Pork is big business in China, the only country in the world to have its own dedicated pork reserve
. The government can tap into this reserve as pork prices shoot up or down, as they currently are
amid another outbreak of African swine fever.
There is no treatment or vaccine for the disease
, and severe price and production problems could persistently plague the Chinese pork industry without more long-term solutions. Global ripple effects are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.
One unorthodox solution to tackle current and future crises would be to grow meat from real animal cells. This technology, called cultivated meat
, would bolster the domestic pork industry and enable China to produce more pork in a way that is resilient to disease outbreaks and environmentally sustainable.
Pork is absolutely central to Chinese cuisine and culture. It is a mainstay at celebrations and festivals, as well as a key part of many iconic dishes
It is no surprise that China is the world’s largest producer and consumer
of pork, given its importance and economic development within the country. We can expect demand for pork to balloon even further as China’s middle class continues to expand, growing faster than the world has ever seen.
Cultivated or lab-grown pork is real pork. It has the same nutritional value and, ideally, the same texture and appearance as conventional pork. This might sound like science fiction, but it is a new way to produce meat that is less vulnerable to contamination. Produced in a sterile laboratory environment, cultivated pork has an inherent advantage over traditional pork facilities with large pig herds in confined settings that are more susceptible to disease outbreaks.
While promising, cultivated meat is still an early-stage technology. Production without large economies of scale would prevent cultivated pork from ever competing with regular pork on price. Private capital aimed at cultivated meat’s technological hurdles would usher these products to market and realise benefits to the climate sooner.
To put the current Chinese pork system in perspective, the carbon footprint of slaughtering hundreds of millions of pigs a year – the largest pig herd in the world by far – is equivalent to about a third of the global aviation industry’s emissions from 2018. Any improvement in or shift away from traditional pork production would improve the resilience of the pork sector and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from meat production globally.
A fully developed cultivated pork industry would mean less volatile prices in the market, and as an added benefit it would require less land use and have far fewer greenhouse gas emissions
. While cultivated meat production is electricity-intensive, emissions can be mitigated with a decarbonised energy sector
, as the Chinese government is striving to do, minimising its carbon footprint further.
Recent research by the Breakthrough Institute and Informed Sustainability Consulting show that emissions from Chinese cultivated pork could be reduced by more than half if China goes carbon-neutral by 2060
. The climate benefits of fossil fuel-free cultivated pork would be twice as large as traditional animal pork and could prevent between 2 million and 90 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from 2030 to 2050.
This is equivalent to reducing the total emissions of the Chinese pork industry by as much as 8 per cent, or eliminating up to all of the carbon dioxide emitted by Chile in 2019.
So far, research in China has been slower than other efforts around the globe to develop cultivated meats. Singapore
, the United States
and other countries recognise that the tide is shifting from traditionally grown to cultivated meat sources. Though scientists at Nanjing Agricultural University created a sample of cultivated pork in 2019 and Hong Kong-based Avant Meats
raised seed money last year, a domestic cultivated meat industry is noticeably absent.
The Chinese government has signed a trade agreement worth US$300 million to import cultivated meats from Israeli companies as part of an effort to reduce carbon emissions and cut back on meat consumption
. This is a start, but it is wholly insufficient to the kind of investment needed to capture even a small amount of pork demand while making China’s pork supply dependent on other countries.
Chinese industry leaders will need to heavily invest in innovation to catch up with other countries and become a leader in cultivated meats. While the sector is young, funding start-ups and researchers focused on developing and commercialising cultivated meat technology would improve the security
and sustainability of China’s food supply.
The current pork crisis and African swine fever outbreak is a potentially persistent problem
requiring long-term solutions to make China’s meat production system more resilient. Cultivated meat, specifically pork, provides an opportunity to develop a more secure system that would improve the global sustainability of meat production.
By leading the way on investment and innovation, Chinese entrepreneurs and investors can accelerate the technological development of cultivated meat and secure a more stable pork supply.
Saloni Shah is a food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research centre in Berkeley, California. Follow her on Twitter at @SaloniShah101. Isaac Emery is founder and principal consultant at Informed Sustainability Consulting, and is based in the Greater Seattle area