Webinar on China’s Meat Revolution

This week, IATP will release four new reports on agriculture in China, including looks at the dairy, poultry, feed, and pork industries. To accompany the launch of the reports, the Institute is also hosting a series of  webinars. The second, on “China’s Meat Revolution: Agribusiness, Growth and Its Limits,” is Wednesday, February 19 at 10am CST. I’ll discuss the historic ascent of pork in China, the role of domestic and transnational firms, and some of the environmental implications. You can register for free at the link above.

I’ll post the four reports, including the one I wrote on “China’s Pork Miracle,” when they’re released.

Here’s a blurb from the webinar site:

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork, the second largest producer of poultry and the fourth largest dairy producer. How and why has China achieved this “meat miracle”? What are the politics of this growth and the role of Chinese and foreign transnationals? Can China continue producing and consuming more or are there social and ecological limits that create “peak meat”?

Moderator: Ben Lilliston, VP for Program, IATP

Mindi Schneider, Assistant Professor of Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, Netherlands

Mindi Schneider has done extensive fieldwork in northeast and southwest China on the changing political and economic significance of pork, and the relationships between increased meat consumption, peasant dispossession, and environmental crises. Schneider has published and spoken about her work in China broadly, including the report Feeding China’s Pigs: Implications for the Environment, China’s Smallholder Farmers and Food Security for IATP in 2011.

Shefali Sharma, Director of Agricultural Commodities and Globalization, IATP

Shefali is leading IATP’s initiative on the social and environmental impacts of an increasingly globalized and concentrated meat industry. Her work in the past year has focused on China’s meat and feed industries, the culmination of which are the four IATP reports. Over the last 18 years, Shefali’s work has also focused on accountability of international trade and financial institutions, international trade and agricultural policies and their implications for social justice.


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Documenting Food Sovereignty for Hong Kong TV

Hong Kong is an island. With a population of 7 million, a land mass of 1,104 square kilometers (426 square miles), and agricultural production contributing less than 0.1% to GDP, Hong Kong relies on food imports for most of the population’s dietary needs and culinary desires. One result of this kind of import dependence is that the sites of food production and consumption are not only separate, but the people and places that comprise each sphere are often invisible to one another. In this context, the good people at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) initiated a documentary film project to explore some of Hong Kong’s  broad food questions, and to help educate the public about their answers. The project asks:

Hong Kong market, 2013.

Hong Kong market, 2013.

1. Where does Hong Kong’s food come from?

2. What are some of the social and environmental impacts associated with the food and agricultural systems that produce Hong Kong’s food?

3. Are there more sustainable food and agricultural models that can reverse or alleviate these impacts?

Wet market in Hong Kong, 2013.

Wet market in Hong Kong, 2013.

Starting from these questions, RTHK researcher Stephen Mak, and producer Joseph Hung contacted me earlier this year to discuss the costs and benefits of agricultural development in China in particular. Sharing concerns for food-related issues and how best to put them in the context of a changing China and a changing world, we began collaborating on ways to frame the topic. Last week Joseph  came to Baltimore with a camera man named Kevin to interview me for the project. It was one stop on their North American filming tour that included grain farms and feedlots in Nebraska, the state fair in Kansas,  cattle ranch in Colorado, and fishing in Vancouver.

I shared perspectives from my research on the global and local implications of increased meat consumption in China, starting with the cultural, political, and agroecological history of small-scale pig farming there, and moving through to the pollution, climate, and equality issues (and crises) that have emerged along with US-style large-scale industrial meat production. In order to move beyond just the problems of the agrifood system, I wanted to introduce the concepts of agroecology and food sovereignty into the conversation. While I could offer only a summary and brief explanation, I was thrilled that we had the opportunity to visit Blain Snipstal at Five Seeds Farm outside of Baltimore for a look at these practices and philosophies in action. 

Joseph, Blain, Kevin

Joseph, Blain, and Kevin at Five Seeds Farm.

Interview in the field.

Interview in the field.

I met Blain at a food sovereignty conference in New Haven earlier this month. He was on a panel representing La Via Campesina, Rural Coalition USA, and himself as a farmer, or as Joseph came to call him, a farmer-philosopher. With the farm’s founder, Denzel Mitchell, Blain farms vegetables, fruits, herbs, honey, and eggs on a little more than five acres of land in Sparks, Maryland. Five Seeds has a 50 member CSA, and they sell produce at farmers’ markets and through direct marketing to consumers and restaurants in Baltimore. Using cover crops, intercropping, multiplecropping, and high tunnels, Denzel and Blaine are able to produce nearly year-round, providing fresh, non-toxic food for themselves and their community.

Our trip to Five Seeds Farm, and Blain’s interview, offered a glimpse into sustainable agrifood systems, and another world that is possible. From the farm’s website:

We believe in increasing soil health, water and soil conservation, biodiversity and living in harmony with the environment. Our cultural practices include (but are not limited to) reduced tillage, raised beds, biodegradable mulches, cover cropping, vermi-composting and reducing off-farm fertility inputs.

We straddle the fence in sustainable agriculture but continue to build a healthier and vibrant food system. We remain innovators in a progressive agricultural movement. Five Seeds Farm grows fruit, vegetables, herbs, eggs, honey and animals; we actively choose heritage varieties that threaten to disappear from the collective palate. Our focus is to maintain the practice of harmonious diversified agriculture, the cultural and historic legacies of Baltimore’s food history and culture, Black farming and homesteading.

Watermelon off the vine.

Watermelon off the vine.

Because of Stephen, Joseph, and Kevin’s hard work and vision, and Blain’s commitment to a kind of farming that leaves his fields fit for children to play in and people to eat from, viewers in Hong Kong are in for quite a treat. They’ll see not only the industrial forms of agricultural production that bring much of their food to the island, but they will also see what smallholder farmers around the world are doing to ensure local  food security, global food sovereignty, and a food-just future for us all.

It’s happening.



How many crops can you find?

How many crops can you find?

Five Seeds Farm: An oasis of food in a landscape of feed.

Five Seeds Farm: An oasis of food in a landscape of feed.

The RTHK documentary will air in Hong Kong in November in Cantonese. An English version will follow. Stay tuned…

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Dead Pigs Flood Shanghai: How did that happen?

Workers are pulling thousands of dead pigs out of the Huangpu River that runs through Shanghai. Eartags on the deceased swine indicate that they are from neighboring Zhejiang Province, though the cause of death is not yet known.

Is this a China problem? Or is this a problem of industrial pig farming?

In the cramped and stifling  quarters of a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation), genetically identical pigs die because they’re sick and/or stressed, and because the genetic diversity that would otherwise confer some level of disease resistance on the population has been replaced by homogeneity in search of so-called production efficiencies.  Dead pigs are common to all industrial production, all across the globe. Consider that in the United States, industrial swine farms have an average 3% mortality rate. That means that for a 10,000 head finishing operation, each year, 300 dead pigs have to be disposed of. And that’s just one farm, in a regular season, without a disease outbreak!

Disposal practices in the US include burying carcasses on-farm, incinerating them, taking them to rendering plants (of which there are only a few that accept dead animals), or composting them. Composting is the so-called “sustainable” solution to industrial hog mortality. After all, composting creates a nutrient-rich product that can be incorporated into soils surrounding the pig farm, feeding the next corn crop.

Except that “nutrients”  coming out of the CAFO  in the form of manure are already in excess of what the soils surrounding the pig farm can absorb. Industrial pig farming transforms manure from a resource to a waste management nightmare to a serious pollution problem to dead zones to…you get the picture. There’s simply too much. Too much phosphorus, too much nitrogen, TOO MUCH.

So composting dead pigs to make “fertilizer” isn’t all that sustainable. It’s excess, just like the system itself produces excess — phosphorus, CO2,meat, calories, corporate concentration…

The dead pigs in the Huangpu likely succumbed to a viral outbreak, which because industrial pig farming is practiced using “improved” pig breeds that are genetically identical (and by the way, are the very same pigs we produce in the United States), easily wipes out hundreds or thousands of animals in one go. This incident is not the result of production mismanagement by Chinese farmers, although this is the analysis we’ll no doubt see in the Western press (and dumping infected swine carcasses in rivers is surely its own special form of mismanagement, but that’s a different issue). We’ll also see the industry in the US come out and say that we don’t have dead pigs in our rivers, and we’ve got this dead pig disposal thing nailed down. But they’ll be wrong about that, and both will miss the point.


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Pigs and Pollution in The Guardian

Nicola Davison at The Guardian wrote a very good piece on the relationship between industrial pig farming and the challenges it creates for rural livelihoods in China. Read it here:

China’s taste for pork serves up a pollution problem.

(I’m also quoted in the article, talking about meat and modernity and pork price.)

Piglets at a farm in Suining, Sichuan province. Chinese people are eating four times as much pork as in 1980. Photograph: View China Photo/Rex Features

Piglets at a farm in Suining, Sichuan province. Chinese people are eating four times as much pork as in 1980. Photograph: View China Photo/Rex Features

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Demand is a Construct…so let’s demand something REAL!

Economistic thinking is the default setting for understanding how the world works. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the theory of supply and demand. From hedge fund managers, to professors of economics and business and psychology and plant breeding, to policy makers and analysts, to students, to journalists, to grandma, to your average Joe(lene), when confronted with issues of resource distribution, supply and demand is the go-to explanation. The idea that markets simply respond to “what people want,” pricing those things based on “what is available,” might in fact be the most powerful idea shaping our world today.

But it’s an idea.

I’ll be quite forward: I don’t believe in supply and demand. I don’t think it’s a real thing, and I don’t think it’s even a good idea for organizing the allocation of resources. In relation to the hegemony of supply and demand thinking, one of the most difficult problems to arise is that we tend to mistake something that is a concept and a construct, for something that is natural, inevitable, and just “the way things are.” We reify it.

Pig Progress news from today provides a concrete example of this process: the article US: Funding to drive pork demand is a peek into the way that millions of dollars are expended to create consumer demand, and at the same time, to funnel capital to agribusiness. Demand, in other words, is a construct, with powerful forces behind every turn.

I imagine that one of the reasons we’re so keen on the idea of demand is that it makes us, as individuals, feel we have something to contribute – some power – in shaping the course of economies and societies and histories. But thinking of our engagement primarily in terms of what we do with our wallets is outrageously disempowering, and suggests more about the ways in which we’ve actually been disempowered in the course of the attempted marketization of everything.

What we buy is not who we are.

Purchases are not votes.

We are not empowered through consumption.

Understanding supply and demand as a theoretical construct has important implications, not least of which is the parallel that we should take the concept of demand and turn it into something real. I’ll start with a few ideas:

I demand a food system that isn’t controlled by corporate elites who use “food, agriculture, land” as investment categories; a food system that doesn’t make our air, water, and soil toxic; a food system that operates in a way that gives people dignity and nutrition and community; a food system that is inclusive and equal.

These demands have no price or market. We can’t buy them; we can only make them.

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Food for 9 Billion China Story

The Center for Investigative Reporting, along with PBS and Homelands Productions, has been working on a series of short documentary film pieces that examine the challenges of feeding the world today. The last installment in their yearlong project, Food for 9 Billion, is a story about China and meat (watch it here). This piece aired November 13, 2012 on the NewsHour on PBS, and will be housed on the CFIR website hereafter. Mary Kay Magistad, the China Correspondent for PRI’s The World, and producer Cassandra Herrman put the China story together. They came to Ithaca in August to talk to me about pigs and meat in China, and my report, Feeding China’s Pigs: Implications for the Environment, China’s Smallholder Farmers and Food Security. They’ve done a nice job presenting a complex set of processes and relationships in the span of a 10-minute piece. I do have some issues with the analysis of food safety, which I’ll comment on very soon…

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Guest Blogs: China in Transition

Since Reform and Opening in 1978, and especially in the last decade, China’s economic growth has been remarkable. With annual growth rates around 10%, analysts have marveled at the success of the country’s export-led model of development. Today, it’s unclear how long China can sustain such rapid growth, and to what extent exports should be balanced with domestic consumption. At the same time, pursuit of a robust economy is one of the primary avenues through which central and local governments claim legitimacy and justify certain sacrifices. So while researchers and policy makers try to figure out the most appropriate growth rate for continuing the headlong march towards ideas and goals of development and social stability, increasing incidents of protest — whether around degrading environments, working conditions, or political freedoms — suggest the challenges that lie ahead.

In the wake of economic growth and transition we need to also assess how the processes of modernization, industrialization, and development have been, and are being, experienced differently by different groups of people in China. We need to critically examine the environmental and human health implications of China’s export-led development model. We need to frame the idea of development itself as a contested process, and not simply a imminent, unidirectional, one-size-fits-all model the inevitably leads to improved living and working conditions for all. Furthermore, we need to understand the challenges and opportunities of ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive development in China in particular, and in the world in general.

These are some of the themes and issues we examine in my class, China in Transition. First-year students read and learn about the politics and practices of labor, environmental, agrarian, and dietary transitions in post-reform China, analyzing the actors, mechanisms, and consequences of these changes. We consider development in China from a sociological perspective that goes beyond economic measures of growth to ask questions about equity and sustainability.

Throughout the course students write about the costs and benefits of economic development as it is practiced in China today. This term, I assigned a “Writing for the Real World” essay in preparation for students’ final research projects. I asked them to find an article from the popular press that relates to themes we’ve been working on in the course, and that might be a topic for their research papers. I then asked them to write a short, cogent essay that includes a call to action for addressing the challenges they raise in the piece. With student permission, I’m sharing some of their work here, in the “real world” of Pig Penning.

Please have a look at the essays posted in the guest blogs tab. You’ll find commentary on China’s push for green energy, challenges associated with e-waste processing, the obesity epidemic, and the relationships between consumerism and environmental degradation. If you care to comment, please do so; the authors will have access to respond.


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