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The meat hook: satiating Asia’s demand for beef

Three Brazilian cows observe the photographer. Beef production is resource-intensive, and five times more greenhouse gas is emitted in the process than for other types of livestock production, but exact environmental costs of beef production are difficult to measure. Photo credit: Rhett Butler, Mongabay

  • Traditionally, beef was never a favored meat across much of Asia, but rising incomes and changing cultures are dramatically increasing beef demand on the continent.
  • Increased beef demand in China is bumping up imports from Brazil, leading to a new boom in local beef production.
  • Given the massive climate impact of beef production, some Asian nations are trying to dissuade beef consumption but the results, if any, remain to be seen.

Beef has never been a favored meat in most of Asia. Cows are harder to raise than chickens and pigs, which take up less space and can be fed scraps. A large majority of India practices Hinduism, a religion that reveres cows. Islamic societies, too, have traditionally disliked beef. Beef is also often costlier than other types of meat. But with mean disposable incomes climbing in many Asian countries, everything has changed.

Per capita consumption of beef and total meat in kilograms, in 2010 and projected for 2025, in Japan, China, India and other selected countries. Japan’s demand for beef is increasing at the fastest rate, whereas the demand for beef in places like Australia, Argentina and the U.S. is shrinking. Credit: DiLorenzo, N., G. C. Lamb, J. C. B. Dubeux, D. D. Arthington, J. M. B. Vendramini, and P. Lancaster (2014).

China’s explosive growth spurt highlights this trend. Just thirty years ago, beef was so rare in China it was known as “millionaire’s meat”. But China’s growing appetite for beef means that more of it needs to be produced each year. As for how much more, a projected 2.5 million additional metric tons between the years 2010 and 2025, or about the weight of 1.25 million rhinos – far more rhinos than are found on Earth.

India is also experiencing an exploding demand for beef and veal. A 2014 survey of beef consumption in India found that the demand for these meats rose more than any other – likely because young Indians are beginning to explore alternatives to vegetarianism, especially with fast-food chains mushrooming in urban areas.

It does not stop with India. Professor Stephen Hesse, law professor at Chuo University, Tokyo, explained that yakiniku – grilled meat – restaurants are widespread and very popular among young people in Japan, from students to laborers and office workers. Japan also has the fifth highest number of McDonald’s outlets per capita, after the U.S., New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

“Among the older generations, a more traditional, low beef diet remains more common, and this seems especially true in rural areas,” he said. “In contrast, urban residents often eat more prepared foods, fast foods, and western-style meals that include beef.”

Consumers wait to order food inside a Burger King outlet in Singapore. Fast food joints are quickly becoming ubiquitous in Asia, with Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore being three of the globe’s top ten countries with the highest number of McDonald’s outlets per capita. Photo credit: MAXINE CHEN

Feeding Cattle to Asia

But Asia is not known for its beef production – so where is this all coming from?

In 2000, the superpowers of global beef exports were Latin America, Europe and North America. In the last 17 years, China has entered the fray.

“There are largely three ways that cows are produced [in China] – by small-scale farmers, who sell beef to middlemen or contract out with big business, ranching in more remote areas, and via agribusiness,” Professor John Donaldson, Senior Research Fellow at the Lien Centre for Social Innovation and Associate Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University, told Mongabay.

China produces most of its cattle in the Central Plains (especially Shandong and Henan) and Northeast China (especially Jilin and Liaoning), areas where crop-growing is also common.

On top of producing its own beef, China must still import beef from abroad. The country used to import most of its beef from Australia, but since 2015 it has increasingly shipped in beef from Brazil and Argentina. In fact, in the single span of August 2016, Chinese beef imports rose nearly 50 percent – and almost all of this beef came from Brazil.

The U.S. produced 18.8 percent of the world’s beef and veal in metric tons (carcass weight equivalent) in 2016, while China produced 11.4 percent of it. China is Asia’s number one in beef and veal production, far outstripping India and Pakistan. Credit: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (October 2016).

But where each Asian country gets its beef largely hinges on its trade links, policies, the tendency to farm cattle locally, and many other factors.

Local beef from Japanese cattle is highly prized both inside and outside Japan – and often more expensive than other sources.

“Japanese farms produce a large share of the country’s beef supply,” a 2010 report from the USDA stated. “The beef herd numbers 2.89 million head, comparable with the number of cattle in Colorado.”

Still, since the 1990s Japan has imported about sixty percent of the beef it consumes. Ninety percent of these imports are from the U.S. and Australia, and investors expect that beef imports from Australia will rise, due to the 2015 Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement which grants massive tax reductions on Australian beef through 2030.

A herd of cattle in the Amazon. Brazil is the world’s greatest producer of beef after the U.S. Photo credit: Rhett Butler, Mongabay

These intricate trade movements show that much of Asia’s growing demand for beef is being met by livestock from overseas.

Environmental costs of Asia’s newfound appetite

There is no shortage of studies showing that beef production is the most resource-intensive kind of meat production. A 2014 study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, revealed that producing beef requires 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water to produce than the average of pork, poultry or other types of livestock.

Beef also comes with a major climate impact. Beef production releases five times more greenhouse gases than the average of other livestock categories. It also produces six times more reactive nitrogen, which is known to cause air and water pollution. And compared to foods like potatoes, wheat, and rice, beef production requires a whopping 160 times more land and produces 11 times more greenhouse gases.

“The study thus elucidates the multiple environmental benefits of potential, easy-to-implement dietary changes, and highlights the uniquely high resource demands of beef,” wrote the researchers.

The environmental costs of farming cattle could vary greatly from one country of production to another, according to a study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published in 2013. The study showed how a cattle farmer in a region like sub-Saharan Africa would likely use much poorer quality of feed than one in Europe. Because of this, cattle in countries like Ethiopia and Somalia account for up to a whopping 1,000 kilograms of carbon for each kilogram of protein they produce – carbon in the form of methane from manure and from the reduced carbon absorption that follows when forests are cut down for farming. In contrast, each kilogram of protein produced by cattle in many parts of the U.S. and Europe produces around 100 kilograms of carbon, still a significant amount but ten times less than poorer regions.

Given the diversity of eating and farming practices in Asian countries, the environmental costs of cattle production on the continent are equally hard to measure.

As an example, Hesse pointed to Japan. “Since Japan imports about 60 percent of the food it consumes, most of the negative impacts of industrial meat production remain in those nations that export their beef, pork and chicken to Japan. Getting a clear sense of the environmental costs of meat consumption in Japan is difficult.”

Three Brazilian cows observe the photographer. Beef production is resource-intensive, and five times more greenhouse gas is emitted in the process than for other types of livestock production, but exact environmental costs of beef production are difficult to measure. Photo credit: Rhett Butler, Mongabay

Asian-inspired solutions

When it comes to sustainable alternatives to beef, there may be much to learn from Asians themselves.

In June 2016, for example, the Chinese government issued dietary guidelines with the aim of reducing its citizens’ meat consumption by 50 percent. Still, it remains to be seen whether the country’s demand for meat proves too powerful to curb with a government directive.

“These sorts of things are difficult for the government to make appreciable difference on through morality or education,” Donaldson said.

Another option is to promote something else – foods with a much smaller environmental impact.

“I think there are already pretty good alternatives existent in Asia, i.e. insects in the Mekong region, soy elements in vegetarian cuisine and East Asian cultures,” said Michelle Lai, contributor to UK-based sustainable development non-profit Forum for the Future.

About 95 percent of Lao people eat insects. Currently, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is researching sustainable insect farming there as a source of income and food.

In Cambodia, eating tarantulas is not unheard of, and in Thailand, crickets and other insects are a regular street food with extremely tiny environmental footprints.

Algae is consumed in many forms in swathes of Eastern Asia. Nori (a type of dried seaweed) is a key feature of snacks and meals, especially in Japan and Korea. Kanten (a jelly-like substance obtained from algae), known in areas outside Japan as agar, is a common treat in much of Asia. And in the Philippines, sea grapes, or lato, are used for salads.

Finally, there is a notion in Chinese and Southeast Asian culinary traditions that virtually all parts of an animal are useful – including the cartilage, blood, heads, and feet.

Hawkers at work in Liuhe night market in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Taiwanese street food culture entails different parts of an animal – like heads, feet, and trotters – being served and devoured without a single eyelid batted. Photo credit: Derrick Chin

“Perhaps the tipping point would be when Asian appetites start seeing how protein alternatives can be adapted to their (slightly modern) taste buds,” Lai wrote in an e-mail.

One thing is for certain – environmentalists are watching Asia’s rocketing demand for beef, because any shifts in Asian appetites could make a world of difference to the planet’s environmental health.


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