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.
To analyze China’s food landscape, the briefings utilizes a ‘food systems’ approach, which as the authors write “combines insights from the physical and social sciences to highlight interrelations between causes and consequences” to examine “the physical flow of goods; the social, economic, environmental, and cultural forces that influence this flow; the social, economic, environmental, and cultural consequences resulting from this flow; and the interactions between consequences and drivers.” This is a technical way of saying that their analysis of China’s changing food system is broad and multidimensional.
Beyond the range of topics they address, the briefings are effective because they pack a lot of sound research into a very concise form—each of the nine briefings are about four pages in length. While FCRN is constantly featuring insightful new studies related to global food systems, not many of the papers are as succinct and as user friendly as these briefings. Well-designed overviews like these that include images, infographics, and straightforward statistics are important tools for influencing policy makers and other key stakeholders outside of the research community.
Brighter Green has also contributed some important work analyzing the dietary transition underway in China from a food-systems perspective, placing emphasis on the negative impacts of livestock production and consumption. Adapted from lengthier policy work, their China briefing is pithy and accessible like the FCRN briefings. Brighter Green also did a documentary film, What’s For Dinner?, which provides an inside look into China’s changing food system, with all of its sights and sounds. Definitely worth seeing.
A big-picture message that one can infer from the work of FRCN and Brighter Green is that economic development tends to correspond with a major dietary transition towards less healthy, less sustainable foods. This idea is quite intuitive: as people have more money, they have more power to consume richer, pricier foods and producers respond by offering a wider variety of these foods on the market to meet consumer demand. On a more technical level, this principle coincides with a trend observed in economics known as an Engels Curve; as incomes rise from a very low level, total food spending increases dramatically, even as it constitutes a decreasing percentage of one’s total living expenses. Dietary transitions occur at relatively early stages of economic development. As disposable incomes have risen in China, so too has the consumption of richer, more expensive foods—such as meat, eggs, and dairy products—that most people in China have historically had less access to. Years of food insecurity in China—which was most dramatic during the Great Famine (1959-1961) when as many as 45 million people starved to death—have contributed to a national psyche that drives people to make up for the lean years by consuming an excess of meat and other rich foods.
In recent posts, I discussed the book The China Study, which is based on the largest epidemiological study examining the correlations between diet and health. The study at the heart of that book, the China-Cornell-Oxford project from the early 1980s, drew from health indicators of a very large sampling of people across China, showing that in areas where people had adopted more of a western-style diet—i.e. a diet full of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and animal-source foods—rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and cancer increased dramatically. In the three decades since the study, an even larger proportion of Chinese have adopted this richer diet, which corresponds with the exploding rates of chronic, diet-related diseases. This health trend is reminiscent of the epidemic of chronic disease we have been dealing with in the U.S. for years; in many ways, the food system in China is becoming more like that of the U.S.
Despite the troubling picture that the FCRN briefings paint, the authors offer some hope, citing a recent survey showing that people in China are increasingly concerned with how their dietary choices affect the environment. Food system priorities for the Chinese state are also shifting from a concern for ensuring that the population is adequately nourished to recognizing the public-health burden of an overnourished population—though certainly there remains a segment of the population that is undernourished and food insecure. The government has also implemented stricter policies to conserve land, water, and soil resources in the face of increasing pressure from human land use, including the vast resources required to produce meat.
Given the size of China’s population, we are not merely going to see a U.S.-light food system. Having overtaken the U.S. as the largest food and beverage retail market, China is increasingly a center of power in the global food system. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the pork sector, where China is by far the largest producer and consumer of pork in the world—half of the some 1.3 billion pigs raised for food globally each year are raised in China. The acquisition of pork giant Smithfield by China’s Shineway group in 2013 is a testament to China’s clout in the pork game.
In discussions of the global food system in coming years, it will be increasingly difficult not to mention China. The big-picture problem is that if 1.3 billion people adopt western-style diets high in processed and animal-source foods, the ecological footprint and public health impacts are bound to be drastic. But more broadly, if billions more people in developing countries replicate this dietary transition, as indicators and historical precedent seem to suggest, the impacts are bound to be devastating. Short of any major shifts in how developing countries model their food systems during early economic growth, the dietary model underway in China—which was pioneered by the U.S. and other high-income countries—will become one of the major global challenges we deal with in coming decades.