat consumption has become. As markets mature and become more fragmented, consumers will look for products that reflect the food supply chain and responsible production practices. Issues like animal welfare, organically-focused methods and locally-produced commodities have market currency in many places.

Oddly, based on national food guides, China sees things differently.

Animal protein consumption has been managed and stewarded differently in North America. Lobby groups representing the beef industry have successfully defied government suggestions of new meat consumption guidelines.

However, with China’s call to encourage consumers to look at proteins differently, our beef industry may be at odds with global trends. Beef consumption has been dropping in Canada for decades. So a change in the architecture of the industry only makes sense, and these adjustments need to happen quickly.

That’s particularly true if other Asian countries follow suit. China and the rest of Asia have been seen as beacons of hope for our cattle industry, which has looked to other markets to sell a commodity that is an increasingly difficult sell in the eyes of the modern western consumer.

Since it has a highly organized and co-ordinated economy, China may succeed in reducing meat consumption over the next decade or so. It will be interesting to see how North America and Canada react.

But for now, China may have understood something that the western world has yet to grasp.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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