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China gobbles a larger share of world meat trade

Meat imports by China totaled 8.5 million tonnes in 2020, including 4.8 million tonnes of pork, according to the USDA.

The world’s most populous country is already its largest meat-importing nation and “looks like it’s poised to play a major role in meat markets in the future,” said USDA senior economist Fred Gale on Thursday. China’s imports of beef, pork, and poultry are projected by the USDA to grow 29 percent in the coming decade.

“Our projections show that China will continue to grow those meat imports up to more than 10 million metric tons by the end of the projection period [2030],” said Gale during a panel discussion at the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum on the trade landscape in China, the world’s largest agricultural importer. “This is something that’s caught us all off guard.”

Meat imports by China totaled 8.5 million tonnes in 2020, including 4.8 million tonnes of pork, according to the USDA. The total would dip to 8.3 million tonnes, with pork dropping to 4.5 million tonnes, this year for a one-year wobble in an otherwise steady increase over the years.

Chinese meat production reached a plateau of about 88 million tonnes in 2014. Production fell in 2020 due to a deadly swine epidemic. China says it is rebuilding its hog herd and expects its domestic pork supply to rebound this year. But Gale said that China “may be approaching or surpassing its carrying capacity for animal protein production,” which would make imports a crucial concern, since China prefers to be as self-sufficient as possible in food.

“This year,” he said, “they’re already well below those [self-sufficiency in meat] targets. … Will China restrict meat imports when Chinese pork prices eventually fall towards normal prices?”

At present, the Biden administration is reviewing U.S. relations with China, including the so-called phase one trade agreement. “As we go further into 2021, there’s a good chance we’ll start to see some negotiation between the United States and China,” said David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Early in 2022,” Dollar responded when asked when he expected a phase two agreement, which would tackle Chinese trade practices the United States views as predatory and unfair. USDA trade counsel Jason Hafemeister said he believed there would be a phase two deal, but “don’t ask me when.” Gale, when asked for a thumbs up or thumbs down on prospects for phase two, said, “I’m going to go sideways.”

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