The industrial revolution and plowing up of the English commons dramatically increased the amount of food in England, sweeping Malthus into the dustbin of the Victorian era. But it was the green revolution that truly made the reverend the laughingstock of modern economists. From 1950 to today the world has experienced the largest population growth in human history. After Malthus's time, six billion people were added to the planet's dinner tables. Yet thanks to improved methods of grain production, most of those people were fed. We'd finally shed Malthusian limits for good.
Or so we thought.
On the 15th night of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, 3,680 villagers, nearly all with the surname "He," sat beneath a leaking tarp in the square of Yaotian, China, and dived into a 13-course meal. The event was a traditional banquet in honor of their elders. Tureens of steaming soup floated past, followed by rapidly dwindling platters of noodles, rice, fish, shrimp, steamed vegetables, dim sum, duck, chicken, lily root, pigeon, black fungus, and pork cooked more ways than I could count.
Even with the global recession, times are still relatively good in the southeastern province of Guangdong, where Yaotian sits tucked between postage-stamp garden plots and block after block of new factories that helped make the province one of the most prosperous in China. When times are good, the Chinese eat pigs. Lots of pigs. Per capita pork consumption in the world's most populous country went up 45 percent between 1993 and 2005, from 53 to 77 pounds a year.
An affable businessman in a pink-striped polo shirt, pork-industry consultant Shen Guangrong remembers his father raising one pig each year, which was slaughtered at the Chinese New Year. It would be their only meat for the year. The pigs Shen's father raised were pretty low maintenance—hardy black-and-white varieties that would eat almost anything: food scraps, roots, garbage. Not so China's modern pigs. After the deadly protests of Tiananmen Square in 1989, which topped off a year of political unrest exacerbated by high food prices, the government started offering tax incentives to large industrial farms to meet the growing demand. Shen was assigned to work at one of China's first pig CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, in nearby Shenzhen. Such farms, which have proliferated in recent years, depend on breeds that are fed high-tech mixtures of corn, soy meal, and supplements to keep them growing fast.