The coming month and a half is crucial for probably tens of millions of animals worldwide, as negotiations regarding 3 important international trade agreements will be at a critical point. One of them is a trade deal between China and the US, whose most significant part is the reopening of the Chinese market to US cows’ flesh in return for the reopening of US market to chickens and ducks from China.
Practically, the trade agreement was announced in May, but tomorrow is the last date to submit public comments on the regulatory amendment of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), regarding the shipment of cooked chickens raised in china. After which, the FSIS will publish its final determination. So the final decision to allow shipments of chickens is still awaiting but highly expected.
The background of the deal is an attempt to narrow the US’s $347 billion trade deficit with China. And one of the ways is by removing china’s ban on American cows’ flesh from 2003 due to fear of BSE (mad cow disease), and the US’s ban on Chinese chickens’ flesh from 2004 due to fear of avian flu. The upholding of the mutual bans was economic and political more than the bans regarded public health concerns, and both current removals of the bans are suggested, again, for economic and political reasons.
To better understand the cynicism in play, it must be pointed out that this trade agreement is the latest chapter in a long saga between the US and China, in which animals are no more than negotiation tactics.
In 2003, China banned U.S. cows’ flesh imports after a cow in Washington State was diagnosed with mad cow disease. The next year, the U.S. banned imports of Chinese chickens after a bird flu breakout, which was shortly followed by the same move by China. Over the years, China accepted limited US chickens imports, while the latter retained its ban. China’s 14 year refusal to lift its ban on US cows’ flesh imports long after the mad cow scare, is widely considered as a pressure tactic aimed at allowing Chinese exports into the US, including chickens.
The US’s pressure to open the Chinese market for their cows’ flesh is obvious, but they also welcome the opening of their own chickens market to chickens from China. This unexpected position is explained by the fact that they don’t feel threatened by the possibility of increasing imports entering their markets, as their chickens exploiters still maintain a significant competitive advantage, due to their proximity to consumers, more industrialized agribusiness (including factory farming) and government subsidies.
On the Chinese market side it’s a very different picture, with a potential to accept mass imports.
Historically, chickens’ flesh and eggs were not an important part of the Chinese diet and considered luxury goods for special occasions. However, currently, China is the world’s second largest chickens consumer, after the US.
China’s chicken flesh consumption grew faster than that of any other flesh consumption. Since 1990, Chinese urban and rural consumers increased their chickens consumption by nearly three times and four times respectively. The main factors are rising incomes, a growing population, urbanization and a cultural shift towards a changing diet, including the emergence of fast food, among which chickens are popular, for their low price. KFC has become the most dominant fast food restaurant in China with more than 5,000 KFCs in 850 Chinese cities.
These extremely rapid sociological transitions are clearly reflected in trade relations between the two countries and explain the US motives. Examining the trend in a longer time scale raises a frightening picture. Exports to china began expanding very recently- trade had only begun in 1990, and up until 2005 didn’t play a significant part of the US economy. During 2005-09, exports from the US to china grew at an annual rate of over 50%. Since 2010 Chinese imports have shifted to South America (mostly Brazil) so there was a decrease in the imports from the US. And now they are expected to rise up again.
In 2014, the US was able to export to China about $315 million worth of “poultry products” – and in particular chickens’ feet, as such “products” are popular there. However, this was diminished when China decided to ban chickens imports from the US after the latter had its worst avian outbreak in 2015 (during which more than 48 million chickens and turkeys were “culled”). Last year “only” $33 million worth of chickens’ parts were allowed in.
The US industry hopes to get back the access it had to China pre 2015. Beside its vast size, the Chinese market is very lucrative as it pays better for specific parts that otherwise are worth much less. At some years roughly half of the chickens exports were of their feet, which are worth $0.60 to $0.80 per pound on the Chinese market but just pennies in the US.
The profits from chickens’ feet of course strengthen the industry by enabling the option to offer other chickens’ parts at a lower price in the US, increase the local consumption, thus expend the industry and as a consequence the suffering.
The increase of animal suffering is not only due to the increase in the number of victims, but also since trade deals such as this one cause an intensification of factory farming.
Trade favors “competitive” large-scale, low-cost operations, and is inclined towards lower standards. The developing Chinese market still has many small farms, which will now be replaced by US factory farms, as their low price products enter the country.
These imports also push the Chinese market towards even faster consolidation into factory farms of their own.
And of course, since factory farm products are cheaper, it leads to an even wider consumption, so the number of exploited animals increases again.
The same horrific Chinese social trends regarding chickens’ flesh, occur in the country’s demand for cows’ flesh.
Cows’ flesh was once a rarity, nicknamed “millionaire’s meat”, but as of 2016, China is the second leading consumer of cows products, consuming nearly eight million tonnes last year, second only to the US. Since cows’ flesh consumption requires much more natural resources such as land and water, and an entire agricultural operation, China, which until not long ago was able to supply its own food, now placed itself in a position of being dependent on outside sources.
Chinese imports of cows’ flesh have soared in recent years, reaching $2.5 billion in 2016 — up 700% from 2012. China has quickly become among the world’s largest importers of cows products, shipping in 812,000 tonnes of corpses last year.
Also, simultaneously to the official ban there was a thriving grey market of trade via Hong Kong and Taiwan (where the ban doesn’t apply). There are even estimations that up to half of US cows’ flesh exports to Hong Kong — a figure that represents more than $340 million worth of flesh a year — eventually reached China.
Both China’s struggle to keep up with the demand of its expending middle-class, and the political pressure to reduce the trade deficit with the US have coincided – and the 14 year ban was lifted. During mid-June, the flesh of dead cows from the US returned to the grocery stores across China. This arrival was even ceremonially marked in Beijing, at a PR event during which a “prime rib” was cut into together by representative of both countries.
Now what remains is the expectation from the US to fulfill its part of the dreadful deal, with the FSIS’s upcoming publication of its final determination. The expected decision is somewhat of a rubber stamp, considering that the media announcement of the allowing of chickens import was made months ago by both sides, and also given that it’s very problematic for the US to pull out now, since the Chinese side has already consummated its part of the deal – and dead cows from the US are already on Chinese shelves.
If there is any hope for this agreement to blow up, it is from a very bizarre direction. In the past few weeks it seems that there is a chance that the deal would be canceled and the mutual bans would be reinstated. Not because of an economic relevant issue, not because of a health concern, and certainly not because the negotiators behind this trade deal have suddenly figured out that animals are not commodities to be traded, but since Kim Jong-Un is polling muscles on Donald Trump who in response threatens China that he would stop negotiating with them if they don’t do something about their impulsive neighbors. And so, the fate of millions of animals a year would be determined by Kim Jong-Un and Donald trump moods. Years of campaigning by thousands of the best people in the world are miniaturized by decisions made by a few of the worst people in the world.
But actually and unfortunately it is much more than these specific insane figures who happen to currently be calling the shots. Just two days from now, renegotiations regarding NAFTA are about to take place, and this was the product of George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton and Al gore – who have certainly earned much criticism, but are still definitely far more level-headed than Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. And in September the trade agreement between Canada and the EU will apply, dooming additional millions of animals to horrible lives. So it is not really the specific figures behind this specific trade deal, but all the figures behind all of them.
Many activists celebrated as the negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) was famously struck down. And rightly so, as one of its aims was to open the growing Asia Pacific area to US animal products, which obviously would have been horrible for animals. (In regard to flesh exports, the US International Trade Commission reported an expected increase by the hundreds of millions dollars annually due to the TPP. As Trade Representative Michel Forman said: “If you are a poultry farmer in Delaware this report shows that chicken exports will increase by $174 million annually under TPP. If you are a rancher in Nebraska this report shows that beef exports will increase by $876 million annually under TPP”).
But as the China-US deal shows, the motives behind the unfulfilled TPP deal still stand. The US agribusiness is a highly “efficient” machine aiming at constant growth and new markets. And the Asian countries go through a rapid process of rising middle class with a desire for animal products. The US industry groups don’t hide their intention to keep pursuing TPP objectives. And if it doesn’t go through in wide-scale international agreements, it will go step by step, in bilateral ones.
As always, the fate of millions of sentients is determined by trade agreements and economic and political interests, not ethics.