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China's Other Sleeping Giant Is the Other White Meat

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Since the dawn of the Great Recession, Americans have been eating less meat, including pork. Meanwhile, prices of corn and soy-the main components of US livestock feed-have been high.

Lower demand, high feed costs: Basic economics tells us that US factory farms should be cutting back, slowing down, producing less. And that would be a good thing, because as I've written so many times before, our style of meat production sucks up huge amounts of resources and creates vast amounts of pollution.

Yet look what's happening in Iowa, the by far the nation's leading hog-producing state. There, the Des Moines Register reports, there's been a boom in state-issued permits for new factory-scale hog confinements. As the chart to the right shows, new permits fell off dramatically in 2009, driven down by the low hog prices, but are now charging back up.

Why would the meat industry be investing so heavily in new hog capacity if the economics aren't working out? Grist food editor Twighlight Greenaway proposes an answer: The industry is looking toward a boom in pork exports. Greenaway points to a recent article in Iowa Farmer Today showing that the US pork industry is salivating at the prospect. Recent free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia, plus an expected one with Panama, will likely boost that number.

Indeed, the pork export explosion is already underway. The industry currently exports nearly 28 percent of of the pork produced in the United States, Iowa Farmer Today reports. According to this recent USDA report, pork exports in the first four months of 2012 jumped 13.5 percent compared to the same period of 2011. The biggest driver was China, with its rapidly expanding demand for meat. Pork exports to China reached 107 million pounds in the first 4 months of 2012-a 142 percent leap. If present trends continue, China will soon surpass Mexico and Japan as the largest export market for US pork.

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