As Chinese demand for pork grows and grows, traditional small-scale farms are being replaced by vast, AI-assisted operations that feel more like smartphone factories than bucolic countryside havens
In November 2018, I travelled to Guangzhou, a city of about 14 million people in southern China. Late autumn is the time for making lap yuk, a type of preserved pork that is a local speciality, and across town I would often spot slabs of meat hanging from high-rise apartment balconies, tied up with string and swaying next to shirts and sheets left out to dry. To make lap yuk, a piece of raw pork belly is soaked in a blend of rice wine, salt, soy sauce and spices, then hung out to cure in the damp, cold autumn air. The fat becomes translucent and imparts a savoury-sweet taste to any stir-fried vegetable dish. A relative of mine claims that only southern China can make preserved pork like this. The secret is the native spores and bacteria that are carried on the wind there.
Guangzhou was the first stop on a journey I was taking in order to try to understand how artificial intelligence is transforming China’s pork industry. The country is the world’s largest producer of pork, and the story of how it has ramped up production in recent years to feed its growing middle class is sometimes described as “China’s pork miracle”. While overall meat consumption still trails behind countries such as the US, China’s annual pork consumption of 54m tonnes – the highest total worldwide, though some countries still consume more per capita – is only expected to grow in the coming years. Now, in a bid to satisfy this growing demand, farmers are turning to AI.