The growth in meat and poultry exports to China is good for the U.S. industry — for now. But the question must be asked: Can the production needed to supply that tonnage expand indefinitely?

By virtue of the sheer size of its population, China is the locus of virtually any discussion on economic growth across North America. And with its growing economic clout, the country is now the prime destination for a variety U.S. exports.

That’s not necessarily a positive trend, however. When we ship beef, pork, poultry, soybeans and other farm products off to China, not to mention coal, oil, gasoline and timber, we’re playing the role of Third World exporter: A nation that harvests and mines its natural resources, sells them as commodities, and then has to buy back manufactured goods and value-added products, with the added value heading back to the supplier country. In this case, China.

When we export high-tech and finished goods, whether software, machinery or even entertainment content, the Chinese regularly steal, pirate and otherwise appropriate “extracurricular” benefits for their economy.

It is undeniable, however, that the meat and poultry products from animal agriculture are increasingly destined to end up in Chinese supermarkets and in dinner tables. Even though per capita consumption is about 120 pounds a year, compared with more than 230 pounds a year in The States, the fact that China has 1.35 billion mouths to feed means that the country as a whole consumes twice as much meat in terms of total tonnage as we do.

About three-quarters of that 120 pounds is pork, the preferred protein in the Far East. According to a recent analysis in Forbes, about 50 percent of the entire world’s supply of pork ends up in China. Just in the last two decades, the country’s consumption of pork has nearly doubled to about 88 pounds per capita, compared with a U.S. average of about 60 pounds per capita.

Larger and larger shares

That’s why the recent acquisition of Smithfield Foods by China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. was less of a business deal and more of a food security initiative.

Of course, part of the reason that pork is popular is the efficiency and versatility of pigs themselves. They can turn three pounds of feed into a pound of meat, which compares favorably with chickens, and in the absence of high-efficiency confinement feeding system, they can forage with the best of them. Plus, as ad campaigns here at home have stressed, pork itself is versatile and easy to cook.

But the growing demand for meat in China means that not only are major producing nations exporting larger and larger shares of their domestic production, but China is now buying more than 60 percent of the world’s soybean crop available for export, according to Forbes.

That could pose problems. First of all, it’s not at all apparent how global soy production can be ramped up. Thirty years ago, there were millions of acres of “available” acreage in Brazil and Argentina — assuming that the indigenous people living there could be displaced and the existing rainforest be removed. Which is exactly what has happened.

Now, as the Forbes report makes clear, that’s no longer the case. Brazil has already on the way to becoming the world’s top soybean producer, but there are no large tracts of cheap land, nor inexpensive energy sources available there, or in Argentina. Even water resources are growing more scarce and costly.

Furthermore, yields cannot reasonably be expected to increase dramatically (on any of the world’s major feed crops, for that matter), which means that either more of the global soy supply must be diverted to China, or cropland currently devoted to other production must be converted.

Worst of all, as much as 40 percent of China’s cropland is compromised by pollution, erosion and salinization, according to World Bank data, and the country’s water resources are dangerously depleted. About three-quarters of the country’s rivers are severely polluted — often to the point that irrigation is impossible — and the country’s per-capita water resources are only about one-fifth of the United States.

Choices to make

Those challenges raise the issue of sustainability. If economic growth across Asia continues, and no one doubts that it will, and the continent’s population continues even modest growth, and there are no signs to the contrary, then the overall impact of hundreds of millions more Asians eating more millions of tons of meat could be a global game changer.

Is it possible to exponentially increase both meat and feed production to maintain markets in the Western hemisphere and supply the enormous appetite of China and the rest of South Asia, without some dire consequences, both economically and environmentally?

Vegetarian activists answer that question by pretending that the world can just give up animal agriculture, and start feeding all that soy protein to people, not pigs. But that’s the equivalent of “solving” the fossil fuel crisis by insisting that everyone can simply stop driving cars.

In either case, the alternative isn’t remotely plausible.

But neither is a continuous growth curve that projects more meat exported from the West to Asia, more feed and grains shipped off to China and more and more resources in the Western countries devoted not to sustaining domestic populations but to feeding the additional billion or people who will be alive — and hungry — on the other side of the Pacific Rim.

Some hard decisions and tough choices will eventually have to be made between U.S. and Chinese interests, and the way it looks from here, that will be a zero-sum game.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.