China’s imports of America beef have taken off in 2021. [Image: Etienne Girardet / Unsplash]

How Does China’s Appetite for Meat Affect the United States?

China Asia

As a response to the recent diplomatic turmoil between China and Australia, China shifted away from one of its main beef importers, Australia, and chose United States’ beef as a substitute. While many US meat producers are taking advantage of this beef between China and Australia, other voices claim China’s outsourced pork production is harmful to meat-producing states, namely North Carolina, which sold $209 million meat products to China in 2017.

China is one of the biggest consumers of meat worldwide. Today, 28% of the world’s meat and 50% of all pork go to dining rooms and restaurants in China. The growth rate of the country’s meat consumption has also been stunning. After Deng Xiaoping’s "reform and opening” in the 1960s, Chinese people’s meat consumption soared from less than 5 kg annually to 63 kg today. 

In 2018, the Rolling Stone magazine published an article targeting US meat exports to China. In the article, it says China is treating meat-producing states such as North Carolina like “the developing world,” by outsourcing a polluting industry to America. Indeed, traditional meat production generates 30% to 90% more greenhouse gas than plant-based protein. As the biggest consumer market for meat worldwide, China as a total population, is one of biggest drivers of environmental pollution caused by meat production.

Even though China is one of the biggest consumer markets for meat, China’s meat consumption per capita is low compared to most Western countries. For instance, the United States consumed 264 pounds of meat per capita in 2020 while an average Chinese person only consumed 64.4 kg, about half the amount as an American. As for beef, an American eats 26.3 kg whereas a Chinese eats only 4.1 kg a year, an almost seven times difference. Based on this, individually, a Chinese person’s environmental impact based on meat consumption is low.

In terms of environmental concerns, China’s dietary preference favors pork, which produces far less greenhouse gas than beef. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, China’s 2021 predicted pork imports is 4.5 million metric tons, larger than beef and chicken combined. Pork only generates 13.5 Co2 per kg, while lamb produces 39.2 CO2 per kg and beef produces 27.0 CO2 per kg.

China’s meat market is a $186 billion industry. China has imported 130,319 tons of beef from the United States this year, significantly eclipsing last year by 4 times and 2019 by 20 times. As for pork, the Chinese market accounted for 39% of US exports last year.

These facts are important to consider for agricultural states relying on their meat industry such as Minnesota and Iowa. China was among the top five markets for 45 states in 2020. Minnesota exports to China around $1.5 billion agricultural products annually. Iowa, a state heavily dependent on the pork industry, exported $58 million meat products to China in 2017. As these numbers so, the impact of the Chinese consumer meat market will continue to be felt and debated at the local level.

Oscar Langsha Tao is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a second-year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Chicago.