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China's livestock transition: Driving forces, impacts, and consequences

July 18, 2018

Global food security and sustainability greatly depend on how to manage livestock production and the consumption of food derived from animal sources. The "livestock revolution" (or transition) of the last few decades is more powerful than the "Green Revolution." It has greatly changed the world's livestock patterns and has had an enormous impact on resource consumption and the environment. China is an interesting case that reflects the importance of the livestock revolution - the missing piece in the global food security puzzle.

To explore the impact of this transition, BAI Zhaohai, a member of a research group led by Prof MA Lin from the Center for Agricultural Resources Research, Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, together with collaborators from home and abroad, quantified the livestock transition in China by using a Driver-Pressure-State-Impact-Response framework.

"China's livestock transition is massive, in terms of its scale and speed," said Dr. BAI.

China's livestock population almost tripled between 1980 and 2010, from 142 million to 441 million livestock units (LU). Most of the increase is due to the increase of landless industrial system, which has expanded 74 times, from 3.6 million to 247 million LU. During the same period, the annual gross economic value of livestock production increased from RMB 35 billion to RMB 2,100 billion, a 58-fold increase. Livestock production also changed from being multifunctional to mainly providing high quality proteins. In other words, livestock production generally lost the functions of recycling household waste, providing draft power, and supplying manure to fertilize cropland (Fig. 1).

The livestock transition in China has been propelled by demand and wealth, but has also been greatly facilitated by subsidies, deregulation policies, and weak environmental regulations. The policies include: liberating production rights - change from collective management to privatize animal production; abolishing "meat coupons" - the national meat quota supply system; as well as RMB 10 billion in annual direct subsidies since 2007.

"However, the costs of livestock transition are also large', says Prof. MA Lin, the corresponding author of this paper, noted that the cost of the livestock transition has also been large. "Animal feed imports have increased 49 times; total ammonia and GHG emissions into the atmosphere doubled; and nitrogen losses to watercourses tripled," said MA.

As a consequence, despite improved livestock productivity and efficiency, China's livestock transition has had a significant domestic and global impact.

As part of their analysis, the authors also made projections about Chinese livestock production in 2050 using two contrasting Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs) scenarios as a basis, i.e., a "business-as-usual" scenario (the SSP2 route); and the SSP1 route - with technology development, environmental concerns, and system redesign but without a reduction of animal source food consumption.

Under the SSP2 scenario, consumption of animal proteins is projected to increase from 47-165%, depending on the animal product. The gap between domestic demand and production will have widened.

China's importation of either animal-sourced foods or of livestock feed will have an impact on the development of the livestock production sector as well as associated global environmental burdens, since China may need to import 0.5 to 8.4 times of global total traded animal products or 0.7 to 1.4 times of traded feeds in 2010, depending on types of animal products or feeds. If all animal-sourced foods are produced domestically, under the SSP2 scenario, GHG emissions will increase from 520 Tg CO2e in 2010 to 805 Tg CO2e in 2050 (Fig. 2).

Similarly, according to the SSP2 forecast, NH3 emissions will increase from 7.6 Tg in 2010 to 11 Tg in 2050, and N losses to watercourse will increase to 18 Tg in 2050 (Fig 2). These changes would strongly impact the public demand for lucid waters and lucid mountains.

"China's livestock requires a new transition," said Prof. OENEMA Oene from Wageningen University, the Netherlands. The management of the new transition should focus equally on the spatial planning of livestock farms, more efficient livestock production, animal feed production (including forage and grasslands), and manure management.

"This new transition must be induced by government, processing industries, consumers, and retailers," Prof MA Lin emphasized.These findings are described in an article entitled, "China's livestock transition: driving forces, impacts and consequences," which was recently published in the Science Advances.
This work was financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Program of International S&T Cooperation of Ministry of Science and Technology, the Hundred Talent Program of CAS, President's International Fellowship Initiative of CAS, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the Distinguished Young Scientists Program of the Natural Science Foundation of Hebei Province.

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