context: Record-setting beef imports are consistent with the 2018 Ag Outlook projections of future beef supply patterns. Beef cattle are land, water and feed-intensive, making them a particularly poor fit for the domestic resource mix. The state’s own predictions support a large and growing market in coming years.

Beef imports exceeded one million tonnes for the first time in 2018 according to General Administration of Customs data. High domestic production costs and a crackdown on smuggling drove the increase, says Yicai, noting African swine fever (ASF) also boosted demand by leading some consumers to prefer beef over pork.

Currently, domestic meat consumption averages around 60kg per year, above the world average. However, pork currently accounts for a very high percentage of the total, and in coming years beef and mutton consumption are expected to rise. Lin Guofa 林国发 BRIC agribusiness group research director says based on current trends, imports may surpass two million tonnes within five years. Imported beef is generally better quality and lower priced than domestic beef, notes Lin, due to high domestic land and feed costs. Despite rising demand, China’s beef cattle and breeding herds are shrinking, says Lin.

In the last four years, imports of beef from Brazil rose from 56,000 tons in 2015 to over 300,000 tons in 2018. Beef imports from Argentina more than doubled from 2016 to 2018, and now exceed 170,000 tons per year.

Imports of beef and live cattle from Oceana are also high, says the piece. Though US beef regained market access in 2017, it has failed to gain a foothold as it

  • lacks competitive advantage compared to Oceana
  • must rebuild sales channels after a long absence from the market
  • has been impacted by US–China trade friction