For the first time in 14 years, American beef will end up on Chinese dining tables, thanks to a trade deal finalized this week.
For a meat-loving Chinese middle class, this comes as good news. But the arrangement could lead to millions of tons of additional greenhouse gases from the United States' cattle industry, the world's largest beef producer, especially if Chinese beef consumption continues its expected climb.
The production of livestock accounts for more than 14 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the third-largest contributor after energy production and transportation. Of all livestock, beef cattle are the most greenhouse gas-intensive, accounting for about 40 percent of all livestock-related emissions. That's largely because of the methane cattle emit when belching and the impact of feed production, which includes lands being converted for grazing or growing grain.
The Chinese government banned imports of American beef in 2003 after mad cow disease was discovered in some U.S. cattle herds. But the U.S. beef industry has pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop measures that persuaded the Chinese government to reopen its market. The final push came in the last couple of months, after President Donald Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss U.S.-China trade in April.
"Chinese consumption of beef is already on the rise. It's doubled over the past decade, and that's part of the reason they're interested in this," said Sujatha Bergen, a food and agriculture policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They're needing to satisfy rising demand."
At the same time, appetites for beef in the U.S.—the world's fourth-largest consumer—have dropped.
"This is definitely a case where we don't want the U.S. exporting its bad habits," Bergen added. "Especially on an issue where we're doing a pretty good job."
According to figures crunched by NRDC earlier this year, the drop in U.S. beef consumption has had an appreciable impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the course of the last decade, American beef consumption declined 19 percent, leading to a reduction of 185 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to NRDC. Overall, changes in American dietary patterns—which include lower consumption of beef, orange juice, milk, pork and chicken—led to an emissions drop of 271 million tons over the decade. (Total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., by comparison, averaged about 6 billion tons a year over the same period.)
China emits more greenhouse gases than any other country, but the average Chinese citizen is responsible for less than half the contribution to climate change of the average American. Americans eat more beef, per capita, than any other country beside Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Still, China, the world's most populous country eats about a third of the meat produced globally, and that number will likely climb over the next couple of decades as consumption is projected to rise. Beef consumption alone could rise 47 percent by 2030.
The Chinese government's nutrition authority, meanwhile, is attempting to lower meat consumption in the country, setting a goal of halving meat consumption from current levels to 27 kilograms per person, per year. (The Chinese "food pagoda"—modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's original food pyramid—advocates a plant-based diet.)
While the goal is aimed at cutting diseases related to high-fat diets, the environmental outcomes could be significant.
In a 2016 study, researchers found that cutting red meat consumption by 100 grams per day in 2050 could not only prevent 2.2 million deaths in China but cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than a billion metric tons. The same study found that switching to a plant-based diet could cut up to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
It's unclear how much American beef production could rise in response to the reopened market and fresh demand, but it's clear it will go up. According to a letter the cattle industry's main trade group sent to Trump, China represents the market with the greatest growth potential for U.S. beef.
"I haven't seen specific projections for Chinese imports or the climate impact," Bergen said. "But, overall, if consumption continues its trajectory, it will be much harder to hit emissions targets."