NRDC Voices: The China Factor

What if the world’s most populous country starts eating the way Americans do?

April 21, 2015

The United States has had an abusive relationship with fast food since the days of the carhop. But in China, this fundamental shift in the country’s eating habits dates back only to 1987—and the opening of the first KFC, still one of China’s most popular fast-food chains.

Just a few years before that, 7 percent of China’s population was overweight, compared with about 26 percent of American adults who were obese. Today, as many as 300 million out of China’s 1.3 billion people are overweight, according to Ministry of Health estimates. Diabetes, heart disease, and all the other health problems associated with obesity have shot up as well. From a global perspective, though, the most dangerous prospect is that even more of China may adopt an American-style diet.

If the way the United States grows, consumes, and wastes food is already bad for the planet—and it is—imagine if a nation four times our size starts eating the same way. We asked NRDC’s JingJing Qian, director of the China program in Beijing, and Erik Olson, director of the organization’s health program, to chew on the challenges.

onEarth JingJing, you live and work in Beijing. How are the Chinese eating differently now, and how quickly are their diets changing?

JingJing Qian Compared with a few decades ago, the Chinese are eating more protein, especially meat. At the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the average citizen ate just 8.8 pounds of meat per year. By 2013 this number had surged to 72 pounds, according to national statistics based on surveys. [Other sources, using different calculations, estimate China’s per capita meat consumption in 2013 may have actually been as high as 123 pounds.] This transformation differs by region, with people in rural areas eating just half the meat that urban dwellers do. And those with higher incomes tend to consume more as well. But I am also noticing a new trend among the more educated people, who are becoming more health-conscious with their diet or more aware of environmental protection or animal welfare.

Illustrated by: Earth Policy Institute

Erik Olson This graph says a lot.

oE What forces are driving these changes?

JQ Economic development and social changes are the primary catalysts. Income growth means people can now afford more meat. At the same time, a growing market means supply is usually abundant and prices are relatively stable. From the social perspective, many Chinese are adopting the typical high-fat, high-calorie Western diet. Moreover, the large volume of fast-food advertising draws new recruits, especially kids and young adults, to eat at these chains, which are now widespread here. McDonald’s has more than 2,000 restaurants in China; KFC, more than 4,000. Traditional cuisines have started incorporating more meat, too.

oE So what does it mean that the Chinese population is now eating more like we do in the United States?

JQ Eating more American is placing a public-health burden on Chinese society. Too much meat, fat, and calorie consumption contributes to many problems, especially obesity and heart disease. In the long run, the resulting economic and social costs may impede China’s development.

EO China’s rate of obesity is still lower than the States’, but that’s changing. Half the Chinese population is prediabetic, and 11.6 percent is already diabetic—up from just 1 percent 35 years ago. If these trends continue, it will burden the health care system for decades. The growing demand for meat also puts pressure on China’s grain production. The country is the world’s second-largest grain importer, with one-third of all grains and 70 percent of corn going to livestock feed. In the coming years, China will have to also supply grains for its own burgeoning meat industry. In 2013, the country’s total meat production was 85.36 million tons, enough for 131 pounds per person.

JQ Indeed, meat production is resource-intensive, requiring a lot of water as well as grains. Livestock farming also generates large quantities of manure and wastewater that pollute the environment if not sufficiently treated. And the industry emits a lot of methane—a greenhouse gas more than 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period—especially from ruminant animals like cattle.

EO China is also shifting from small-scale farming to industrial agriculture. Between 1991 and 2009, the number of hog farms dropped by 70 percent, while the average farm size grew from 945 animals to more than 8,000. The rise of industrial agriculture poses public-health challenges with the intense use of antibiotics, fertilizers, and pesticides. The expansion of livestock farming may also breed environmental problems, such as deforestation, as well as water and energy scarcities.

Illustrated by: Modern FarmerShare of total pig production by farm type: 1985-2007 (in percent). Source: INFORMA

oE Do the Chinese recognize this concern? Can anything be done to alleviate it or slow the change?

EO Chinese authorities have at least started acknowledging the air and water pollution problems caused by meat production. And last February, the central government issued the China Food and Nutrition Development Outline 2014–2020. Although this doesn’t talk about how meat production affects the planet, it’s very important because it sets a plan to reduce domestic meat consumption. According to the guidelines, by 2020 Chinese citizens will reduce their meat-eating to 64 pounds per person annually, compensated by an increase in seafood and soy consumption.

JQ The China Food and Nutrition Development Outline 2014–2020 also acknowledges the country’s concurrent problems of over-nutrition and under-nutrition. One important fact to remember is that China still has 82 million people living in poverty, defined by the government as surviving on the equivalent of $1 or less per day. Therefore, our economic development is unbalanced. While more urban children are becoming overweight, many in rural areas are suffering from malnutrition due to a lack of vitamins and nutrients. A lot of work needs to be done to promote balanced and inclusive development.

oE In November 2014, the United States and China announced a pact to reduce carbon pollution. Was food production and consumption taken into account?

JQ Those topics were not part of that agreement, but considering the industry’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, these issues may be raised for discussion in future meetings.

oE What can the United States learn from the Chinese? How can we ensure that both countries are eating in a way that is less damaging to the planet?

JQ China has a long and diverse food culture. Its traditional cuisines are well-balanced and rich in vegetables and complex carbohydrates—a heritage that the current generation should not abandon. There are many areas where the two countries might collaborate, such as improving the livestock industry to reduce its carbon footprint and raising public awareness of a health and sustainable diet.

EO There’s a lot the United States can learn. China still has a much lower obesity rate than the States, although as the Chinese diet becomes more Westernized, that rate is climbing. Its people can see the mistakes we’ve made in America with our food system and take note of those they don’t want to duplicate. Sticking with a more traditional diet with plentiful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains could be a good thing for China and an object lesson for the West.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.