Why beef farm­ers strug­gle to cope, de­spite ris­ing de­mand

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - ByWUYUNHE

My mother re­cently spent nearly 100 yuan ($16) on half a kilo­gram of fresh beef ten­der­loin in a lo­cal mar­ket, but af­ter cook­ing it, she found it was far from ten­der.

“It ap­pears to be made of wood,” she com­plained, per­haps a lit­tle harshly, but such things have hap­pened to me too.

My fam­ily has al­ways pre­ferred beef to pork as our main dish dur­ing week­end gath­er­ings.

But we have started to find that much of the fresh beef avail­able in Bei­jing mar­kets is of poor qual­ity.

At a Daox­i­ang­cun out­let, a lo­cal food chain store in Bei­jing, the cooked beef shank is priced at 252 yuan a kilo. With that money I could have bought four ki­los of pork, even at the up­mar­ket Ito Yokado store nearmy home.

Re­tail prices fresh beef was re­ported to be about $5 for 0.45 kilo­gram on av­er­age in De­cem­ber in the United States, but you can bet your bot­tom dol­lar that meat in the US is a lot bet­ter than it is here.

So why is this, given the coun­try has man­aged to be­come the world’s top pro­ducer of so many other food items, such as pork, poul­try, and seafood prod­ucts?

I called Lu Bairong, a friend who was an of­fi­cial at theMin­istry of Agri­cul­ture but now re­tired.

He said that de­spite the re­tail price of beef ris­ing, es­ca­lat­ing pro­duc­tion costs mean the profit mar­gins on beef for cat­tle farm­ers is still low, and many are also fight­ing against ris­ing com­pe­ti­tion from im­ported prod­ucts, and the smug­gling of illegal pro­duce.

That sounds a sen­si­ble eco­nomic ar­gu­ment, but I was still cu­ri­ous about the poor qual­ity of China’s beef prod­ucts.

Pork re­mains the dom­i­nant meat in China. How­ever, along with the ac­cep­tance of and en­thu­si­asm for many other types ofWestern food, de­mand for beef has been ris­ing for years.

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data, the price of beef first be­gan edg­ing up at the turn of the cen­tury.

It in­creased by 50 per­cent from 2004 to 2008, and af­ter the Bei­jing Olympic Games the trend has be­come ir­re­versible.

Be­tween July 2010 and June 2012, the re­tail price of beef in­creased by 30 per­cent, and jumped by another 30 per­cent from June 2012 to Fe­bru­ary 2013.

China’s food in­dus­try pro­duced 6.89 mil­lion tons of fresh beef in 2014, a 2.4 per­cent rise from the pre­vi­ous year, the Na­tional Bureau of Sta­tis­tics said. But that still pales in com­par­i­son with pork out­put, which reached 56.71 mil­lion tons, an an­nual in­crease of 3.2 per­cent.

In 1980, China’s per capita beef con­sump­tion was just half a kilo, but jumped to 5 ki­los in 2008.

The Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions has pre­dicted the coun­try’s grow­ing beef-sup­ply short­fall is ex­pected to be about 6 mil­lion tons by 2020, if the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues.

At the mo­ment all eyes in China ap­pear to be on the stock mar­ket and its fluc­tu­a­tions, and the in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and en­vi­ron­ment sec­tors, but not on agri­cul­ture.

The coun­try’s cat­tle farm­ers have be­come in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble be­cause of ris­ing pro­duc­tion costs, the chal­lenge of im­ports and smug­gled prod­ucts, and weak gov­ern­ment pol­icy sup­port to al­low them to make the nec­es­sary in­vest­ment, all of which add up to poor re­turns and poor pro­duce.

The lack of qual­ity beef on mar­ket shelves is a di­rect re­sult of farm­ers sim­ply try­ing to boost pro­duc­tion, and make enough money to sur­vive.

The most com­mon type of cat­tle feed here is corn and bran. China’s corn prices hit a record high in July last year, and then plum­meted 30 per­cent this year. But price fluc­tu­a­tions like this are bad news for farm­ers. Un­like cat­tle, of­ten very picky in what they eat, the pig is the ul­ti­mate om­ni­vore.

It also takes at least two years for a calf to be ready for slaugh­ter. In con­trast, it takes a piglet only six months.

No won­der in­dus­try num­bers show en­thu­si­asm to be a beef farmer is wan­ing.

The Na­tional De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion un­veiled a blue­print for the na­tional beef and mut­ton in­dus­tries for 2013-2020.

Pre­lim­i­nary es­ti­mates sug­gest the gov­ern­ment plans to pump at least 1.7 bil­lion yuan into the sec­tor dur­ing that pe­riod.

But be­cause of the short­age in sup­ply of Chi­nese beef prod­ucts al­ready build­ing up, ris­ing amounts of im­ported beef are al­ready look­ing the bet­ter, cheaper, qual­ity op­tion, and that of­fi­cial blue­print will have to be widened sig­nif­i­cantly in its scope.

Ac­cord­ing to the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, China’s beef im­ports were about 550,000 tons in 2014, up 138,000 tons from 2013.

Aus­tralia re­mains China’s big­gest source of im­ported beef.

US beef is cur­rently barred from the Chi­nese main­land be­cause of pre­vi­ous cases of mad cow dis­ease. But in­dus­try sources say large amounts are still find­ing their way in, il­le­gally.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of that ban, smug­glers are be­lieved to be selling at least 2 mil­lion tons of illegal beef on the black mar­ket an­nu­ally. The smug­gled meat is mainly from Brazil and In­dia, of­ten sold at a price of 40 per­cent less than the mar­ket av­er­age.

If the gov­ern­ment fails to of­fer stronger pol­icy back­ing to the coun­try’s strug­gling beef farm­ers, their sit­u­a­tion is likely to get worse. Con­tact the writer at wuyunhe@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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