Why the traditional Chinese diet offers lessons to a warming world

Although China’s consumption of meat is rising, the country's citizens are the most likely to give up animal proteins when the environmental drawbacks are made clear.

The days of the ‘Big Mac’ may be numbered. Global per capita meat consumption is already higher than healthy levels, and is set to rise by 76 per cent by 2050. This is unsustainable and poses significant threats to global health and the planet. In the US, the average person consumes three times more meat than health experts recommend.

Per capita consumption is significantly above recommended levels in other industrialised countries too, where it is associated with rising levels of obesity, cancer and heart disease. A rough rule of thumb is that people should aim to eat no more than 70g of red or processed meat a day - about the same as a small hamburger.

The picture is a bit different in China, where meat consumption is lower than in the West. On average, Chinese people eat about one and a half times as much meat every day as recommended, although aggregate levels are an overly simplistic measure given the country’s cultural, economic and geographical diversity.

The impact of rising consumption of meat (and processed foods) coupled with a lack of exercise is being felt: there are now approximately twice as many overweight as malnourished people in China.

Levels of Chinese meat production – for domestic consumption and export – are also rising. In 1978, China’s meat production was 8.5 million tonnes. By 2011, it had reached 79.5 million, an average annual increase of almost 7 per cent. And until recently, increasing meat consumption was an explicit government strategy.

Globally, the livestock sector accounts for 15 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions – as much the exhaust fumes from all forms of transport. And yet public awareness of the link between diet and climate is very low. Governments are afraid of the backlash if they tell people what to eat and as a result  place very little emphasis on reducing meat consumption when talking about the solutions to climate change.

A new report out today argues that this must change. This does not mean everyone should become vegetarian. Rather, they should shift to healthy diets, and reduce the amount of meat that is consumed, to bring it in line with recommended levels.

In researching the report, Chatham House carried out an online survey in 12 countries, and in-depth focus groups in China, Brazil, the UK and US. The focus groups threw light on what governments will need to do to shift public behaviour. They also revealed interesting differences between people’s attitudes to meat in different countries - though all respondents identified strong social barriers to changing diets.

Changing behaviour

In light of their lower aggregate consumption levels and China’s later economic development, Chinese participants tended to think that asking people to reduce their meat eating would be ‘unfair’. One respondent said that ‘governments wouldn’t be that stupid’. This reflects the fact that in China – and Brazil – meat consumption is seen as a sign of social and economic progress, with wealthier respondents expressing a desire to eat more meat.

The impact of meat on climate change is not on the public agenda in China. There is a low level of public knowledge about this issue and a high degree of confusion. However, while Chinese participants tended to know less than people in other countries about the link between diet and climate change, they were more likely to be prepared to change their diets on being presented with the facts.

This may in part be to do with the ‘lived experience’ of Chinese people in urban areas, who associate high levels of atmospheric pollution with climate change, and are ready to take individual action to reduce this. It also reflects higher levels of trust in the authorities, and lower scepticism about science.


Importantly, respondents in all focus group countries said that if governments did introduce new policies to encourage a change in diet, the initial resistance would subside and people would go along with the changes, as they have with other public health interventions, such as restrictions on smoking. This suggests that governments’ assumption that effecting dietary change is too difficult is unjustified.

A particular cause for optimism in China is that the traditional diet lends itself to reduced meat content. It is heavy in vegetables and grains, and achieving a sustainable meat to plant ratio is not difficult. There are also many alternatives to meat and dairy and a history of fortification of food products with iron to address anaemia.

This means that China’s meat consumption (like Japan’s) is likely to peak at lower levels than in the West. It also suggests that China could set an example to the rest of the world. If everyone ate a more ‘Chinese’ diet we might be able to feed the world sustainably.

The full report: Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption can be found here. 

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