Why pigs are so important to China

 08.01.2015

Of all the meat options, pork reigns king in China. To keep up with demand, China now rears (and eats) nearly 500 million pigs a year—more than half of all the swine in the whole world. However, the significance of pork goes deeper than culinary tastes. They have been at the centre of Chinese culture, cuisine and family life for thousands of years. So why are pigs so important to China?

Historically, sacrificial pigs featured in all forms of commemoration- including weddings, funerals and festivals. In Mandarin, the character for “family” is a pig under a roof. But up until recently, pork was pricey and scarce. Most people ate it only a few times a year.

As China became richer over the past three decades, meat became a symbol of wealth and consumption soared. Chinese people like pork best—so much so that it comprises 70% of all meat eaten in China today. Since the government liberalised agriculture in the late 1970s, swine consumption has increased more than sevenfold.

The government has backed the cultural love of pork with determined efforts to intensify pig production and keep Chinese plates piled high with cheap pork. The Chinese Communist Party sees keeping pork affordable and plentiful as an important way of maintaining stability. Because the Chinese eat so much pork, when the price of it rises, all prices rises. So they support pig farmers with huge subsidies and have the world’s only pork reserve – live and frozen – to try and keep prices stable.

Demand for pork is also driving Chinese investment abroad. By one count, Chinese companies have bought 5 million hectares of land, more than half the size of Portugal, to grow food like pigs in other countries. In 2013, China’s largest pork producer bought Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog farmer and pork processor. It was the biggest Chinese takeover of an American company at the time.

Chinese pigs are only going to have a greater impact in the future—Chinese per capita meat consumption is still far lower than carnivorous nations such as Australia or America.

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