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A Look into China's Pork Industry

September 1, 2021
Time to read: 4 minutes

Two major factors seem to be the main driving force behind the industry’s recent development: the central government’s push for maintaining a self-sufficient food economy, and the historical prevalence of disease outbreaks among livestock.

In 2020 alone, the consumption of pork in China was more than six times US consumption. Contrary to the U.S.’s affinity for beef and dairy, the primary meat of production and consumption in China is pork, accounting for two-thirds of China’s total meat output. Pigs have been a core part of China’s culture and subsistence for centuries. They were initially valued for their role as manure and fertilizer producers, scavenging proclivity (making them low-maintenance options for upkeep), and involvement in cultural activities, such as funerary rituals and ancestral rites.

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Prior to the industrialization of pig farming in China, farming in rural households or communes were the main forms of livestock production, in which these animals were raised primarily for personal consumption rather than for market. At that point, the annual consumption of pork was around 7kg per capita—the average Chinese person would consume less than 10% of a whole pig per year! In fact, occasions of eating pork were so seldom that its consumption was associated with prosperity and good health

It wasn’t until 1980-2010 that China underwent an agricultural revolution that paved the way for the industry as it is today. In 1985, the Chinese government aimed to double per capita intake of meat in order to improve dietary intake of protein, characterizing this “hidden agricultural revolution” with increases in land productivity, labor force, and the production of more high-value agricultural products, such as meat, poultry, fish, milk, and eggs. The traditional animal factory farming model that developed in the U.S. in 1970 was also adopted in the 1980’s in China, continuing to intensify well into the 1990s. The government invested in reproductive and breeding science, with the help of American scientists, to transform the model of commune and household pig-raising into the factory farm models seen today. In fact, commercial pig farms in China nowadays exclusively rear directly imported breeds or resulting eugenic mixed breeds.  

Two major factors seem to be the main driving force behind the industry’s recent development: the central government’s push for maintaining a self-sufficient food economy, and the historical prevalence of disease outbreaks among livestock.

As the government aims to create a self-sufficient national food supply, local producers of pork not only need to produce enough pork to satisfy significant national appetite, they also need to stay price competitive against foreign imports. Yet in 2007, pork prices surged amidst extensive transitions to large-scale factory farming. As household farming was replaced, market prices started to reflect labor, equipment and processing costs that weren’t part of production costs before. Additionally, grain feed supply has always been a limiting factor to industry growth, as not only do these crops require specific biomes to grow, much more of this grain is consumed directly by the Chinese population compared to Western counterparts. In response to the price surge in 2007, the China Bank Regulatory Commission, a central banking organization, ordered commercial, rural and village banks to offer financial loans to local pig farms. Today, the government continues to subsidize producers through direct investments in facility construction, as well as free mandatory immunizations against certain diseases.

The subsidies granted for immunizations came about due to a massive African Swine Flu epidemic in 2018 that crippled industry output. The outbreak was exacerbated by a lack of rigorous health and safety standards as well as poor enforcement among small-scale farming operations. In response, pigs suspected of infection were culled, creating an estimated total slaughter of 40 million pigs. The steep inflation and rising pork prices have also been motivators for boosting more large-scale pig farming.  Furthermore, national alarm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has given priority to further investment in health and sanitary procedures. 

The swine industry in China has since rebounded, and in 2019, the output of swine production was larger than the cattle, poultry, sheep, and goat industries combined. At the end of 2020, Muyuan Foods, China’s biggest swine-producing corporation, unveiled its biggest farming complex yet: 21 buildings, 6 floors each, with an estimated 2.1 million pigs to be produced a year. The raising, slaughtering, processing and waste treatment are all planned to occur within this one complex. The complex boasts highly technological and mechanized production systems, limiting human interaction with pigs, emphasizing increased focus and research into the digitization of factory farming operations. 

However, despite rapid industrialization, infectious diseases continue to be a concern due to poor local enforcement and different rates of modernization across the country and across meat industries. Along with the public health impacts, the rapid industrialization of pig farming has also caused ecological effects, including a decline in biodiversity of pigs, where many indigenous pigs have gone either extinct or endangered. 

As China aims for a self-sufficient food supply amidst concerns about sanitary practices, government and industry professionals continue to develop mechanized and digitized factory farm operations at staggering scales. Since emerging diseases and high pork prices encourage more investment and research into technological advancement in pig factories, the increased production of pigs becomes possible at lower prices, driving national supply and demand for pork. As consumer demand increases, so will the need for more advanced large-scale pig farming facilities, which may propel a vicious cycle perpetuating the expansion of factory farming. 

Ryan Tseng is an FFAC intern and studies International Studies, Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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