China’s livestock industry has seen remarkable growth over the past decades – with significant impacts on domestic and global food provision, resource use, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A revision of the country’s Animal Husbandry Law, approved by the NPCSC (National People’s Congress Standing Committee) on 30 October 2022, now seeks to address the pervasive environmental, public health, and quality issues that have accompanied growth in the sector (State Council, 2022; NPC, 2022). Slated to come into force on 1 March 2023, thereby replacing the current version from 2015, the new law emphasizes technology development, environmental concerns, and the redesign of livestock systems, but without reducing animal product consumption.
Livestock transition has increased pressure on agricultural resources and the environment
Since the 1980s, China’s livestock industry has experienced a transition unprecedented in terms of scale, speed, and impact. The consumption of animal products, previously a luxury for the few, has become part of the normal diet for many of the country’s 1.4 billion people. Between 1980 and 2010 alone, China’s livestock population roughly tripled, from 142 to 441 million livestock units (Bai et al., 2018). Functions of animals also changed from multiple uses such as providing draft power, generating manure, and using household waste to today’s dominant purpose of supplying animal protein for human consumption. This transition was underpinned by a change from traditional backyard and mixed crop-livestock systems to landless, industrial production system, where animals are housed in barns, feed is imported from other farms and countries, and manure is only partly returned to crop land (ibid.).
China’s livestock transition has been fueled by increases in demand as average incomes went up and more people moved to the cities, but there have also been important changes on the supply side driving the expansion of the livestock sector, such as new animal breeds, improved technologies, and government support policies. As a result, the consumption of animal products, albeit still highly uneven across different social groups, grew markedly. For example, consumption of pork, China’s staple meat, increased from less than 15 kg/ capita in 1990 to over 30 kg/ capita in 2018 – higher than the OECD average of 23 kg/ capita (OECD-FAO, 2021).
The rapid increase in the number of livestock has had profound impacts on food production, resource use, and the environment. Greatly enhanced demand for feed has resulted in increasing domestic competition for farmland between food and feed crops. In addition, imports of feed crops such as soybean and corn have skyrocketed over the past years – sometimes at the expense of local food production or grassland and forest protection in the exporting countries. Changes in livestock production have also increased emissions of GHG and exacerbated the leaching of nitrogen from inadequately managed animal manure into waterways, posing an increasing threat to the environment and public health. Meanwhile, ever denser livestock populations have increased the risk of animal epidemics, as underscored by China’s latest African Swine Fever (ASF) outbreak in 2018, which resulted in at least a 27-percent drop in Chinese pig meat production, with widespread negative impacts on the country’s pig industry (Frezal et al., 2021).
Revised law to fill regulatory gaps and speed up modernization of the industry
To address the above concerns, the new law seeks to strengthen environmental regulations and mobilize investments into infrastructure and breeding technology, with local governments now being tasked to include the livestock industry into their overall economic development plans.
As in the crop sector, protecting and improving genetic resources is imperative. The law clarifies the state’s responsibility in setting up national gene banks, regularly collecting and updating livestock and poultry genetic resources. Improved breeds are hoped to increase herd productivity by enabling animals to convert feed more efficiently or to become more resistant to widespread animal diseases. New varieties such as in the breeding of white-feathered broilers and beef cattle may also help reduce the country’s reliance on imported genetic material – a growing priority for China’s policy makers in the current geopolitical environment (Zhao, 2021; 2022). While a new state-run platform will streamline the management of breeding permits, firms are encouraged to invest more in research and development, spurring more domestic innovation in the sector.
Manure recycling and farm waste management also feature strongly in the revised law. In the past decades, lax environmental policy has facilitated large-scale, industrial livestock systems with poor manure management. At the same time, the shift towards more industrial production systems has led to a growing disconnect between the animal husbandry and crop farming sectors, lowering the percentage of manure nitrogen returned to crop land. Where sufficient farmland for the recycling of manure is lacking, as is the case with many large livestock farms near cities, common practice saw manure dumped into landfills or discharged into waterways without much pretreatment. Between 1980 and 2010 alone, nitrogen run-off into waterways tripled (Bai et al., 2018). To address these challenges, the revised law charges the state with constructing facilities for collecting, storing, and safely disposing of animal manure. Recycling of manure as organic fertilizer and thus, re-integrating crop farming and animal husbandry, is stressed in the new law. (i)
A new chapter dedicated to pastoralism grapples with how to balance the protection of China’s fragile grassland ecosystems with the interests of the traditional animal husbandry industry in the country’s northwest. Grassland farming has become a critical provider of beef, mutton, and dairy products, but pressures to upscale herds and output have led to over-grazing and environmental deterioration. To improve both sustainability and productivity, the law promotes the modernization of traditional livestock farming, with policies to settle nomadic herders and fence pastures. Practices such as rotational grazing, which divides a large pasture into smaller paddocks and allow herders to tightly manage cattle movement from one paddock to the other, as well as infrastructural developments, including water supply systems, fences and dry lots, and roads are promoted as the way forward. Forage production bases and artificial pasture that grows selected varieties of grass will replace part of the natural pasture that has long been subjected to over-grazing. Using the country’s marginal grasslands for the production of high-quality forage grasses is seen to play a vital role in reducing the amount of cropland required for feed production and driving down feed imports.
Another new chapter is dedicated to livestock slaughtering, filling a regulatory gap in the animal production value chain. More centralized slaughtering facilities with tightly regulated quality and safety standards are to promote biosafety and reduce public health risks. Slaughtering enterprises are incentivized to move closer to the main breeding regions to cut down the distances that live animals must travel before they get slaughtered, thereby also reducing the spread of animal diseases across regions. Particularly tough regulations apply in the pig industry, which just recently recovered from a devastating wave of African Swine Fever (ASF). By requiring farmers to have pigs slaughtered at designated facilities only which apply strict epidemic control and prevention measures, the law reflects some of the lessons learned from the latest outbreak of ASF.
Small farmers, usually lacking clear guidance and regulation on their disease control and recycling activities, are encouraged to integrate into the operations of large companies or join farmers’ cooperatives. With a growing number of regulatory and administrative requirements, the number of small-scale producers is expected to continue falling, further speeding up the transition towards large-scale production that has characterized the development of China’s livestock industry over the past decades.
More sustainability without reducing animal protein consumption
In contrast to agricultural policy in Germany, the revised law does not address the reduction of animal protein consumption as one obvious lever by which to reduce the environmental and resource pressures from livestock production. As recent studies on livestock transition pathways suggest (e.g., Bai et al., 2018), reducing demand for animal protein is considered less realistic given the importance of meat consumption as a signifier of modern lifestyles and the considerable inequalities in access to animal products that still persist amongst different social groups. Hence, Chinese policy makers now face the challenge of growing the supply of high-quality animal products while at the same time making the livestock industry more sustainable. A new livestock transition will be needed if China is to address the adverse effects on domestic and global food provision, resource use, and GHG emissions that have accompanied growth in the sector.
(i) The sustainable and climate-friendly utilization of animal manure has been a key topic in Sino-German agricultural cooperation over the past years. To share experiences and promote the joint development of best practices, in 2021, the Science & Technology Platform at the Sino-German Agricultural Centre (DCZ) offered a virtual study tour on “animal manure treatment and utilization in Germany”, organized in collaboration with Prof. Dong Hongmin from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) and Prof. Dr. Walter Stinner from the German Biomass Research Center (DBFZ) in Leipzig. See our website for reports on module one and module two of the virtual study tour.
Bai, Zhaohai; Ma, Wenqi; Ma, Lin; Velthof, Gerhard L.; Wei, Zhibiao; Havlík, Petr; Oenema, Oene; Lee, Michael R. F.; Zhang, Fusuo (2018): China’s livestock transition: driving forces, impacts, and consequences. In: Science Advances, 4 (7), pp. 1-11.
Frezal, Clara; Gay, Hubertus Stephan; Nenert, Claude (2021). The impact of the African Swine Fever outbreak in China on global agricultural markets. OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Paper, no. 156, pp. 1-16.
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OECD-FAO (2021): Agricultural Outlook, available online at https://data.oecd.org/agroutput/meat-consumption.htm, last accessed on 10 Dec 2022.
State Council (2022): 中华人民共和国畜牧法 (Animal Husbandry Law of the People’s Republic of China), available online at http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2022-10/30/content_5722639.htm, last accessed on 10 Dec 2022.
Zhao, Yimeng (2022): New variety may break reliance on imported breeding beef cattle. China Daily (2022-08-11), available online at https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202208/11/WS62f466d9a310fd2b29e719f3.html, last accessed on 10 Dec 2022.
Zhao, Yimeng (2021): Broiler breakthrough for Chinese chicken. China Daily (2021-12-10), available online at https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202112/10/WS61b2ba9fa310cdd39bc7a91b.html, last accessed on 12 Dec 2022.