Mia MacDonald
Mia MacDonald.
Photo: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Old MacDonald had a farm — one resounding with oinks and moos and squawks. By today’s standards, the old man’s farm would count as a model of biodiversity. Researcher Mia MacDonald points out that across the planet, old ways of farming are giving way to the environmentally devastating factory farms we’ve pioneered in the West — typically housing a single species of animal, confined by the thousands in conditions that would be alien to Old MacDonald’s pigs and cows and chickens. For modern industrial-scale animal farms, the proper literary form is the scathing environmental report, not the children’s ditty.

At Brighter Green, an action think tank that helps advocacy groups take informed action through research and analysis, MacDonald is currently at work on a series of case studies on the spread of factory-style farming across the globe. She’s cutting straight to the chase: China, the world’s biggest nation, is the subject of the first case study.

I caught up with Mia to discuss Brighter Green’s new report, “Skillful Means: The Challenges of China’s Encounter with Factory Farming” [PDF], which delves into China, meat, and the connection with our climate.

Anna Lappe: Last year, I spent a couple of weeks in rural China and was struck by the relationship between communities and their pigs. Can you talk about the traditional relationship between Chinese communities and livestock animals and how that’s changed through industrialization of farming?

Mia McDonald: As in most rural parts of the world, small farmers often tend crops and have a few farmed animals to provide milk, eggs, meat (on special occasions since the animals have more value alive than dead), and also manure to fertilize fields. This work is often the province of women, particularly when the farming operations are small-scale.

What the industrial model does, in China, the U.S., and everywhere else where it’s dominant, is to cut the link between the animals and the land and the animals and people. In industrial systems — factory farms — large numbers of animals are confined inside. They produce so much manure and the facilities are often located near cities far from where crops are being grown, so the manure is often just dumped, without treatment, into nearby waterways. Or it’s stored in large "lagoons" that can leak into groundwater and that bring with them a stench that can be smelled for miles.

Such facilities are largely mechanized, so they require very little labor or farming skill, and the jobs are tough, repetitive, and usually poorly paid.

So the landscape is transformed, as is the agricultural system and millions of people’s livelihoods. It seems like the Chinese government is keen to continue the urbanization of China and also to intensify and industrialize the agricultural sector, which means even larger changes are ahead — and the further severing of relationships between the Chinese people and farmed animals and the people and the land.

A.L.: What are the trend lines about meat and dairy consumption in China? How does this compare with our diets? Is China becoming a “fast food nation”?

M.M.: Since 1980, meat consumption in China has risen four-fold. It’s now about 119 pounds per person a year, just over half the average American’s per capita annual meat consumption of 220 pounds.

In 2007, China raised and slaughtered 700 million pigs. That’s about 10 times the number in the U.S., although pork is China’s most popular meat and China’s population is more than four times as large as the U.S.’s, dairy consumption is rising even faster; the dairy industry in China has grown 20 percent a year over the past decade, and consumption of milk products in China has risen three times since 2000.

Whether or not China becomes a fully fledged “fast food nation” is an open question, but the trends suggest it will. Or will try to be. Whether there is going to be sufficient ecological space and climate space for such an expansion of meat and dairy consumption isn’t fully clear.

A.L.: What’s driving these changes in diet?

M.M.: There are many factors at play. It is the case in most of the world’s societies that as people get more urban and more affluent, they want to consume more animal products.

Historically, meat was expensive and therefore reserved for the wealthy and the elite. With a growing middle class and agricultural economies designed to allow production of meat on an industrial or near-industrial scale, the demand and supply factors interact and the result is more meat and more people eating it more often.

Certainly globalization and trade have played a role: U.S. agribusiness corporations have been looking for new markets and China is a hugely attractive one, due to the sheer size of its population and economic growth that has given many Chinese, although not yet a majority by any means, a place in the middle class. Meat and dairy have become part and parcel of the process of globalization, and trade rules allow the movement of vast numbers of live and dead animals around the world each year. Even today, China, while largely self-sufficient in food production, exports millions of pigs each year (both alive and dead), imports pork and chicken parts from the U.S. and the E.U., and is the primary destination for soy grown in Brazil (much of it in the Amazon) — destined to feed China’s billions of farm animals.

A.L.: What role have U.S. food companies played in the changing Chinese diet?

M.M.: A significant one. Thousands of KFCs, McDonald’s, and Pizza Huts now operate in China, and leading U.S. agribusinesses like Tyson, Smithfield, and Novus, an animal feed manufacturer, have made multi-million dollar investments in China. U.S. agribusiness has played a major role in intensifying China’s meat and dairy sector and has now been joined by state enterprises and Chinese entrepreneurs.

U.S. agribusiness brands are now being used to market animal products in China. Just one example: Tyson Foods entered into a joint venture with China’s Jianhai Poultry Industry Group to establish a new poultry processing operation that will, when at full capacity, produce a million chickens per week that will be sold under the Tyson label.

A.L.: The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has cited the livestock sector as "one of the two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Can you help connect the dots between meat consumption and climate change? Is all meat bad, or just factory-farmed meat?

M.M.: The FAO estimates that 18 percent of global greenhouse gases come from the livestock sector. CO2 is produced by the use of fossil fuels in facilities that raise and process the animals, as well as in transporting them to slaughterhouses and to markets. Significant additional quantities of CO2 are released when forests or grasslands are cleared to graze livestock or produce feed grains for them to eat, as well as in the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Even more climate-intense are methane and nitrous oxide, which have, respectively, 23 and 296 times the global warming impact of CO2 on the climate. Methane is produced by “enteric fermentation,” the process by which ruminant animals digest food, as well as from animal manure. Animal waste also e
mits nitrous oxide.

Other analysts suggest an even higher figure, attributing between 38 percent and 52 percent of GHGs to the livestock sector, if all the factors are considered. A prime one not included in the FAO analysis is farmed animals’ respiration, which releases (as does ours) CO2.

Is all meat bad? Research differs, but there’s a general consensus that farmed animals fed grass (not corn or soy) and raised on pasture (not inside industrial facilities) do produce less methane since their digestive system is designed to eat grass and not corn or soy.

But that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of GHGs from animal wastes, or from deforestation and degradation of grazing lands. There’s also a scale issue: more than 60 billion farmed animals are alive today, a population that’s set to rise to more than 100 billion by 2050 if current trends persist (there’s a school of thought that thinks they simply can’t, but we’re talking about the numbers here).

To have all of those animals raised in a free-range pasture system would require massive amounts of land, not to mention water and climate space (and all of the animals, even if their lives were somewhat better, would still be commodities and would still end up in a slaughterhouse).

The earth just doesn’t have that much land — and even if it did, there’s a question about whether resources like land, water, and climate should be used to produce ever-greater quantities of meat that won’t solve world hunger. Eating vegetarian is going to have to become more common everywhere. Those living and making policies in the industrialized world certainly have an opportunity to set an example.

A.L.: What about the people who say, who are we to tell other countries what to eat or do? Don’t we have enough to do on our home front without worrying about other countries?

M.M.: Well, my background is international development, so for me the global is local and the local is global. Of course not everyone can do everything, and people working on the food issue, because it’s so vast, need to pick out their pieces of the puzzle. But the American consumer lifestyle in so many ways, including our diet, is going global. So to me that means that we can’t ignore what’s going on “over there” while we work to improve what’s happening in the U.S.

Unlike in the U.S., where we have to work to reverse the damage that’s already been done (to rural communities, small farmers, public health, the environment and animals), in most developing countries, the process is not yet complete, the book isn’t written.

There’s a chance to raise awareness, educate and advocate with policy-makers, get media attention, organize, share resources, and develop other joint activities that shape the next chapter in the story.

I don’t think it’s about telling people in other countries what to do or eat. It’s bringing attention to what’s gone wrong in the U.S. and other industrialized regions and offering alternative pathways — and there are many people in other countries around the world seriously concerned about these issues. It’s not our invention or imagination.

A.L.: What is the Chinese government position on industrial livestock production? Do they subsidize it? And if they do, what kinds of subsidies do they offer?

M.M.: From all the research I’ve done, the Chinese government does appear to be set on intensifying and industrializing the livestock sector, seeing large operations as more efficient, more reliable, easier to control, more likely to promote social stability in terms of ensuring a steady supply, and — there’s an irony here — safer in terms of food quality.

Most of the food safety scares that have hit headlines over the past several months have, in China, been blamed primarily on smaller producers, even though that’s not always correct. Moreover, we see in the U.S. food system that big doesn’t mean better in terms of producing safe food — and often means exactly the opposite.

But yes, the government is subsidizing larger-scale pork and poultry facilities, to the tune of hundreds of millions of yuan each year. In the wake of 2008′s severe snowstorms and the Sichuan earthquake that killed thousands of people and millions of farmed animals, the government is offering additional subsidies. It’s also adopting new building codes that will favor larger, factory farm-style sheds. Most observers believe these policies, too, will lead to more intensive agriculture and fewer small farmers.

A.L.: You mention the International Finance Corporation’s investment in the expansion of factory farms in China. Can you talk about this investment? Does this contradict the World Bank’s commitment to environmental protection?

M.M.: The International Finance Corporation is fairly active in this area, and not just in China. But in China, the IFC has invested in the expansion of intensive pork and egg production facilities, at a level of $61 million and $2.76 million. While the IFC funds are not huge, its involvement often represents a “seal of approval” of sorts that allows private entities, including factory farms, to raise capital more easily from other sources.

The IFC does have environmental standards, and summaries of environmental reviews for projects it invests in are available online. However, these are pretty vague and don’t really delve into the impacts of factory farm expansion in the areas of water and air pollution, not to mention issues of public health, climate change or equity.

The IFC has also invested in expansion of a beef-processing operation in the Brazilian Amazon that has been highly controversial, both within and outside the World Bank Group, of which the IFC is a part. It is true that in 2001, the Bank did publish a paper recommending that the Bank avoid funding large-scale, industrial milk, pork, and poultry production. Whether or not this represented a policy for the Bank to follow is a matter of some debate. But it is the case that neither the Bank nor the IFC is taking a lead in supporting the development of alternatives to factory-farm systems that are more sustainable and equitable.

A.L.: What do you say to those who argue that the environmental impact of industrial factory farming is just the price we have to pay to ensure that everyone can be fed and that new innovations — such as bioengineered animals — will reduce their emissions … so, no need to worry!

M.M.: A two-word answer would be: climate change. The industrial food system is absolutely reliant on fossil fuels. So climate crisis as an answer should suffice. To make a slightly longer, four-word reply, I’d add: ecological limits.

But then I’d want to say: food security, animal welfare, livelihoods, public health … sanity. The factory-farm system, as the Pew Commission recently stated in very bald language, has multiple, serious downsides, the impacts of which are even harder to avoid within the context of climate change.

And the bottom line, as the Pew Commissioners said, is that the system is “not sustainable.” So we absolutely do need to worry — and act at the policy and personal levels.