OPINION: Why the Chinese pork embargo could kill off the German family farm

OPINION: Why the Chinese pork embargo could kill off the German family farm
Photo: DPA
Over the weekend China announced it was stopping all imports of pork from Germany. Jörg Luyken argues that family farms, which are already disappearing en masse, will be hit hardest.

This article first appeared in HochHaus, a twice weekly newsletter on German current affairs.

For years now, Germans have been eating ever less of their favourite meat – pork. But at the same time production has been going up. How has this happened?

In one word: China.

That’s right, the booming Chinese middle classes aren’t just buying German cars in abundance, they also can’t get enough of German pig products. Last year the Chinese imported a whopping €1.2 billion-worth of German pork. (The business is especially lucrative since the Chinese buy tidbits like ears and tongues that Germans won’t touch.)

But on Saturday China slammed the door shut. Any pork arriving from Germany as of the weekend will either be burned or marked “return to sender.”

READ ALSO: China halts imports of German pork after swine fever case

Culpable is a single wild boar that was found dead on the German side of the Polish border last week. Tests on the carcass revealed that the boar had died of African swine fever, a highly infectious and deadly disease in the swine world (rest easy… it is harmless to humans).

After spreading for years through eastern Europe, the disease has finally made it over the border.

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The Chinese have been trying to eradicate African swine fever from their own stock for years and are particularly careful about whom they import from.

Their cautiousness is understandable. The disease can survive for more than 100 days in the processed meat of an infected animal. One confirmed case in your country is all it takes for the Chinese to order an immediate import stop.

'Höfesterben'

For a long time, Germany actually profited from this tough line. As the Chinese burned millions of their own pigs, they had to look abroad to sate that rapidly growing domestic market. Germany stepped into the void. By 2016, every fifth pig killed here was being sent to the Far East.

Now, literally overnight, all that meat has become surplus to requirements. On Friday the price of pork on the German market collapsed as buyers bet on the impending Chinese ban.

When I was researching this article, one number stuck out to me. While profits were swelling over the past decade, 10,000 small pig farms sold off their land.

READ ALSO: Meat production drops 'significantly' as Germans spurn the sausage

In a phenomenon known as the Höfesterben, these family-owned farms were gobbled up by companies that rear animals in conditions more like factories than farms.

In the same period, the number of mega farms that hold 5,000 or more hogs has grown by almost 70 percent. These farms are highly specialised, with some solely there to produce piglets and others focused on fattening up hogs.

Source: Destatis and Agrarheute

Small farmers say they can’t afford the investments needed to meet the latest standards set out by the EU on animal welfare. The German agriculture ministry freely admits that the cost of adapting to new regulation means that it only makes sense to build sites that hold 2,000 to 3,000 hogs. 

Fed up with Berlin’s agricultural policies, small farmers started driving their tractors into city centres last year to call attention to their plight. It is these farmers, already living on the brink of bankruptcy, who will be hit hardest by the collapse in the pork price.

Quality over quantity

Photo: DPA

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Surveys repeatedly show: Germans care about animal welfare, but they also hate industrial farming. Parallel to the death of the family farm, domestic pork consumption has been dropping since 2010, while the market for meat substitutes is booming (although still tiny in comparison).

It’s highly ironic that EU standards on animal welfare are leading to the demise of a way of farming that Germans find ethically acceptable.

If the lesson hasn’t yet been learned from Trump’s war on the German car industry, the Chinese pork embargo shows the risk of chasing profits abroad while ignoring domestic consumers. 

Giving family farms the financial means to meet EU food standards would help save a traditional way of life and encourage Germans to fall back in love with Bratwurst and Schweinehaxen.

This article first appeared in HochHaus, a twice weekly newsletter on German current affairs.

READ ALSO: Five new swine fever cases found in German wild boars


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