For decades, economists liked to say that when the United States sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold. Today, the country reaching for a handkerchief first isn’t the US, but China. In the past half-century, it has turned itself into an economic superpower — lifting millions of people out of poverty in the process. Indeed, the country’s development has been staggering. For instance, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China accounted for 24 percent of global economic growth between 2003 and 2013 — the year it surpassed the US as the world’s largest trading nation.
Inevitably, China’s increasing economic might has consequences — not least within global food systems. Consider this: China’s population is about 1.4 billion — 20 percent of the planet’s — yet it has just 7 percent of the world’s arable land. Unsurprisingly, it is fast modernizing its domestic food industry and developing innovative technologies. It is also looking beyond its borders and buying more food from overseas. In 2016, China imported $19.6 billion worth of comestibles — up from $1.3 billion in 1999. Already home to seven of the world’s 10 largest ports, China is further extending its trade routes with “One Belt, One Road” — a government-led strategy of investing in and developing roads and shipping lanes in Europe, Asia and Africa.
To understand the ramifications of how the world’s second-largest economy manages to feed more than a billion people, consider the soybean. The humble legume is a key ingredient in several Chinese culinary staples — including soy sauce and tofu. It is also used to make soymeal, a protein-rich ingredient in animal feed — and, to cater for China’s growing appetite for meat, imports of soybeans have soared. In fact, China now imports 60 percent of the soybeans traded worldwide. And there’s the rub. Amid its trade war with Washington, China is boycotting soybeans from the US, its main supplier.It’s a development that not only threatens the livelihood of American farmers but also fuels fears that China will run out of soybeans in 2019.
Make no mistake. How China feeds itself has consequences that go well beyond its borders. Which means there is merit in exploring emerging food trends in China, especially in its megacities — defined by the UN as cities with at least 10 million residents. A collaboration between YEAST. and SPACE10 — a future of living lab by IKEA — this report identifies 12 of the most interesting food trends in those megacities.
China’s economic rise has triggered political and economic developments that underpin these 12 trends. The most significant development is China’s rapid urbanization. In the last 35 years, almost 500 million people have migrated from the countryside to urban areas, creating hundreds of new cities in the process which include some of the world’s largest metropolises. Today, China has six megacities and 124 cities with a population of at least one million. By 2030, China is expected to have eight megacities and 173 cities.Meanwhile, large-scale development plans are underway to create as many as 19 “megaregions” — urban clusters such as the Pearl River Delta (comprising Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau), and the Yangtze River Delta (comprising Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou).
Another consequence of China’s growing financial muscle is its rapid digitization. As its citizens get richer — by 2022, 75 percent of people in cities will be considered middle-class, earning an annual income of between $9,000 and $34,000 — they are keenly adopting new technologies. (And skipping older ones such as personal computers and credit cards.) For instance, the smartphone is now the dominant way that Chinese people get online. As of June 2018, 98.3 percent of the population accessed the internet through mobile technology, with only 34.5 percent accessing it through a laptop.
What’s more, the near-universal adoption of smartphones in China has fueled the growth of mobile payment systems. In one recent survey, 40 percent of respondents said they carried less than 100 yuan ($14.50) on average, and 74 percent said they could comfortably survive on that sum of cash for at least a month. Moreover, China’s widespread adoption of social networking, livestreaming and user-generated content has created the world’s largest e-commerce market, which reached sales of a trillion dollars in 2017. Boosted by China’s high urban population density, mobile technology has helped create opportunities for food-delivery companies, too. Today, China’s food-delivery market is worth $33 billion dollars, almost double the size of the US market.
China’s growing prosperity isn’t just changing howits citizens eat, but what they’re eating too. The emerging middle-class is increasingly enjoying a Western-style diet — including more meat. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, per capita meat consumption in China has grown by 130 percent since 1990. “Meat has gone from a rare treat to a regular staple for many Chinese people,” theGuardianreported two years ago. “In 1982, the average Chinese person ate just 13 kg of meat a year and beef was nicknamed ‘millionaire’s meat’ due to its scarcity.”No longer. Today, the average Chinese person eats 63 kg of meat a year, theGuardianreported, noting that the country’s health ministry has recommended that people reduce their meat intake by 50 percent.Concerns are also growing that China’s appetite for meat will undermine its efforts to combat climate change.
Moreover, China is now the world’s third-largest producer of beef, the second-biggest producer of poultry, and the world’s leading producer of pork. In fact, in the last half-century, Chinese pork production has grown around 35-fold: from 1.5 million tonnes in 1961 to 54 million tonnes in 2014. Such has been the scale of China’s demand for pork that it has even created a pork reserve to try to maintain and protect the price of pork by buying and selling in world markets.Its appetite for pork also saw it acquire the world’s largest pork producer, a US company.
In short, we believe that these three macroeconomic developments — increasing prosperity, increasing urbanization and increasing digitization — are indelibly changing Chinese food culture. As increasing numbers of people rise out of poverty and join China’s middle-class; as more people move from the countryside to the city in search of better jobs; and as growing numbers of city-dwellers go digital and adopt emerging technologies, how they eat, what they eat and where they eat will change forever.
Together and separately, these three macro-trends are the handmaidens of the 12 food trends identified in this report. We have focused on China’s megacities — and how China feeds its growing urban population matters in its own right, of course — but given that many countries are witnessing increasing prosperity, urbanization and digitization, we believe that the 12 trends described in this report could have relevance beyond China’s borders, too.
This is an introduction to a 12-part series on Food Megacity: how urbanization and technology are changing the way China eats. The full series can be found here.