Solution to China’s Pollution is on Its Plate

By Eve Feng

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on May 31, 2013.

More Than Just Cars and Factories

It has long been known that China suffers from serious environmental challenges. The relationship between livestock agriculture and environmental pollution is nothing new either. But a report released on April 10th, 2013, by China Rural Development Institute Academy of Social Sciences, entitled the China Rural Economic Situation Analysis and Forecast (2013) stated that in 2012, the pressure of agricultural environmental pollution is still increasing and large-scale livestock and poultry pollution has become the biggest agricultural source of pollution in China.

The report stated increase in pressure comes from modernization of agriculture as well as agricultural input, which lead to both environment pollution and food safety problems. Among these, livestock pollution is the biggest source of pollution in agricultural production. According to the general survey of pollution sources dynamically updated data, in 2010 chemical oxygen demand and ammonia emissions from the national livestock and poultry breeding industry reached 11.84 million tons and 65 million tons respectively, accounting for 45 percent and 25 percent of national emissions respectively. Chemical oxygen demand and ammonia emissions from the national livestock and poultry breeding industry accounted for 95 percent and 79 percent of agricultural emissions by source, and thus, large-scale livestock and poultry breeding has become the biggest source of agricultural pollution.

The report also stated that in 2012 pollution prevention and control of livestock and poultry farms have been included in “Liu Chang, Yi Che” operations, (loosely translated as “Six Fields, One Car”). These are a categorization of Chinese operations that generate heavy emissions, namely thermal power plants, steel mills, cement factories, paper mills, municipal waste water treatment plants, livestock and poultry farms, and motor vehicles, and are the focus for major pollutant reduction areas by the Chinese government.

Meat Consumption Trend: Increase vs. Decline

At the beginning of this year, marketing and communications consulting firm, J.Walter Thompson, identified global food and beverage trends to watch in 2013. Amongst them faux meat, humane food, vegan baby food and allergen-free foods topped the list of most popular choices. In the U.S., for the first time in history, per-capita meat consumption has declined for four consecutive years, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This global change has occurred because consumers are becoming more aware of the health, environmental, and social impacts that each and every personal choice can bring to the world. Additionally, it has become increasingly evident that the so-called efficient industrial model of animal agriculture has brought with them more and more significant environmental and social costs in developed countries such as the U.S.

In China, ever since the floating dead pigs incident, the outbreak of avian flu H7N9, and rat meat adulteration, more Chinese have started replacing animal food with plant-based foods. However, in the past ten years, consumption of China’s most popular meat, pork, has doubled. It is estimated that more than a quarter of all the meat produced worldwide is eaten in China. China has also become the biggest importer of soy feed from Brazil, one of the greatest causes of deforestation in the Amazon. Though China has just 10 percent of the Earth’s land and 6 percent of its water resources, it is the world’s largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. The growing adoption of diets high in saturated fats, sugar, and salts, is contributing to epidemics of obesity and diabetes among the Chinese adults and children. Almost 40 percent of China’s population are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization. With at least 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions coming from the global livestock sector, China’s booming livestock industry contributes to the country’s rank as the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitting country. In addition, water pollution from livestock operations can be seen throughout China, perhaps most clearly in the Pearl River Delta. Guangzhou, a major city in the region, has in recent decades become the world’s factory. Industrial pig facilities have sprung up to supply factory cafeterias and consumers.

Currently, livestock and poultry production is the pillar industry of China’s agricultural sector. In 2012, the national annual output had reached more than 79 million tons of meat, 27 million tons of eggs, and 38 million tons of dairy. According to estimates, a pig farm with an annual output of 100,000 pigs emits 148 kilograms of ammonia, 13.5 kilograms of hydrogen sulphide, 24 kilograms of dust, and 1.4 billion bacterial microbes into the atmosphere, every hour. Furthermore, the radius of contamination of these pollutants can reach up to 5 kilometers, while dust and disease-spreading microbes can reach up to 30 kilometers, when dispersed by wind.

The government proposed solution is to intensify large-scale livestock and poultry farming by integrating small scale farms, in order to reduce the chemical oxygen demand (COD) and to increase the ammonia reduction capacity. Even though these pollution control projects may decrease overall figures of greenhouse gas emissions, the real impact in effectively decreasing these gases is questionable, not to mention incomplete because of heavy pollution to underground water, deforestation, and other irreversible factors that seem to have been completely overlooked.

Fact: Large-scale livestock and poultry pollution are the biggest agricultural source of pollution in China. And although the Chinese government is waking up to the devastating costs of the industrialized livestock and poultry farming system and its long-term damage, maybe it’s time to look into alternative food production systems to minimize or replace animal farming and other holistic solutions, which take into consideration all aspects of people and the planet’s health. The recent Gates Notes: The Future of Food (and similar projects, such as Like Meat, a 2 year R+D project that is being funded by the EC’s Seventh Framework Program under the specific program Capacities – Research for SMEs) is definitely a good place to start and an excellent source of inspiration to lead China into a healthier, greener future.

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China Elaborates Law to Enhance Food Safety

By Wanqing Zhou, originally posted on the Brighter Green website on May 28, 2013.

On May 2nd, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) of China issued Interpretations on food safety criminal cases. The next day, a spokesman of the SPC further elaborated on the Interpretations during a press conference. The judicial progress is certainly encouraging, but more efforts beyond the legal system are required to effectively combat food safety lapses.

Food Legislation Elaborated

According to the content, one important function of the Interpretations is to clarify the boundary between the two basic food safety crimes, “the production and sale of substandard food” and “the production and sale of toxic and harmful food”. The maximum sentences of the two are life imprisonment and the death sentence, respectively, as shown in China’s Crime Law.

Because the use of gutter oil (recycled cooking oil that poses serious threat to human health) was used as an example by the SPC spokesman, the Chinese media reported on the Interpretations with titles like “Death Sentence to the Gutter Oil”, which successfully attracted the readers’ attention but oversimplified the whole story. Some highlights of the Interpretations are as below:

-Different conditions for levels of the crimes. Originally vague descriptions, such as “causing serious harm to human health” and “particularly serious consequences”, are clarified with detailed descriptions.

-By including pesticides and animal drugs in the discussion, the Interpretations cover both processed foods and unprocessed agricultural products.

-The whole food supply chain is covered, including food production, sale, transportation and storage. Additionally, providing assistance to the production and sale of substandard/toxic and harmful food, including supervision irregularities, also leads to severe sentences under the Interpretation.

Enforcement Gaps, a Tip of the Iceberg

By clarifying food safety crimes for the first time, there is now a correlating bridge between real-world cases and existing legislation. However, enforcement measures need to catch up, and there is still a long way to go.

A major hurdle to law enforcement is the weak testing system. In the recent case of aldicarb ginger, products targeting the domestic market, although containing a high level of toxic insecticide residues, were sold normally because the samples sent for testing were prepared by the farmers themselves, rather than officials. If the supervision system remains ineffective like this, law cannot play its role.

Another problem is some impacts of unsafe food may not be directly visible, so there is often a lack of evidence to prove the severity of crime. For example, although many types of pesticides and additives are proved to be carcinogenic, which means they are able to facilitate cancer development, it is extremely hard, if possible at all, to affirm in a certain case that a specific food additive has led to the disease.

Beyond the Legal Force

The justice system may prevent people from committing crimes, but it does not address the source of criminal behaviors. To prevent the crimes from taking place with a sustained effect, it is more important to study the root of food safety crimes and rethink the current development paradigm.

As pointed out by Professor Wen Tiejun, Dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University, the astonishing diversity of food safety issues in China took a mere three to four decades to evolve, mainly driven by the pursuit of an industrialized agriculture system on a continent of small-scale traditional farming system. According to Wen, improving the livelihood of farmers by diversifying their income is the key to ensure food safety at the source.

In a growing supply chain of modern food systems, farmers are always at the bottom, and their income is reduced every time a new link is added to the chain. Without other sources of income, farmers tend to increase agricultural productivity at the expense of applying banned toxic pesticides and polluting chemical fertilizers. A longer supply chain also means more inlets of food additives. Under such circumstances, a food safety law is very likely to be bypassed, especially when obvious enforcement gaps exist.

Therefore, compared with external supervision, it may be more effective to promote internal supervision within the organizations of food producers and local communities. The concept makes good sense, and is similar to the reason why more and more customers would like to know the farmers who grow and sell them their food – increased income for the farmers, and enhanced connections between people.

A good medical doctor should be able to identify and fix the cause of a illness, rather than simply eliminate the symptoms. Legislation is not enough to bring back the positive externalities of agriculture and safe food products that China used to enjoy before its headlong rush to industrialize its farming system. The GDP-oriented development paradigm needs to be shifted to one that focuses on creating sustainable livelihoods for food producers and building organizations that favor their healthy prosperity.

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part II)

By Wanqing Zhou, originally published on the Brighter Green website on February 7, 2013

Continued from Part I: 

The Leftovers: Consuming and Emitting
Nutrition that could save people from hunger is not the only thing being carelessly wasted; the already scarce natural resources used to grow the food, such as land and fresh water are also wasted. In addition, conventional landfill practices release greenhouse gases (GHGs) and other harmful chemicals due to microbial fermentation of the food waste, which is rich in organic matter and often wet. 

When dumping animal-based foods like beef, the impact on climate is triple that of plant-based foods because of animal protein’s higher emissions intensity. This fact does not even include the wasted resources and related sewage discharge, which destroy the planet’s ecosystems in the production process of animal-based foods. 

When people are lifted off the ground and put into skyscrapers, life becomes more convenient as the distance from the soil grows. However, because of this removal, we need to remind ourselves of these inconvenient truths behind our industrialized food systems. Action is still required on our part to complete the system, using mechanisms such as food scraps recycling.

As one of the first national pilots, Beijing implemented garbage sorting in 2000. In March, 2012, the Beijing Municipal Garbage Management Ordinance came into force, which encouraged communities and households to participate in kitchen waste recycling. 

Unfortunately, like many other environment-related tasks, this one is also thorny. According to official statistics, by 2011, 50% of municipal garbage was sorted enough for recycling. However, a study carried out by Tsinghua University revealed that, for the same year, only 4.4% of sampled communities met the standard. Some people say the short is all about incentives, but is that so?

The answer: not necessarily. The pathway linking the household recycling bin and the eventual treatment system is not primed, nor is the handling capacity strong enough. Every day, in Beijing alone, households generate 11,000 metric tons of kitchen waste, and restaurants generate 2,500 metric tons. But the four municipal kitchen waste management facilities altogether can only handle 1200 metric tons each day – that is less than 10% of what’s needed. As a result, in a large amount of communities, recycling bin contents head to the same destination as other waste – landfills or incineration plants.

Despite this, however, there are still residents who choose to add another container in the kitchen, for food scraps only, even knowing the collector will possibly mix them with other trash. The will is there, calling for a real system that flows and circles, equipped with both regulation and education.

Get the Cycle Turning

Under double pressure from resource scarcity and climate change, our planet needs to get the consumption pattern fixed and the recycle system running. Improving the existing methodology is not enough; various innovative ideas should be tried out at the same time. 

On the consumption side, reducing food waste is quite simple (see tips from Worldwatch Institute here and here), however, education needs to be strengthened. Food businesses like restaurants and grocery stores also have the responsibility and incentive to minimize food waste and should guide customers to do so as well. A food bank is yet to be introduced to Mainland China, but given the country’s issues with food waste and income inequality in cities, the idea definitely deserves attention from local communities and NGOs.

New York City is showcasing a practical method for collecting food scraps. At Greenmarkets, people voluntarily drop off their food scraps at composting sites. Not everyone participates, but 450 metric tons (1 million pounds) of food scraps have been recycled since 2007 through Greenmarkets alone. In China, wet markets are already part of many people’s daily life. Therefore, it is easy to imagine a similar circle, in which citizens bring their kitchen waste to the markets once a week, take fresh produces back home, and continue the cycle the next week. 

Also, for a sprawling city like Beijing, localized food scrap collection would greatly reduce the harmful emissions produced during transporting of food scraps. The Xicheng District is going to push on-site treatment in 2013, starting with collection from large canteens and restaurants. If planned well, nearby green spaces can also benefit from the organic fertilizers generated. This would have the added bonus of education, as citizens could see the benefits of their food scrap collection in their communities. 

Perhaps another feedback loop sits in there, too. When people start giving wasted food a second look by sorting out garbage or storing food scraps for compost, a voice in the head may remind us to clean our plates whenever possible. After all, we, as part of the planet, can’t afford the loss. 

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part I)

By Wanqing Zhou – originally published on the Brighter Green website on February 7, 2013
As a major producer and consumer of agricultural products on the planet, China faces a serious problem of food waste as it takes off towards a sustainable urbanization and industrialization. In order to mend the cycle of food, it is critical for all groups in the society to recognize the issue in an environmental context, and face the challenge collaboratively.The Appetite: Growing and Spilling
Released two months ago, Back to 1942, a film telling the story of a famine in Henan Province during the World War II, spurred discussion about the Great Famine in early 1960s, one of the post effects of the Great Leap Forward that still affects the food consumption psyche of average Chinese. The Great Famine encouraged the world to analyze China’s food security, as outlined in Lester Brown’s 1995 book Who Will Feed China?

Ironically, in a university cafeteria in Beijing, one can see students throwing away about 1/3 of the food. “That’s normal,” said one student, “we seldom pack up leftovers. If nobody asks, I won’t ask. And it’s inconvenient because we don’t have a microwave oven in our dorm to reheat it.”

Then why order more than enough? “Well, it looks good to have at least the same number of dishes as the number of people. Common sense, isn’t it?” This is an example of what has become an underlying problem: the desire to appear abundant. This problem leads to extensive waste when the bill is paid with public funds.

This problem shines a light on the lack of basic components in the education system – knowledge about the Planet Earth. When dumping food becomes so easy for young people, it is extremely difficult for any society to step into sustainability.

The facts about food waste might be more disturbing than one could imagine. Recently, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers released a report on food waste, estimating that 30-50% of the annual global food production is wasted. The astonishing result covers food lost during harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as those thrown away by retailers and consumers.

In China, about 70% of national waste is food, and food makes up 61% of household waste. Researchers from China Agricultural University studied data from 2006 to 2008and found that edible food thrown away from restaurants each year is equivalent tonearly 10% of the country’s annual crop production, which is enough to feed 200 million people. When including the waste from schools, businesses and households, the number can easily reach 300 million people.

In response to these numbers, a Clean Plate Initiative is heating up the social networks right now, advocating for zero food waste when dining out. As the movement has spread and an increasing number of netizens, including familiar faces and food businesses, have joined in. More and more people have become aware of the issue and are acting. Good news and good timing, given the coming Chinese Spring Festival is the biggest feast of the year.

Yet the story does not end at dining tables. To complete the cycle of nature, what grows from the soil needs to return to the soil, regardless of the pathway.

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part II)