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China aims to halve meat consumption

Signal of change / China aims to halve meat consumption

By Omar Gawad / 07 Aug 2016

The Chinese Communist Party has drafted guidelines to curb meat consumption in China by 50%. This initiative is designed to improve general health conditions amongst its citizens as well as contributing to the fight against climate change.

The whole process of rearing meat for consumption contributes more than 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), more than every car, ship, train and plane combined. Beef is the worst culprit. Previously called ‘millionaire’s meat’ in China due to its scarcity, it is now affordable for a steadily growing portion of China’s huge population. However, the growing demand for beef is causing problems. Beef production emits six times more CO2 emissions per kilogram than pork and eight times more than chicken. It noticeably surpasses all other animals raised for mass consumption in terms of land, water and crops used for its rearing.

China is the world’s largest consumer of meat, larger than the US and the EU combined; its appetite and dietary choices correlate with its rapid economic growth and the prosperity many have experienced as a result. According to WildAid, China’s meat consumption is set to increase by 50% by 2030 if it stays on its current trajectory.

In a place where meat was a rare luxury, its recent availability has adversely impacted the population’s health. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity are the causes for 85% of deaths in China, and many of these cases are aggravated by meat consumption.

China’s government aims to remedy this developing epidemic by urging citizens to halve their meat consumption, via the Ministry of Health’s revised dietary recommendations which it releases approximately every 10 years. The Party have even reached out to Hollywood for assistance, using Arnold Schwarzenegger in awareness commercials in an attempt to attract a wider demographic to the message.

So what?

If China managed to decrease its meat consumption by half, as outlined by the Chinese Nutrition Society, we could see a cut in Chinese GHG emissions by 9%, global agricultural emissions by 22% and total global emissions by 1.5%. Reaching this goal would certainly have beneficial effects on the environment and would set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

However, this change will come down to how well the Chinese citizens embrace this proposal. Beef is still a cultural status symbol in China and it will be difficult to reverse centuries of cultural conditioning. Many of its citizens grew up poor in times when meat was a luxury rarely eaten and only affordable for the rich. Now due to China’s economic prosperity, these very same people have access to meat and it doesn’t seem likely that they will easily relinquish it.

How will the government enforce such intrusive changes to people’s lifestyles? Is it realistic to assume that China’s new middle class will voluntarily surrender their steaks and pork chops?

While the reasoning behind it is commendable, these efforts are just recommendations at this stage - it is doubtful whether any real change may occur without a more heavy-handed approach by the government. The Chinese Communist Party is known to push change on its populace when it deems it necessary, as seen with the one child policy. If Chinese citizens fail to adhere to these guidelines, it is not unthinkable to envisage the Party looking to other approaches to reach their end goal; using selective taxation on meat or imposing fines on over-consumption might be disincentives that they consider in the future. While this could contribute to environmental success, it is also worth considering China’s poorest. Cheap meat such as chicken is their greatest protein source; for some, meat is necessary sustenance, not a dietary option.

However, we can remain hopeful. Interconnectivity through the internet has allowed for the spread of information; there is a gentle current of change spreading through first-tier Chinese cities as more people are voluntarily seeking out healthier lifestyle choices. With a population the size of China’s, any step in the right direction is good change.

Image: Chris Chabot / Flickr


The Guardian (20th June 2016) 'China's plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners.

WildAid,'Infographic: Less meat, less heat'

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Food-based dietary guidelines - China

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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