Crossing the Equator: What’s For Christmas Dinner?

By Wanqing Zhou

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

No matter where we are, there is one thing in common for the end of year holidays, whether you’re celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or another festival: food. Special dishes. Holiday meals. Gathering around a table. It’s time to be merry and stay happy, to try and forget about sorrow and anger, and often, to give up asking too many questions—questions that may lead to the truth, and the truth can be inconvenient.

On November 28 and 29, 2014, Brighter Green’s Mia MacDonald and Wanqing Zhou joined environmental and rights advocates at the International Strategy Meeting on Impacts of Unsustainable Livestock and Feed Production and Threats to Community Conservation in Paraguay. The meeting and field trips were organized by the Global Forest Coalition, an international non-profit network of organizations based in Paraguay and the Netherlands.

"Agrochemicals violate human rights - a tribute to Silviono Talavera."

“Agrochemicals violate human rights: A tribute to Silvino Talavera.”

Just six miles from the conference site, across the Asunción airport, Elvio Sosa is the “Chief” of 23 MbyáGuaraní families. Five years ago, soybean farmers occupied Elvio and his indigenous community’s territory in Caaguazú Department in east Paraguay (the name Caaguazú means “big forest”) and burned their houses. People fled in different directions, with some families arriving at Zárate Isla, a place where no one came to chase them away.

They settled down with other Mbyá people from other parts of the country, built huts under the tree shades, kept chickens and ducks, and some also began to grow food around their huts. The children don’t go to school because families cannot afford school supplies and required uniforms. Only temporary jobs are open to them, while most of the time, they go to the streets and try to find “luck”—this Christmas season they are probably selling Mbocaya flowers to drivers on the road.

From Asunción heading east, the tropical forest landscape gradually turns into uniform soybean monocultures that run through Canindeyú, Caaguazú, Caazapá, Alto Paraná, and Itapúa. As the raw material for livestock feed, cooking oil, and various food additives, acres and acres of genetically modified (GM) pesticide-resistant soybean cover the red soil, turning natural forests into deserts of dark green or arid brown. Small pockets of woods leave people to imagine the lost habitats of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities.

Huge metal silos shine under the sun. Billboards for pesticides, fertilizers, seeds and farm machinery stand along the repeatedly-mended, two-way, single-lane highway. Ruts left by heavy trucks tell the story of prosperous agribusiness in silence—one cannot hear insects or birds in these fields, nor farmers calling to each other—and two or three people are enough to manage all the work with the help of modern technologies.

According to communities living near the soy fields, four or five people are enough to manage all the work in 50,000 to 70,000 acres of soybean monoculture with the help of modern technologies. Pesticides, sometimes sprayed by small planes, are applied to the soy, ten times per rotation, three rotations a year, without any notice to surrounding communities. Cases of skin disease, malformation, stillbirths, and cancer have increased dramatically in these communities. School kids play by a wall of eucalyptus trees, planted along the edge of soy fields, with the hope that the trees shield some of the fumigation. In 2003, 11-year-old Silvino Talavera died in front of his mother’s eyes after being directly exposed to pesticide spraying in the soy fields near his home in Itapúa.

For campesinos (small-scale peasant farmers) in Paraguay, who try to preserve traditional varieties of crops and practice agroforestry, life is getting harder. The soybean fields are encroaching, withering the peasants’ vegetables and fruit trees as agrochemicals fill the air. Standing by rolls of stakes, peasant farmer Geronimo Arevalos told us how he had to replant his tomatoes because the fumigation just killed his last batch. As an activist for small farmers’ rights, he was featured in the award-winning documentary Raising Resistance, and proudly displayed the Golden Butterfly trophy from the Movies That Matter Film Festival.

Moving up the supply chain, victims of industrial agriculture are affected in different ways, and not all of them are heard like Geronimo. Some soybeans are transported to Capiatá near Asunción, where industrial livestock farms and slaughterhouses are located. Pechugon (pechugón means “big breasts”), the chicken meat brand created by processing company Avícola La Blanca, has a facility in Capiatá that produces poultry feed and slaughters chickens.

Facilities like this usually take advantage of rainy days to discharge wastewater, which run into streams and enter the Ypacaraí Lake. Pechugon has dug five wastewater treatment pools near Fidel Goncalvez’s community. Houses close to the leaky water pipes are frequently inundated with semi-treated wastewater, including a mixture of blood, animal waste, and toxic chemicals like bleach. The smell is constantly awful, those living around the plant say, and one of the company’s responses was to provide households with window screens. Still, the screens cannot keep these insects from occupying dinner tables.

The stories can go on and on and on. And yet, what’s happening in Paraguay is just a snapshot of the impacts of the global system of industrial livestock production. In other words, industrial livestock production is connected to everyone.

Industrial livestock production technologies and business models were invented in industrial countries such as the U.S. and promoted worldwide; consumers in China and Europe have reached out to the U.S. and Latin America for larger amounts of livestock and feed products. Latin American countries, especially Brazil and Paraguay, are becoming dispossessed—their natural resources have become meat and animal feed that is shipped to consumer countries; the profits go into the pockets of multinational agribusinesses; indigenous people and small farmers have lost their livelihoods; and a large part of the unique ecosystems and their biodiversity are gone, forever.

The truth about the global food system is inconvenient, and not only at Christmas. But Christmas, and the overall end-of-year holiday season, may be a good time—as good as any in fact—to learn more about the food we eat, where it comes from, and how it’s shaping and reshaping the world (as in Paraguay), one purchase, one meal, one technology, one forest lost or one community displaced, one bite at a time.

Photo courtesy of Wanqing Zhou

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Activism in China: Q&A with Associate Wanqing Zhou

By Alessandra Seiter

Outside of the film's premiere at Vegan Hut in Beijing

Outside of the film’s premiere at Vegan Hut in Beijing

This blog originally appeared on the Our Hen House website on July 23, 2014.

Today, I’m excited to tell you about a screening tour across China of the 30-minute documentary WHAT’S FOR DINNER? Providing a unique look into the rapid growth of industrialized animal agriculture in China, the film follows various people in Chinese society—from a retired pig farm worker to a vegan restaurant owner—and examines the impacts of the country’s huge shift in food production and consumption on sustainability, public health, food security, climate change, and animal welfare.

WHAT’S FOR DINNER? is a production of Brighter Green, a public policy “action tank” on environment, animals, and sustainability, for which I’ve been fortunate enough to work this summer, in addition to my internship with Our Hen House. You may remember Brighter Green’s important work from OHH’s interview with Jessika Ava on Episode 216 of the podcast, or from Jessika’s collaborative feature with Brighter Green Executive Director Mia MacDonald on the expansion of industrialized dairy production in Asia, based on Brighter Green’s latest policy paper, “Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia.”

WHAT’S FOR DINNER? has already been shown at film festivals, conferences, and on campuses across the U.S., and in Europe, India, and Korea, but had not yet screened in China until this summer. When Brighter Green Associate Wanqing Zhou’s paper, “The Triangle: Factory Farming in the U.S, China and Brazil” was accepted for presentation at the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption in Shanghai this past June, the organization saw an ideal opportunity to release the newly completed Chinese-subtitled version of WHAT’S FOR DINNER? throughout China.

Recently, I caught up with Wanqing, the main organizer and host of the screenings:
***
Alessandra Seiter for Our Hen House (OHH): Can you explain what you’ve been doing this summer in China with WHAT’S FOR DINNER? Give us a “day in the life” of your work with the screenings.
Wanqing Zhou (WZ): I am bringing WHAT’S FOR DINNER? to different cities in China and discussing the topics of meat consumption and production, and the relationship between diet, the environment, people’s health, and food security. Jian Yi, the film’s director and Xie Zheng, the founder of the organization Don’t Eat Friends, sometimes help me host the screenings. So far, we’ve hosted twelve screenings in six cities.

A typical day during the screening tour involves taking an early morning train with Jian Yi to the next city on our schedule and having lunch with the local organizers with whom we’re collaborating. The screenings take place in the afternoon and usually last for two-and-a-half hours. We screen both WHAT’S FOR DINNER? and Vegucated, then host a panel discussion.

OHH: Why did you want to bring WHAT’S FOR DINNER? to China?
WZ: The issues discussed in WHAT’S FOR DINNER? are very relevant to China. Without the public becoming aware of them, nothing in the country can be changed. People in China are just starting to be exposed to information regarding meat consumption, pollution, climate change, and health. However, the information tends to be quite general, and there is not yet a local documentary film that illustrates the problems. I think it’s very important the Chinese people see reflections and reevaluations of animal agriculture that come from within the society, as shown in WHAT’S FOR DINNER?.

OHH: What people and organizations have you collaborated with?
WZ: We have collaborated with local and international environmental groups, media and communication companies, local community governments, vegetarian associations and restaurants, and business clubs. The most prominent among these groups include the Zhejiang Vegetarian Food Association (ZVFA), the Shanghai branch of Green Drinks, Climate Wire journalists, the Shanghai Academy of Natural Resources, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

OHH: How have attendees responded to the film?
WZ: The attendees come from all educational and cultural backgrounds—from illiterate villagers to graduates from top universities, both Chinese and foreign-born. They’re attracted to the screenings by different facets of the topic, including health and nutrition, food safety, the environment, business opportunities, and more.

People have spoken highly of WHAT’S FOR DINNER?, saying that it’s mild yet alerting, resonates with their daily life, and inspires change.

The attendees have been most interested in the discussion of health; they’ve asked if eating less or no meat will provide adequate nutrition, as well as how to differentiate between genetically modified and organic foods. Some attendees have expressed interest in or concern for the environment and food security, but individual health has been the major topic at most screening events.

OHH: What is the general attitude toward veganism in China?
WZ: Among the younger generation, more people are aware of the positive effects of being vegetarian or vegan. The abstention from eating animals used to have religious connections, such as to Buddhism, but that connection is becoming weaker these days, especially as health and environmental concerns appear.

Most meat-eaters in China over the age of 40 see not eating meat as “nutritionally deficient” and/or “extreme.” They might call a vegetarian or vegan person “unfortunate, but mentally strong,” because they would view such an individual as struggling economically, since they’re not able to enjoy the “most delicious foods.” However, only a very small portion of vegetarian or vegan people in China are in an economically difficult situation, so most vegetarians or vegans actively choose such a diet.

Most vegetarians or vegans in China view their diet as a personal choice, rather than as part of a value system. They all do it for different reasons, and they don’t want to label themselves.

OHH: Do you and Brighter Green have any plans for advocacy in China beyond the screenings this summer?
WZ: Right now, Brighter Green is encouraging Chinese civil society and journalists to participate in fact-finding tours with sites in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, organized by our partner, Global Forest Coalition. The tours will focus upon the environmental and social impacts of the production of feed for farmed animals (e.g., soy monoculture). We hope that Chinese participants will bring home what they have witnessed on a tour and provide the seeds of change. Several Chinese individuals and groups have already expressed interest in participating.

OHH: You recently presented your paper, “The Triangle: Factory Farming in the U.S., China and Brazil” at the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption (congratulations, by the way!). Could you briefly explain your paper?
WZ: In short, I tried to use “The Triangle” to illustrate the relationship between the world’s three largest meat and feed producers and consumers.

The U.S. has exported the industrialized, intensive animal production pattern of factory farming to countries including Brazil and China, along with its meat-centered “ideal” diet and fast-food culture. China is now the destination of huge amounts of animal products and feed grains. This puts pressure on the world’s largest producers of such products, including the U.S. and Brazil. Brazil is especially important because large areas of rainforests and savannahs are being cleared to grow crops in order to meet growing demand for meat and feed. The Amazon rainforest is not only home to a vibrant ecosystem, but is also of great global importance as a carbon sink, a storage unit of sorts for biodiversity and biomass, a resource provider, and a climate regulator.

The appearance, adoption, and expansion of factory farming practices in these three countries represent the relationship between humans, our food, and the environment—one in which we have believed for the past 50 years or more. This relationship considers humans as the dominators and controllers of all natural resources, and believes that all species and environments—to be of value—should serve humans.

To respond to the expansion of the poorly-regulated factory farming system and the trend of growing animal consumption, we need the majority of the people—especially those who live in cities, in the case of China—to be aware that the over-consumption and over-production of animal products is not adaptive to the environment. Individuals, businesses, and social groups need to act first and lay the foundation for change, and policy will catch up with them.

OHH: What inspired you to get involved with Brighter Green?
WZ: I first got to know Mia MacDonald—the Executive Director of Brighter Green—and her organization during a screening event of WHAT’S FOR DINNER? and Vegucated in New York City. I had been interested in the food-climate nexus for some time and thought Brighter Green’s work was very relevant. I also thought that more people, especially in China, should hear about the issues on which Brighter Green focuses, but I never thought I could be the one to bring WHAT’S FOR DINNER? back home! It’s been a great experience and I have enjoyed every minute of it.

Follow Wanqing’s screening adventure and learn more about the film on its official website!

Photo courtesy of Wanqing Zhou

Got Milk?: New Policy Paper on Industrialized Dairy in Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Brighter Green is excited to announce the release of a new policy paper exploring the growth of industrial dairy systems in India, China, and countries of Southeast Asia. The report, Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia, explores the trend toward increased dairy consumption and production and argues that the growth of industrial systems results in severe consequences for the environment, public health, animal welfare, and rural economies.

By 2025, countries in the global South are expected to consume nearly twice as much milk and dairy products as they did in 1997, and Asia is now the world’s highest dairy-consuming region, with 39 percent of global consumption. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms” for dairy production are being set up across the continent, many housing thousands of cows, but the detrimental impacts of this phenomenon for Asia are still largely undocumented.

The report analyzes the effects of CAFOs on a range of ecological, economic, and social systems, and it discusses the possibility of a sustainable future in dairy production with far fewer negative effects on the environment, livelihood, and equity. Country case studies chart the growth and effects, current or anticipated, of CAFO-style dairy production in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

“It’s crucial for policy makers and civil society to take notice of the consequences of dairy CAFOs now,” says the paper’s author Jessika Ava. “Many operations are in the early development and planning stages, and can thus be halted, allowing for the reintroduction of more traditional, more sustainable plant-based agricultural systems for long-term food and livelihood security.” Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia includes a set of recommendations for policy-makers, civil society organizations, international institutions, and the private sector to move in this direction before it’s too late.

Photo courtesy of: Meena Kadri

Thinking of Food on World Population Day

By Ross Miranti

UN Population Fund

UN Population Fund

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on July 11, 2013.

Today is World Population Day, an appropriate day to reflect upon the sustainability of our growing world population. While this year’s theme, “Adolescent Pregnancy,” addresses an important issue, Brighter Green is also interested in the consumption habits of the growing world population – a topic that has not been the focus of a World Population Day since it was established back in 1989. The impact of global food consumption alone has massive repercussions for the climate, food security, fresh water supplies, and the preservation of natural lands.

The world population is currently around 7.1 billion and growing. A few years ago, the UN projected that the world would reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with a 70% increase in demand for agricultural output, though they have since updated their population projections to 9.6 billion people by 2050 – which would logically imply that food output would have to increase even more than 70% by mid-century, based on their previous estimates. But regardless of how accurate this new projection turns out to be, certainly the world population will continue to grow and global food systems will be pushed increasingly hard to produce more food.

One of the reasons why the demand for agricultural output is increasing at a higher rate than population growth is because global diets are rapidly shifting to resource-intensive foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, which require much more water and agricultural land. Livestock production currently occupies 70% of all agricultural land, which equates to about 30% of the earth’s ice-free surface. As developing countries start to consume higher levels of animal-based foods, the demand for rangeland and feed crops shoots up.

Expanding food production by 70% or more in the coming decades to meet increasing global demand is problematic if not nearly impossible. Not only has the yield per acre of most major crops leveled out, having approached their biological limits, but climate change is decreasing agricultural productivity and accelerating the encroachment of food production onto forested land. This is a recipe for more climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion.

But as Dawn Moncrief of A Well-Fed World often emphasizes in her organization’s advocacy for a more sustainable global food system, ‘projections are not destiny.’ Just as population growth can be mitigated, so too can global consumption habits, either through public policies or social education. The alternative to active mitigation is a market-driven solution, whereby plant proteins become more popular as the price of animal proteins rise, or a market-driven, Malthusian disaster, in which livestock continues to occupy an increasing share of our food supply – inefficiently cycling livestock feed through animals and rendering our food system incapable of meeting the hunger needs of the world’s population. In the latter case, poor people would be the least food secure because they could not access or afford these high-demand animal-based foods or even other foods grown on the world’s limited arable land.

The World Resource Institute has been addressing the issue of food and sustainability in a series of papers entitled Creating a Sustainable Food Future. It’s first installment calls attention to three important points about food and sustainability for the coming decades: 1) it is necessary to address population and global diet, 2) it will be important to support the livelihoods of small farmers in the developing world, and 3) there is a vital need to decrease the world’s impact on the environment and natural resources in order to maintain adequate food production.

As these and other issues related to global diet and sustainability become more pronounced, global leaders will have no choice but to give the matter greater attention. Who knows, one day we might even have a World Population Day dedicated to what the world population is eating.

Image courtesy of UNFPA

Meat and Development in Liberia

By Ross Miranti

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 4, 2013.

Meat consumption correlates with income; poorer individuals and countries tend to consume less than their wealthier counterparts. This applies to Liberia, one of the poorest nations in the world, which has an annual per capita income of about 374 dollars and an annual per capita meat consumption of about 10.4 kilograms/kg (22.9 pounds/lbs).

Three decades ago Liberia was one of the more prosperous nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the violent, fourteen year civil war (1989 to 2003) devastated the country in countless ways; it claimed 250,000 lives, displaced over 600,000 people, demolished infrastructure, and ravaged the economy.

The standard of living for the average Liberian diminished quickly, with the GDP falling 90 percent in the first five years of the war. Today, incomes remain low, even with a flood of aid money, the presence of a major UN peacekeeping force, and the ambitious efforts of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.

Unlike most countries in the world, including many of its neighbors, Liberia has lower levels of meat consumption than it did fifty years ago (see the graph below). Today, average per capita consumption is slightly less than it was in 1961, when Liberia’s meat consumption was above that of most other Sub-Saharan African countries and three times higher than that of China. Since then, per capita consumption in China has increased fifteen fold and is over five times that of Liberia.

 Source: FAOSTAT

Though meat consumption in Liberia remains low, it is likely to rise dramatically with increasing incomes, much as it has in other countries. In the coming century, the entire region of Sub-Saharan Africa seems set for a massive increase in the consumption of animal products as incomes creep up and populations grow rapidly. The net impact of this regional dietary shift will be harmful in terms of sustainability, climate change, food security, animal welfare, and public health.

While this dietary shift in Liberia and the region will push our global food system more towards an ecological tipping point – spiking global demand for scarce agricultural land, consuming more fresh water, contributing further to climate change, and consigning an increasing number of animals to livestock production (over 60 billion animals worldwide are involved in livestock each year) – one mustn’t overlook the persistently high consumption of meat and other animal products in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. If the international community is to mitigate the global externalities of livestock, developing countries will need to resist the urge to put meat at the center of their diets, but likewise, developed countries will need to work on removing it from the center of theirs.

Rich countries can help to prevent or reverse the livestock revolution in poor countries like Liberia by leading by example. So far, only a minority in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world believe that meat, eggs, and dairy are not the right foods we should be using to nourish the world’s population. Perhaps high-income countries need to develop their understanding of the impacts of the livestock revolution before they can help Liberia and other low-income countries develop their food systems in a truly humane, sustainable, and climate-friendly way.

This blog is first in a series of three blogs on Liberia and animal agriculture.

Graph created by Ross Miranti using FAOSTAT statistics

World Environment Day: Food Waste, Sustainability & China’s & the U.S.’ Pigs

World Environment Day: Food Waste, Sustainability & China’s & the U.S.’ Pigs

WED 2013 logo

WED 2013 logo

Note: this post was originally published on the Huffington Post’s Green section.

It’s World Environment Day and this year’s focus is on reducing food waste and getting people to shrink their “foodprints,” particularly, of course, if they’re large. Many are. In the U.S., between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is simply wasted, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, announcing a national Food Waste Challenge.Some of the bad habits around food we’ve developed in the U.S. have gone global. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that 1.3 billion metric tons of food iswasted throughout the world every year, the amount of food that’s produced in all of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries. A study by Chinese researchers concluded that the food wasted in a year by 2,700 families in differently sized Chinese cities could have fed 200 million people, about one-sixth of China’s population.

World Environment Day’s “Think.Eat.Save.” theme probably wasn’t on the minds of those shepherding last week’s $4.7 billion deal to sell Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer, to Shuanghui, a Chinese conglomerate with global investors that include Goldman Sachs (Morgan Stanley is providing some of the financing). And yet there is an important link.

A particularly wasteful source of food is industrial animal agriculture. Raising pigs in batches, thousands at a time in tight enclosures on factory farms as Smithfield does, is inherently wasteful. It demands large allotments of grain-based feed and therefore land, pesticides, and fertilizers; considerable amounts of water; and antibiotics and hormones to speed the pigs’ growth. Most are slaughtered at the age of six months.

China already raises and slaughters about 500 million pigs a year. Since 1980, overall meat consumption in China has more than quadrupled to 128 pounds a year, about two-thirds of average U.S. levels. Similar to the pattern in the U.S., animal agriculture in China is becoming more vertically integrated, with large corporations increasingly owning not just factory-farm facilities, but also slaughterhouses and feed companies.

An estimated 576 gallons of water and more than four pounds of grain are needed to manufacture just one pound of pork. Factory-farmed pigs also produce titanic amounts of waste, pound-for-pound four times the volume people do. Moreover, the global livestock industry is “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution,” according to the FAO.

With the cash of its soon-to-be new owners, Smithfield is gearing up to sell more U.S. pork to Chinese consumers. Smithfield is also expected to expand operations in China. It’s no stranger to the country. In July 2008, the state-owned China National Oils, Foodstuffs and Cereals Corporation (COFCO), China’s largest food importer/exporter and a Fortune 500 company, bought a 5 percent share in Smithfield; the year before, Smithfield began exporting pork to China.

China is beginning to reel under the weight of its livestock population, the world’s largest. Even though it’s not yet a fully fledged “factory-farm nation,” strains from its fast-growing livestock sector, and burgeoning appetite for animal-based protein, are showing — in significant water pollution, soil degradation, rising rates of obesity and chronic disease, risks to food security and food safety, pressure on small farmers, and declining farm-animal welfare.

A report released in April by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Rural Development concluded that, in 2012, large-scale livestock and poultry pollution had become the biggest source of agricultural pollution in China.

China has also become a major importer of soy, for use as livestock feed. In 2010, China bought 55 million tons of soy in global markets — a record. China’s rising demand for soybeans has been met in large measure by the expansion of soy acreage in Brazil, in both the Amazon forest and the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah. Currently, Chinapurchases more than 40 percent of Brazil’s soy. Through buying Brazilian soy, China is also importing water, an increasingly precious resource for the country.

Although Smithfield gave a nod to environmental and animal-welfare concerns in thepress release announcing the Shuanghui purchase, the company’s business practices have raised numerous concerns. Manure from the company’s hog facilities has pollutedcreeks and rivers in North Carolina. It has been accused of intimidating unions, hiring illegal immigrants, and violating labor laws. A 2010 undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S. exposed systematic cruelty at a Smithfield-affiliated pig farm.

It’s hard to know how high China’s consumption of meat will or can go; presumably Shuanghui and Smithfield are “all in” for boosting supply. But whether China will be able to intensify production on a level akin to that of the U.S. or expand its share of the world protein-export market are open questions. Among the challenges: concerns abroad and at home about Chinese food-safety standards; ecological limits; and rising prices of grain and oil, both essential inputs for large-scale industrial animal agriculture.

Increasingly, Chinese government officials, activists, and netizens alike are focusing on food waste and its effects on food security, natural resources, and climate change. On this World Environment Day, shouldn’t we all be doing the same wherever we are, and with the global perspective that’s required?

Much of the information in this article is drawn from Brighter Green’s policy paper, “Skillful Means: the Challenges of China’s Encounter with Factory Farming”, which is available, along with other multimedia resources, on Brighter Green’s website here.

 

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.