Chinese food has fans around the world, but in China it’s creating a problem. A recent study found obesity and other diet-related diseases are skyrocketing. Recently, the Chinese government took a major step to reverse that trend by issuing a new set of dietary guidelines.
While dietary experts will weigh in on the nutritional aspects, buried in the pages is a recommendation with potentially huge implications for climate change.
The Chinese Ministry of Health is urging citizens to limit meat and egg intake to 200 grams daily. They are advising individuals to eat more fish and chicken and less red meat. Currently, China’s per capita meat and egg consumption amounts to around 300 grams per day, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. (National Geographic put together a detailed, interactive country by country breakdown of these data.)
While widespread adoption of a protein-rich, Western-style diet is fueling a surge in diet-related ailments, increased meat consumption among China’s burgeoning middle class is also a big contributor to climate change. It’s difficult to predict what effect the new guidelines will have on global warming. That depends on a number of variables — how many people follow the recommendations, the proportion of red meat versus fish and poultry consumed, etc. Also, because many Chinese people currently consume less than recommended maximum amounts, not every individual will necessarily eat less meat.
That being said, here is rough idea of how the recommendations might impact global carbon emissions.
If every man, woman and child followed the guidelines, meat and egg consumption in China would be reduced by about a third. According to the U.N., as of 2005, livestock accounted for the equivalent of 445 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions there annually. Using the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, cutting those livestock-related carbon emissions by a third would have roughly the same effect as taking 93 million cars off the road.
These are back-of-the envelope calculations, but they get at the order of magnitude of the potential change. China’s new dietary guidelines, if followed by the population, could dramatically reduce the food-related greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s biggest polluter.
Similar measures have been met with resistance in the United States. Last year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended Americans eat less red meat and avoid processed meat products like hot dogs and beef jerky. In the final draft of the U.S. dietary guidelines, the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services lumped in red meat with fish and poultry, contrary to the advice of the committee.
If the United States committed to cutting meat consumption, it could produce enormous reductions in carbon pollution. According to National Geographic’s interactive, Americans eat about 300 pounds of meat per year, roughly twice as much as the average person in China. According to a new report from the World Resources Institute, if Americans cut that in half, that would reduce food-related carbon emissions by more than 40 percent.
A new study shows nations will not meet the goals laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement without cutting emissions from agriculture. On a planetary scale, meat accounts for nearly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same proportion as every vehicle on Earth. Pollution seeps from every stage of production — leveling forests to expand grazing lands, harvesting and transporting feed, raising methane-belching livestock. Beef, lamb, and goat leave the biggest carbon footprints.
Meat also imposes numerous other environmental costs. Meat accounts for around one-fifth of freshwater consumption globally, most of it being used to grow animal feed. Livestock-related deforestation is the leading cause of extinction worldwide, and forests are critical global carbon sinks.
Chatham House projects worldwide meat consumption will rise 76 percent by 2050, challenging global ambitions to limit carbon pollution. Producers can minimize environmental impacts by adopting less water- and land-intensive agricultural practices, but a certain amount of pollution is unavoidable when raising animals for meat consumption.
China is attempting to bend the curve of meat demand in the most populous nation on Earth, which could shape consumer habits and the growth of food systems for generations to come.