Recipe for disaster: China diet or China crisis?
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Recipe for disaster: China diet or China crisis?

A new taste for more meat and processed foods in China is ushering in a human health crisis. Recent studies have linked the rise of factory farming in China and other Asian countries to serious environmental and animal welfare concerns. This trend is related to the growth of diets rich in fat and sugar among China’s population, prompting concern for public health, though not from the Chinese government.

From an interview with Barry Popkin, coordinator of the China Health and Nutrition Survey, by China Dialogue:

The problem is that all these changes are occurring and the government is doing nothing. If anything it is accelerating these changes by subsidising and keeping sugar prices low, keeping pork prices down, not really thinking through the long term health consequences for its economy and the medical costs that are going to come from the hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and cancer from all these diet issues, compounded by other environmental concerns.

The shift towards a more “Western” (read: capitalist) diet is part of a larger trend that is taking place in China, including rapid and extreme industrialization, consumerism, wealth inequality and effectively unregulated business practices. Fast, cheap, processed and packaged meals are not simply a choice when an entire household is busy working long shifts at a factory. Traditional, healthy home-cooked meals become a luxury, while fatty processed fare becomes the norm. Despite KFC’s recent slowdown, it is fast food that has become king in urban China.

Another aspect of this trend, particularly due to the growth in meat consumption, is a growing reliance on the importation of foodstuffs — not chiefly for human consumption, but for animal feed. Raising livestock on an industrial level requires large amounts of feed and is highly water and energy intensive. China recently inked a deal with Brazil for the importation of corn to feed its growing livestock and food-processing industries.

From the Wall Street Journal:

China’s shift to a protein-rich diet and its rising industrialization are changing global trade flows. China’s demand for corn rose 39-fold in volume between last year and 2009, though imports so far represent only about 2% of China’s total corn consumption.

The China Study

In 2005 a book was published that would shake up the health community. The China Study, by the father and son duo of T. Colin and Thomas M. Campbell — a nutritional biochemist from Cornell University and a physician, respectively — argued that the traditional Chinese diet, which is low in animal products, processed foods and refined carbohydrates, promotes a far healthier and more disease-free life than typical Western diets. The China Study used health and mortality surveys from the 1970s and 1980s in China, before the influx of high-meat and processed food to the country.

With hyper-capitalism and consumerism increasingly being the driving change behind what people eat in China as in the rest of the industrialized world, health and the environment inevitably suffer. Along with our diets, we should be questioning any system that places profit over the health of people, the treatment of animals and the Earth as a whole.


American style fried chicken, Beijing. Pic: Jirka Matousek (Flickr CC)