China’s culinary crossroads

26 July 2012

China’s increasing appetite for meat poses a significant policy conundrum for leaders in Beijing. Chinese meat consumption has quadrupled since 1978 leading to a 5 million tonne a year increase in maize imports to feed livestock, according to a new study from the Overseas Development Institute.

Global maize consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years, owing to increasing use for animal feed, exacerbated sharply in the last decade by US biofuel production which requires 120 million tonnes a year. As highlighted in a new ODI opinion piece, the Chinese increase pales in comparison but represents a new challenge to a country which has traditionally opted out of global food markets. If Chinese meat consumption per person rises to EU levels (over 80kg per person, per year) then China would have to import so much maize from world markets to feed its livestock, that world exports would have to more than double.

ODI Research Fellow Steve Wiggins said:

“In any of the last ten years we would have been looking at a tsunami on the world grain markets if the US crop was expected to be 47M tonnes below the previous forecast. But because such a large US harvest was expected, the net effect is that global maize harvests should still reach a record 905m tonnes, enough to meet expected consumption.”

He went to on to say that:

“US production of biofuels currently requires 120m tonnes of maize a year so next to that the 5m imported by China doesn’t seem so significant, but demand for pork and chicken is going up along with incomes.

The Chinese government faces a significant choice over whether to bring its influence to bear on the nation’s diet if it wants to remain largely self-sufficient in maize production — and to avoid the likely costs to health of diets rich in meat.”

You can read ODI’s latest cereal price briefing here.

ODI’s work on China is part of the Shockwatch workstream and can be found here.