New FCRN Briefings: Succinct, Comprehensive Exploration of China’s Changing Food Landscape

China figures prominently in discussions of nearly all global issues, whether they be trade, industry, sustainability, geopolitics, climate change, or economic development. This is largely because it is home to around one-fifth of humanity and much of the world’s industrial production. It is a place where when things happen, they happen in a big way. This is no different in terms of our global food system; how could an emerging country with almost 20% of the world’s consumers not be of great importance?

Beyond its sheer size, China’s food system deserves attention because the dietary transition there—which has mirrored its dramatic economic transition in recent decades—provides a glimpse into what seems to be in store for much of the developing world; a food landscape increasingly comprised of processed and animal-source foods (meat, eggs, and dairy products). The production and consumption of these foods has lead to a host of negative impacts, especially in terms of sustainability, public health, animal welfare, and the environment.

To provide some much needed insight into the characteristics and impacts of this monumental shift in China’s food system, The Food and Climate Research Network (FCRN) just released a series of nine briefing papers based largely on its 2014 report “Appetite for change: social, economic and environmental transformations in China’s food system.” [full report] The authors touch on many aspects of China’s changing food system—from the environmental to public health, the economy, supply chains, socio-cultural factors, and the composition of the livestock sector. Among other things, they argue that these shifts are being driven primarily by economic growth and urbanization.

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China Study Notes: Introduction

The following are some key ideas from the Introduction of The China Study:

  • We are surrounded by a toxic food environment that even bombards children with junk food marketing.
  • People are told such a range of dietary recommendations; much of it in the form of fad diets and junk science.
  • Yet two-thirds of Americans are overweight and suffering from a host of chronic, diet-related diseases such as heart disease, autoimmune diseases, type 2diabetes, and a range of cancers.
  • Diet can be the most profound way to prevent, treat, and even reverse many of these diseases; in particular, through a whole foods, plant-based diet.
  • Cancer cells can literally be turned on and off depending on the food we consume; animal proteins promote cancer cell growth while whole, plant-based foods tend to stop cancer growth.

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Don’t Fear the China Study

The China Study is one of those books that many people discuss but not so many people have actually read. Admittedly, at 350+ pages, and with two bold subtitles, “The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted” and “Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health,” it doesn’t exactly scream ‘light summer read’—and anyway, people can get the basic gist of Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s work by watching the critically-acclaimed documentary, Forks Over Knives. But those who read the book will find it rewarding and informative.

The book’s main argument is that a whole-foods, plant-based diet can prevent and even reverse a host of chronic diseases associated with the consumption of a western-style diet high in animal-source and processed foods. It has become Dr. Campbell’s life work to spread this message to a public that is misled and misguided by government regulators, food producers, and longstanding cultural preferences for consuming animal-source foods.

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USDA to recommend eating less meat for the environment?

Every five years, the US government’s official dietary guidelines get updated with input from The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a high-level panel of scientific and medical experts on health, who submit their recommendations to the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The committee’s recommendations factor heavily in the USDA’s dietary guidelines and the government’s general stance on a number of food policy issues.

The most recent committee recommendations, the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, just came out today, and while the message that dietary cholesterol is not as much of a risk as previously believed has gotten a lot of media attention, there have been some other messages related to animal-based foods:  Continue reading

How ethics might change our food system

“What to eat?” can feel like a daunting question, given the vast range of food choices available and the competing food recommendations we are exposed to. More than merely being a mundane question we ask ourselves when we’re hungry, this is a question with wide-reaching ethical implications—implications that are the very focus of Global Diet and Sustainability.

If only food were about eating what tasted best to us, but no, every food choice is a weighty one when framed in these broader ethical terms. And to further complicate matters, the impacts of food choices are often both positive and negative, leaving us with few completely ideal choices.

Even though ethics are not cut and dry, with a lot of room for subjective interpretation of values, ethical reasoning can help us navigate this tricky food landscape by equipping us with the analytical tools to make dietary choices that minimize negative impacts and maximize positive ones.

Beyond being about flavor or even how food makes us feel, the deeper philosophical question of “what to eat?” should give ethical consideration to the well-being of key stakeholders affected by these choices: 1) the individuals who consume the food (how the food impacts their health), 2) other people within society (those impacted indirectly from the production and/or consumption of a given food), 3) the natural world (the flora and fauna that are impacted as human population expands to produce more food), and 4) animals raised as food (who are themselve both subjects through their sentience and objects through their ultimate fate to become food).

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Genetic Engineering: An Open Science?

Food is one of those topics that generate impassioned debates. Not only are there many important food-related topics for people to sink their teeth into, but all of us have a very personal stake in food since it is something that we consume daily and have deep cultural connections to.

Genetically modified (GM) food is one of the more polarized food topics. The mixed opinions on it are played out through the media, in popular books, on ballot initiatives, and at kitchen tables, indicating both a public concern for the impacts of food production as well as a fundamental disagreement about the impacts and risk of GM foods.

Many progressive food advocates have adopted a categorical opposition to all forms of genetically modified food, demanding labeling and warning against unintended impacts on human health and the environment. On the other side of the debate—from those supporting Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds to those who cautiously accept that genetic engineering might play a role in improving our food system—many argue that these charges are overblown and not grounded in factual evidence of the risk from GM foods.

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Article on Chomping Climate Change

I wrote some reflections on Chomping Climate Change about the presence of the livestock-climate issue at the People’s Climate March this past Sunday. The blog is run by Jeff Anhang, Environmental Specialist with the World Bank Group.


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