The confronting reality of meeting the demand for meat of more than 1.4 billion people has been thrust into the spotlight with growing attention on China's incredible "pork towers".
China is the world's top producer of pork – the most popular animal protein in the country. But with a scarcity of farming land, producers are getting creative with how they grow the industry. The result is skyscraper-sized towers full of pigs, with the animals living out their life in the high-rise building from insemination to maturity.
A 26-storey building constructed last year on the southern outskirts of Ezhou, a city in central China’s Hubei province, is filled with hi-tech cameras and run from a "NASA-like command centre", The New York Times reported this month. According to the publication, the tower – which could easily be mistaken for a large office block – began operating in October with a twin tower to come online soon.
Between the two, the buildings are expected to have the capacity to raise and slaughter 1.2 million pigs a year.
When Chinese official Zhang Meifang shared a video of the site to social media on Saturday celebrating the "profitable high tech farm", it drew a mixed response from people online, with many westerners critical of the vision.
"You think that's something to be proud of?" replied journalist and BBC presenter Matthew Gwyther.
While China analyst and futurist Sari Arho Havrén seemingly agreed. "What’s there to be proud of about this horror site?" she wrote on Twitter in response to the official's post.
Many other users echoed their sentiment, labelling it "dystopian", a "man-made horror" and a "pig hell".
— Zhang Meifang张美芳 (@CGMeifangZhang) February 17, 2023
According to the company behind the high-rise farm, the facilities have temperature and ventilation-control with the animals efficiently fed through more than 30,000 automatic feeding spots at the click of a button. The pig poo is even measured, collected and re-used.
While China is keen to tout the ingenuity and technological advancements that underpin its move towards high-rise farming, concerns have been raised about the added potential for mass disease outbreaks.
Pig towers come with risk
According to industry experts, buildings such as these come with substantial biosecurity risks. In the US, for example, pork producers spread out their farms to reduce the biosecurity risk of disease, says Brett Stuart, the founder of research firm Global AgriTrends.
But China is now doing the opposite.
"US hog farmers look at the pictures of those farms in China, and they just scratch their heads and say, 'We would never dare do that'," he told The New York Times. "It’s just too risky."
Speaking to The Guardian in November, Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in environmental studies at New York University, said such buildings could keep livestock safe from outside diseases, but if disease got in it would "spread like wildfire".
China reportedly consumes about half of the world’s pig meat and it remains a highly sought after protein source in the country. For years it was only served on special occasions, ascribing a certain status to it which remains today.
In a bid to advance the industry and ramp up production after losing an estimated 100 million pigs to African swine fever between 2018 and 2020, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in 2019 introduced a new policy to allow the construction of high-rise breeding facilities, prompting dozens to commence construction.
In the wake of trade disputes, supply chain disruptions and the Ukraine war, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in a December address that the country's self-reliance when it came to food production was paramount.
"A country must strengthen its agriculture before making itself a great power, and only a robust agriculture can make the country strong," he reportedly declared.
As the country emerges from strict Covid lockdowns and social and business gatherings return to normal, the demand for pork is expected to potentially reach new highs – with facilities like these hoping to feed that desire.
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