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Meat Consumption in China Now Double that in the U.S.

Meat Consumption in China Now Double that in the U.S.

Earth Policy Institute

By Janet Larsen

More than a quarter of all the meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China, and the country’s 1.35 billion people are hungry for more. In 1978, China’s meat consumption of 8 million tons was one third the U.S. consumption of 24 million tons. But by 1992, China had overtaken the U.S. as the world’s leading meat consumer—and it has not looked back since. Now China’s annual meat consumption of 71 million tons is more than double that in the U.S. With U.S. meat consumption falling and China’s consumption still rising, the trajectories of these two countries are determining the shape of agriculture around the planet.

Pork is China’s meat of choice, accounting for nearly three fourths of its meat consumption. Half the world’s pigs—some 476 million of them—live in China. This meat is so central to the Chinese diet that in 2007 the government, hoping to cushion against price spikes, created a strategic pork reserve (albeit a relatively small one) to accompany its more typical stockpiles of grain and petroleum. Many a Chinese banquet table is graced with a portion of sticky sweet braised pork belly, touted to be the favorite dish of Chairman Mao. With its pork consumption projected to reach 52 million tons in 2012, China is far ahead of the 8 million tons eaten in the U.S., where chicken and beef are more popular. (See data.)

On a per person basis, Americans ate more pork than the Chinese until 1997, when the lines crossed and China pushed ahead. Over the past five years, per capita pork consumption in the U.S. has fallen on average 2 percent a year, while that in China has grown by over 3 percent a year despite price increases. Now the Chinese each eat an average of 84 pounds (38 kilograms) of pork in a year, while Americans average 59 pounds.

Traditionally China’s pigs were raised in small numbers by households feeding them crop waste and table scraps. As many American kitchens today have a garbage disposal, Chinese kitchens had a pig. Indeed, the written Mandarin Chinese character for “home” depicts a pig under a roof, signifying the animal’s longtime domestic importance. But now the ramped-up demands of a richer and increasingly urbanized society have taken more pigs out of the backyard and into specialized livestock operations, where they are fed grain and soybeans.

Poultry production in China—virtually non-existent prior to 1978—is also becoming more industrialized. While chicken flocks in the U.S. began to multiply rapidly following World War II, flocks in China started their expansion some 20 years later and have grown twice as fast. Chinese chicken consumption is set to exceed 13 million tons in 2012, marking the first time that more chicken will be eaten in China than in the U.S.. Still, on average, Americans eat four times more chicken per person.

For beef, China’s 6-million-ton consumption compares with 11 million tons in the U.S.. Americans, with their stereotypical burgers and steaks, each eat an average of 79 pounds of beef a year, nearly nine times more than the Chinese average. Beef production has not taken off as quickly in China as other meats have, in part due to its higher cost and to competing claims on grazing land.

The other prime reason that beef has not become as popular in China is that cattle in feedlots gobble up about 7 pounds of grain for each pound of weight gain. For pigs, the feeding ratio is 3 to 1, and for chickens it is 2 to 1. With one fifth of the world’s population and limited land and water supplies, China has had to rely heavily on the more-efficient forms of animal protein. This has led to China’s huge farmed fish output of 37 million tons, which accounts for over 60 percent of the world total. For comparison, U.S. aquacultural output is less than half a million tons. Farmed fish in ponds, particularly the herbivorous species like carp that are popular in China, require even less feed than chickens do.

While rice is an essential component of many a Chinese meal, China’s largest grain crop actually is corn, with 192 million tons harvested in 2011. Corn is so prominent because it dominates feed rations for livestock, poultry and fish. The 140-million-ton rice harvest, largely from the southern part of the country, and most of the 118-million-ton wheat crop from the north are eaten directly by people or cooked into noodles, buns, dumplings and other foods.

Altogether, China harvested the largest grain crop of any country in history in 2011. A full one third of that harvest is going to feed animals to meet the growing demand for meat, milk, eggs and farmed fish. Since the agricultural policy reforms of 1978, China’s feedgrain use has shot up more than ninefold. In 2010, China replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one feedgrain user.

Along with grain, the other component in typical livestock rations is the soybean. China overtook the U.S. in the amount of soybean meal fed to animals in 2008, but it was not able to do so without help from the outside world. In 1995 China produced some 14 million tons of soybeans and also consumed 14 million tons. By 2011 China still produced 14 million tons of soybeans—but it consumed 70 million tons.

Now more than 60 percent of world soybean exports, nearly all from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina, go to China. China’s incredible appetite for meat has altered the landscape of the western hemisphere, where the land planted in soybeans now exceeds that in either wheat or corn. Rainforest and savanna have been cleared to make way for a vast soybean monoculture.

The Chinese government has had to look overseas to meet its burgeoning demand for soy because of its policy of maintaining grain self-sufficiency. When global grain prices spiked in 2007–08, many people pointed to China, saying that its growing meat consumption must have raised demand enough to cause the jump. But because China was almost entirely self-sufficient in grain, other culprits had to be found. (The big one turned out to be the U.S. ethanol industry, which now devours 30 percent of the U.S. grain crop.)

Since then, however, China has started to turn to the world market for grain, importing a net 7 million tons in 2011. If Chinese meat consumption continues to rise fast, its feed imports will soar higher, taking international food prices up with them. Already the U.S. Grains Council is saying that China could soon supplant Japan as the world’s top corn importer.

Per person meat consumption in China now is half the amount in the U.S.. For China to reach American per capita levels with beef would take more than three fourths of current world beef output. For chicken it would require 80 percent of the world’s broiler chickens. And China is not the only country trying to move up the food chain. Yet even as billions of people across the developing world with little meat in their diets are trying to eat more, Americans are starting to cut back. Total U.S. meat consumption dropped 6 percent between 2007 and 2012. Ultimately, feeding the global population of 7 billion and counting will require meeting somewhere in the middle.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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