China’s economy is growing several times faster than ours: Estimates are for growth in per capita income over the next 10 years of around 8 percent. (For comparison, we’re hovering around 2 or 3 percent.) Their population — 1.3 billion — is more than four times ours.

So it’s a big, and rapidly growing, economy and market, especially for food. In 2020, the Chinese will spend nearly $1,000 billion a year on food, up from $350 billion a year in 2010, according to The Boston Consulting Group. As their incomes rise, the Chinese are less interested in buying grains and more interested in more expensive purchases like meat. Beef consumption, for example, has much more than doubled in the last 10 years; in the next five years, it’s predicted to double again.

Already, the Chinese rank among the world’s biggest meat eaters. They consume over a third of the world’s beef, half the world’s poultry and two-thirds of the world’s pork. Although some experts are predicting that pork will benefit most from increased meat expenditures, there’s lots of room for beef, too.

Growing domestic Chinese meat production to meet exploding demand will be tough, in large part because of the limits of the land and water supply. China has only 7 percent of the world’s arable land and 6 percent of its fresh water supply. Much of that land already has problems that will keep it out of agricultural production — severe pollution, erosion or desertification — and all those problems are expected to multiply as the population does.

So China will have to look at importing increasing amounts of food. China’s beef imports are expected to jump 38 percent in 2011, coming mainly from South America, specifically Brazil and Uruguay.

A recent Kansas State University study looked at Chinese preferences and habits in buying and preparing beef. Chinese consumers tend to buy their beef in highly unregulated open-air markets. Access to fresh product is essential because many Chinese don’t have freezers. They need to buy it and cook it the same day.

Many Chinese consumers also don’t own ovens or grills. They often cook their food by stir frying, boiling or stewing in a hot pot. These methods require thinly sliced beef products, not steaks or roasts. That could partially explain why researchers also found that Chinese consumers are less interested than American consumers in characteristics like fat and tenderness, or the flavor and consistency of grain-fed beef.

Now serving one billionThe study also revealed trends occurring with Chinese consumers. There is a significant exodus underway from rural areas to urban areas — a trend that will add another 220 cities of more than 1 million residents in the next 15 years — where there are more choices of high-quality foods and where consumers eat more meals away from home. McDonald’s is a popular choice: China has 1,300 McDonald’s restaurants and plans to build 700 more in the next two years.

As for U.S. beef, it may yet play a role in this booming beef market. Last December, following a seven year suspension, China committed to resume purchases of U.S. beef. If it happens, estimates say China could be putting $200 million of American beef on its tables annually.