Despite the growing appetite for meat, the Chinese diet remains heavily vegetable-based — prompting innovative ways to meet the increasing demand for greens.
Between 1961 and 2013, China’s annual vegetable consumption quadrupled from 80 kg per capita to 348 kg. That’s three times as many greens as Americans eat (114 kg in 2013). To meet the demand for all those veggies, food systems need to scale up, increase productivity, and overcome supply chain challenges posed by megacities.
Today, China largely consists of small parcel farms — 90 percent of its farms are smaller than 2.5 acres. This is partly due to the country’s geography and terrain. And smaller farms pose challenges in terms of their scalability and ability to adopt the kind of industrial technologies used in higher-yielding agricultural systems such as those in the US.
Today, however, major efforts are underway to consolidate land and create more scale and productivity efficiency. For example, CP Group China, a Thai-based multinational corporation, has developed models of sustainable and circular production systems, such as a semi-automated chicken farm outside Beijing: organic waste from its three million egg-laying chickens is used in its nearby fruit orchards.
China is also exploring alternative methods and technologies in food production. One example is plant factories (also known as indoor or vertical farms). Their controlled growing environments achieve stabler yields, allow for year-round growth, and require a lot less land and water. Then there’s the potential advantage of being located in or near city centers, which reduces both the time and cost of transporting food, as well as associated carbon emissions.
As of 2017, China was home to more than 80 plant factories. Though it lags behind Japan — the global leader with more than 200 — the Chinese market is expected to grow rapidly. In 2016, the world’s largest plant factory, with production capacity equal to 300 farms, was built in Fujian province by Sanan Sino-Science, a Chinese indoor-agriculture tech company. Plenty, a vertical-farming startup whose investors include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Japan’s Softbank Corp, has also announced its intentions to enter the Chinese market.
This is a 12-part series on Food Megacity: how urbanization and technology are changing the way China eats. The full series can be found here.