Sheep Farming – The Last Frontier in the Chinese Livestock Industry
Gao Yuhong, an agriculture professor at the College of Animal Science and Technology, Hebei Agriculture University in China, has been working almost exclusively on sheep farming for the last few years. Why sheep farming? “Sheep farming is the last frontier in the Chinese livestock industry,” Gao told Supertrends in an interview.
Growing production and demand
Mutton and lamb meat hold a special place in the Chinese culinary culture. They are not only delicacies but are also considered to be especially nutritious in traditional Chinese medicine. In line with China’s economic development, the country’s meat production and consumption have been growing rapidly. In 2019, 320 million sheep and goats were raised domestically, which is 11 times the production in 1978. But demand has been growing even faster. The Chinese consumed 4.92 million tonnes of mutton and lamb meat in 2020, some of which came from imported meat.
To reduce dependence on imported mutton and lamb meat, the Chinese government plans to increase domestic supply to 85 percent of total consumption by 2025, which means producing 5 million tons of mutton and lamb meat. But the plan to increase production faces a serious challenge.
The challenge in sheep farming
Unlike cows and pigs, sheep are rarely raised through intensive farming. In China, most sheep came from small-scale farming. According to statistics, in 2017 only 3.1 percent of the sheep farms in the country had a flock of 100 or more. Even though small-scale sheep farms will still be a major player in the foreseeable future, Gao thinks that the answer to a more sustainable sheep industry is the development of efficient farming at an appropriate scale.
“China is at a transformational stage to better regulated sheep farming at an appropriate scale.”
– Gao Yuhong, Professor in Animal Science and Technology & Supertrends Expert
As pioneers in this field, Gao and her colleges encountered quite a few challenges. They have to develop an optimal feed composition, reasonable design for sheep barn, and appropriate way to manage waste. “The farmers want to have profit, but it has to be done in a sustainable way. The government has strict regulations on the livestock industry,” Gao told Supertrends.
Noting that alternative proteins, like plant-based meat and cultured meat, have made headlines in the West, Supertrends asked Gao whether she believes these novel foods can play a role in helping China to meet its demand for meat – a question she seemed to find surprising: “I think Chinese people prefer the ‘real’ meat, with the right taste and texture. It may take many years for Chinese people to accept alternative protein,” said Gao
According to a survey done by Supertrends, consumers around the world may not yet view alternative protein as “real” meat. The answer from Gao also reflected this opinion. The question of how to meet the increasing demand for meat is a critical issue for China as well as the world. It is essential to work on diversified solutions. However, for now, Gao is convinced that well-regulated sheep farming at an appropriate scale is a practical solution in the real world.