China’s rapid economic growth over the past four decades has been accompanied by an almost equally dramatic rise in demand for meat products. In 1976, the average Chinese consumed less than 10 kilograms of meat a year; today, the country’s average per capita meat and fish consumption is over 80 kilograms, and the country consumes more than twice as much meat as the United States.
As meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal byproducts become increasingly commonplace on Chinese dinner tables, there are also signs of a growing sympathy toward the country’s farm animals. According to a September survey published by Faunalytics, a non-profit animal advocacy and research organization, 51 percent of Chinese said they would be in favor of a law requiring farmers to treat their livestock humanely.
Faunalytics’ survey echoes the findings of a 2011 survey conducted by a team of researchers at eastern China’s Nanjing Agricultural University, which also found majority support for new laws on improved livestock conditions in China. In addition, 44 percent of respondents held negative views toward Chinese animal husbandry practices, and more than half expressed a willingness to pay higher prices for meat if it meant farm animals would be treated more humanely.
Despite the support for more humane farming practices, awareness of “animal welfare” as a cause remains low. The Nanjing Agricultural University survey quoted above revealed that only about one-third of the Chinese interviewed were familiar with the term. Consumer willingness to pay more for humanely raised meat may be motivated by reasons other than just compassion. Treating animals well has long been an axiom of Chinese agriculture, and many Chinese believe that humanely raised animals taste better. The prominent Yuan Dynasty agronomist and inventor Wang Zhen once wrote, “To be good at raising animals, farmers need to show compassion for them and not mistreat them.” And researchers have found that in China, people’s support for improved animal welfare is based on the assumption that the meat will be better.
Food-safety concerns are also helping to change consumer attitudes. The relationship between animal welfare and public health began to attract mainstream attention in China in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic. Scientists eventually traced the outbreak — which killed 329 people in the Chinese mainland before it was contained — to bats, and some suspect that it originated in an exotic animal market in Guangdong, the province where the first cases were reported.
Such problems are not limited to exotic meat and game. Since the 1990s, China’s livestock industry has industrialized rapidly. Today, over 90 percent of broiler chickens — chickens raised for their meat, not their eggs — sold in China are raised intensively on factory farms, and the country is home to around one-fourth of the world’s chickens and more than half of its pigs.
China’s status as one of the world’s biggest abattoirs has naturally led to scrutiny about its animal farming practices and policies. China has experienced repeated food-safety scandals in recent years, including incidents involving fake meat. Researchers have also suggested there may be a link between factory farms and rapid transmission of disease. Just this August, China saw its first outbreak of African swine fever, and cases have since been reported in 13 provinces and municipalities, as well as in processed meat shipped for sale to Taiwan.
There are signs that the Chinese government is starting to take these issues seriously. Last year, at a conference on farm animal welfare, Yu Kangzhen — China’s vice minister of agriculture — declared that China was working hard to improve conditions in its animal husbandry industry, though he also hedged, noting that such improvements would occur naturally, “as the result of socioeconomic development.”
If the government is truly serious about industry reform, it can start by instituting laws banning animal cruelty and requiring farmers to adopt so-called humane slaughter standards. Some of the worst abuses of factory farming are being outlawed around the world, including undersized, overstuffed cages; gestation crates; and force feeding. China, however, still lacks national legislation protecting farm animals from this kind of cruelty.
Part of the problem is low public awareness of animal advocacy groups and strategies in China; the groups, in turn, lack vital data that could help them build public support for change. Although there is substantial data on the production and consumption of animal products in China, there hasn’t been enough research on public attitudes to identify long-term trends regarding farm animal treatment.
“It’s important to establish a pattern over time,” Jo Anderson, Faunalytics’ research director, told me. “Whether it’s rerunning this survey in a few years, or other people following up with similar research — it’s crucial we see how things progress in China.” Although many Chinese have expressed concern over how animals are being treated, they often are not familiar with the work currently being done to prevent it or how they can help.
Still, there has been real progress over the past few decades. In 1990, there were no animal advocacy groups operating in the Chinese mainland; in 2013 there were hundreds. This is crucial from a research standpoint, says Anderson. “What would be ideal is to get more animal advocates within China conducting the research,” she says. “They would get the best samples and know how to ask the best questions for the surveys.”
China has something of a reputation for animal cruelty, one magnified by international coverage of its exotic animal trade and events such as the annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, held in the southern city of Yulin. While such reports have stirred up outrage about the country’s treatment of animals, there is little reliable data on what the Chinese public really thinks about these and other issues.
The data we do have on attitudes is encouraging. Those interested in improving conditions in China’s agricultural industry should begin by buying more humanely raised animal products. This would send a signal to producers that there is a market for such goods. Advocacy groups could also work with media outlets to produce an animal-welfare awareness campaign.
Understandably, China has prioritized social and economic development over the past four decades — and with great success, as it’s lifted hundreds of millions of its residents out of poverty in that time. But now that the country is economically more secure, the time is ripe for it to rethink its priorities. As countries increasingly look toward China to play a leading role in global affairs, it’s not enough for it to be an economic power — it must be a moral power as well. The decisions it makes could have a life-changing effect on billions of animals — and people — both now and in the future.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: Ducks at a research center in Beijing, Sept. 18, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)