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:
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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

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Climate Change and Food Security

By Elana Sulakshana

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Climate change will continue to affect crop yields significantly.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II recently published a report titled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” One of the major issues that the report raises is that of food security, exploring the connection between mounting pressures due to climate change and agriculture. These links between climate and food are intrinsically tied to inequity.

Agricultural yields are expected to fall at a rate much faster than previously predicted. Production of corn and wheat, in particular, faces grave risks due to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns—the report says yields of these two crops will reduce at least 2% per decade. This may lead to food prices rising 3% to 84% by 2050. At the same time, the global population is increasing rapidly. Predictions state that there will be at least 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050 (an increase in the world’s population by about 35%), which will require crop production to double, according to National Geographic.

Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the authors of the report, stated: “Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields.”

As Oppenheimer indicates, these are not just concerns for the future. The report discusses how climate change has already impacted food supply and continues to do so. Many link the 2007-8 spike in wheat prices to political unrest and violence in the Arab spring, just one example of the far-reaching influence of fluctuations in food supply and prices.

The world is polarized in terms of hunger. The number of overweight and obese people is booming worldwide, now comprising more than 33% of the population, or 1.46 billion adults. Meanwhile, 842 million—about one in eight—people are starving, struggling with the under consumption of energy, protein, and micro-nutrients.

Recent decades, though, have seen an greater consumption in developing nations. From 1980 to 2008, the number of obese and overweight adults increased about three times from 250 to 904 million (compared to 1.7 times in the developed world). Diets in the developing world are increasingly featuring dairy and meat (check out Brighter Green’s report on industrialized dairy in Asia). National Geographic predicts that the demand for protein—i.e. meat—will increase by 103.6% in developing countries, 69.2% in the least developed, and just 15.3% in developed.

This will have significant repercussions on the environment, as meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, comprising 18% today. Raising livestock is highly intensive in terms of water and grain. Currently only 55% of global crop calories are used for food, whereas the rest is dedicated to feed (36%) and fuel (9%).

As we move forward, one of the key ways that we can tackle climate change and eradicate hunger is by reducing meat consumption in both developed and developing countries. If we were to shift all crop production to direct human consumption, that would create enough food for 4 billion people, easily ending hunger today and fulfilling the needs of the predicted population of 9 billion in 2050. This is wishful thinking, as we are witnessing the opposite process, as developing countries take a cue from the developed and increase meat consumption as incomes rise.

This is the second piece in a series on climate change and inequality. Read the first one here.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Multimedia.

The Inequality of Climate Change

By Elana Sulakshana

The front page of the New York Times on March 28th featured an article on the plight of Bangladesh—one of the countries most vulnerable to the rising temperatures and sea levels due to climate change. This is an example of the inequality of climate change; Bangladesh and other developing nations hardly contributed to the climate crisis, yet they are facing the greatest risks.

On the Notre Dame-Global Adaptation (ND-GAIN) index of climate vulnerability, which measures a nation’s exposure, sensitivity and ability to cope with climate related hazards, Bangladesh is ranked 147. The index closely resembles a ranking by GDP, with developed nations facing the least risks from natural disasters, increased temperature, rising sea level, and the other impacts of climate change. From 1993 to 2012, Bangladesh was the fifth nation most affected by extreme weather events, in terms of fatalities and economic losses, according to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2014.

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Bangladesh is threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.

The projections for the country are astounding—and terrifying. According to climate scientist Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, models predict that rising sea levels will flood 17% of Bangladesh by 2050, leading to the displacement of some 18 million people. Bangladesh is also uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters, such as cyclones, and is currently experiencing severe coastal erosion.

Bangladesh is posed to experience huge economic losses as people lose their land and livelihoods, though the nation accounts for just 0.3 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Many small island nations are experiencing a similar situation, highly in danger of permanent inundation, despite tiny populations and a minimal carbon footprint. The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, for example, were forced to move at the beginning of April due to the threat of rising sea levels; the island is expected to be completely underwater by 2015. This makes them the first entire community to be displaced because of climate change.

Just seven countries account for 63% of the carbon emissions from the industrial age through 2005. The U.S. ranks number one, followed by China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and the U.K. With the exception of China and India, they are all developed nations. Additionally, many of the emissions of developing nations are due to western countries “outsourcing” their emissions to developing nations with the production of cheap goods. The prime example of this is China. Additionally, when emissions are calculated per capita, the developed countries’ numbers have overwhelmingly higher rates.

Because of this huge discrepancy, the developing nations are holding these 7 nations, and other developed ones, accountable. In recent talks, particularly COP19, the United Nations climate change negotiations in early November, small islands and other developing nations demanded both financial aid and other forms of assistance, such as refuge for migrants forced to flee for climate reasons, from the developed nations.

They spoke of a mechanism of “loss and damage,” a term coined by vulnerable island nations that refers to compensation for the “losses and irreversible damage, including non-economic losses” that have already arisen and will continue to arise due to the climate disruption, according to a statement from G77+China . These same nations staged a walkout at COP19, targeting the developed countries that have refused loss and damage and have consistently held back progress on climate action.

Though the negotiations led to the establishment of the “Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage,” there is still a long way to go to solve these complex issues of inequality within climate change.

This is the first piece in an upcoming series on climate change and inequality.

Photo courtesy of Aftab Uzzman.

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

Junk Food Marketing Makes Big Moves in Developing Countries

By Judy Bankman and Ross Miranti

This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations.

KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations..

KFC TV commercials that have aired in China over the last few years reveal a remarkably wide range of marketing techniques. In the ads, humor, irony, playfulness, and sentimentality present the restaurant’s quick-serve food as something that can help families bond, nourish athletes, entertain children, and even make teenagers cooler. Overall, the ads associate KFC with a modern lifestyle, suggesting (implicitly of course) that the Chinese can get their piece of middle class affluence–along with a full belly–for a reasonably low price.

The ads might feel strikingly familiar to American consumers. Though they are in Mandarin and resemble some of the disingenuous marketing from the mid-20th Century, at their core they are just examples of modern marketing, with the primary goal of boosting sales. And sales are booming for fast food and convenience food corporations in China and the rest of the world, as billions of dollars are pumped into marketing their products each year.

While people in all countries are vulnerable to junk food marketing, developing countries might be facing the worst of it. Many transnational food corporations are moving into emerging markets because their markets in developed countries are at a “saturation point.” According to Carlos Monteiro, Head of the University of Sao Paolo’s Centre for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, that point is reached when processed foods provide 60 percent of a country’s total calories. The U.S, Canada and the U.K. reached this level several decades ago.

It’s no wonder, then, that transnational companies like KFC, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola are ramping up marketing efforts in countries like China and Brazil where average incomes are rising, urbanization is well underway, and the opportunity for growth is huge.

Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, earned half of its 2011 operating profit of $1.8 billion from its operations in China. By utilizing some of the tried-and-true techniques that have worked at home in the U.S., Yum! has been incredibly effective at reaching Chinese consumers with catchy ads that drive traffic to a growing number of KFCs and Pizza Huts in and around urban centers.

Globally, six of the 10 most “liked” companies on Facebook are fast food or convenience food corporations. Coca-Cola is on top, with 47 million “likes”; McDonald’s has nearly 22 million. In the U.S. too, of course, junk food purveyors wield enormous power. Children watch on average 13 food commercials per day in the U.S., most of which advertise sugary breakfast cereals, fast food, or soda. Online marketing in the form of “advergames” included in Web sites designed for children is another insidious means of popularizing unhealthy foods.

Largely because of skyrocketing obesity rates and resulting healthcare costs, public health professionals in the U.S. have made the links between marketing of unhealthy foods, consumption of them, and chronic disease. About 17 percent of American children aged two to 19 are now considered obese.

In general, many Americans are aware of the negative health impacts of eating fast and convenience foods (obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, among others). But public policies are, by and large, lagging behind; still, there’s some progress.

Governments in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere may not do much to regulate the marketing and selling of unhealthy foods, but they do promote healthy eating through food nutrition labeling requirements, dietary recommendations, and public health initiatives.

And there’s a range of advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest Food Marketing Workgroup and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) work to counterbalance the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. CCFC, for example, conducts a number of campaigns to stop such advertizing to children, including in schools and on school buses.

Though much more needs to be done, the American public health community has made childhood obesity a key issue and is committed to changing the food environment, including manipulative advertising strategies, which drives dietary choices. This awareness and commitment remains to be seen in most developing countries. But that may well change.

Many developing countries have “leapfrogged” industrialized nations technologically and learned from some of the mistakes high-income countries made during their economic development. Ideally, these countries would likewise adopt healthier diets without having to reach the high rates of chronic, diet-related diseases that have become a bane in the U.S. and other high-income countries.

Brazil provides an example of a potential counter-narrative, with government legislation requiring healthier school meals and the right of accessing healthy food written into the Brazilian constitution. Organic and natural foods are also increasingly popular in Brazil, as incomes rise and concerns about health and food safety become stronger.

Is it utopian to imagine the transformation of the vicious circle of junk food consumption into a virtuous circle of healthy eating? Not completely. When consumers demand healthier foods choices, companies respond by producing and marketing such foods or new companies enter the marketplace to provide them.

Changes in the U.S. market suggest that companies are willing to respond to consumer demand for healthier foods. Fast food outlets have begun to offer somewhat healthier menu items and the market for organic foods is growing steadily.

The U.S. public, increasingly alarmed by the scale of the health crisis being created by junk foods, is learning to demand greater accountability from the food industry—for both its products and marketing practices, particularly its targeting of kids.

But here’s the catch: Companies react to consumer demand only if their profit is not adversely affected. Plus, some of these companies adopt “healthier” options (sometimes they aren’t that different from the original products), or take modest steps to self-regulate, in order to avoid possible government regulation.

Consumer demand is important. But from a public health perspective, policy action is essential, too. In developing countries and the U.S., governments should at a minimum regulate marketing to children. By completely banning junk food advertising on television and sales of junk food in public schools, we may begin to see less consumption of these foods among children, and lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.

While government regulation may help reduce the amount of unhealthy foods kids and adults eat, public health officials and policy makers face an uphill battle. According to Yum! Brands’ optimistic CEO David Novak: “China is the biggest retail opportunity in the 21st century.” How can public policy compete with that?

Photo: KFC marketing in China has targeted the rising middle class and capitalized on their aspirations. Credit: Jun Li/Flickr

India and the Hidden Consequences of Nutrition Transition

By Judy Bankman

Note: This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

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An egg seller talks on his phone

In India today, hordes of people under 30 line up outside McDonald’s to order the Chicken Maharaja Mac: India’s beef-free version of the Big Mac. Fast food and sodas are “all the rage now,” in the country according to public health activist Shobha Shukla.

Ice cream is also becoming much more popular, with Baskin Robbins, Haagen Dazs, and Magnum already vending throughout India. Although many Indians do not eat beef for religious reasons, Muslims, Christians and even some Hindus are eating more cow and buffalo meat.

India’s booming middle class—estimated to number between 50 million and 250 million—is driving demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products like ice cream (milk has long been a staple of most Indian diets). Despite India’s long tradition of ethical vegetarianism, only about 40 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people now call themselves vegetarian.

For many Indians, particularly in urban areas, owning a television, driving a car, wearing Western brand name clothing, or eating meat are symbols of affluence, independence, and modernity.

“We are quick, hygienic, clean, and are seen as part of global culture,” Vikram Bakshi, managing director of McDonald’s India, told Agence France-Presse.

But being part of “global culture” carries enormous health risks. Heart disease is responsible for the majority of deaths in India, and more than 60 million Indians have been diagnosed with diabetes. That’s nearly five percent of India’s people, and this number is expected to rise—and quickly. By 2050, India will have the dubious distinction of being home to the most diabetics of any country in the world (leaping over China).

Like India, many countries in the global South, including South AfricaMexico, and China, are facing a similar dilemma. As their middle classes grow and rural to urban migration accelerates, more people are moving away from diets high in unprocessed starch, high-fiber vegetables, and plant proteins. Instead they are moving toward a Western-style way of eating, replete with animal protein and fat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar.

cow in ice cream shop

A cow walks into an ice cream shop

This phenomenon has come to be known as the “nutrition transition” and it occurs in many developing countries. With more money and easier access to urban centers that provide cheap, tasty, filling food, who wouldn’t want to start eating like an American? But for India and other transitioning countries, there’s a catch.

It’s not just that the standard American diet leads to weight gain and chronic disease. It does, but for those who were undernourished in utero or in early childhood, switching to a diet high in fat, sugar, and salt carries higher risk for developing chronic disease compared to their counterparts who have been affluent for generations.

Poor early-childhood nutrition leads to a host of metabolic and hormonal changes that actually help survival in nutrient-poor environments, according to Barry Popkin, Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health. However, when confronted with a calorie-packed environment in later years, these adaptive mechanisms may actually lead to obesity.

An important 1976 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that mothers exposed to the 1944-45 Dutch famine during their pregnancies resulted in higher obesity rates among their children.

Similarly, a 2012 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals exposed to the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961) in utero and during early childhood had higher rates of glucose intolerance than individuals born after the famine. The “thrifty phenotype hypothesis” gives an explanation for this paradoxical phenomenon.

Partly because of these biological mechanisms, people in developing countries are particularly at risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity. As in India, many countries are going through a nutrition transition so rapidly that children whose parents and grandparents didn’t have enough food can now eat at fast food restaurants and regularly consume the calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food typical of the Western-style diet.

Sometimes the speed of the nutrition transition results in the “double burden of malnutrition”: When hunger and over-nutrition occur at the same time. Among women in India, almost 27 percent are considered underweight, while 19 percent are considered overweight.

Diabetes trends in India are “absolutely frightening,” says Nikhil Tandon, professor of endocrinology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.   “Young people who are the drivers of the economy, who are the protectors of their family, are going to be lost,” according to Prathap Reddy, a cardiologist and founder of a large Indian network of private hospitals.

Researchers have found that in India, income is associated with malnutrition: Richer women who likely have access to a variety of foods tend to be overweight, while poorer women who cannot afford the most basic foods tend to be underweight. And even as a growing number of Indians eat higher up the food chain, under-nutrition remains a stubborn problem. More than 40 percent of Indian children younger than five are malnourished.

Is the nutrition transition an inevitable process? Or could food insecure countries provide calories their people need without gleaning them from saturated fats, sugar, and processed foods? What is clear is that curbing accelerating rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the global South requires policy changes, and quickly. Here are a few ideas:

Governments could subsidize production of native grains and vegetables to make them cheaper and encourage their renewed consumption. Developing countries should limit the advertising and availability of unhealthy foods to children and teens, whether these are the products of transnational food companies or “home grown” purveyors.

Ultimately, perceptions need to change so citizens of the global South see the Western-style diet for what it is: A recipe for obesity and chronic disease.

 

The Little Emperor’s Burger

China photo

KFC in China

By Judy Bankman

Note: This blog was written by Judy Bankman and Elektra Alivisatos and was originally published onCivil Eats.

When I asked my friend living in China about fast food restaurants there, he responded, “they’re constantly packed with young people.” Though most Chinese know that American fast food is unhealthy and leads to weight gain, the growing trendiness of “Western” fast food among young people in China has contributed to its increased consumption. American franchises such as KFC are thriving. In the U.S., the chain amassed 4,618 locations in 61 years. In China, though, KFC boasted 4,260 locations in only 26 years. China now consumes twice as much meat as the U.S., a whopping 71 million tons per year.

Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, intends to open20,000 restaurants over the “long term,” according to their Web site. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is expanding in China at the rate of 10 new restaurants per week. These alarming figures reveal how much American fast food culture has already permeated China. And with the burgers and fries come a host of public health consequences.

American fast food chains serve consumers Western-style food products: High in saturated fat, simple carbohydrates, and sugar, with a lot of processing and little nutritional density. In contrast, a traditional rural Chinese diet features plant-based protein, low cholesterol, and some dietary fat. As obesity has become an increasingly common public health concern in the U.S. and other countries, research has shown links between consumption of the Western diet and chronic disease.

For example, a study conducted at the German Institute of Human Health found a link between weight gain and consumption of a Western diet high in processed meats, refined grains, sugar, and potatoes. A 2012 study published in the journal Circulation found that Chinese men and women who consume Western fast food more than twice a week were at higher risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. According to Dr. Tsung Cheng at George Washington University Medical Center, “fast food and physical inactivity” are the two most important factors fueling childhood obesity in China.

China’s youth are particularly at risk for developing chronic disease. Like the U.S., China has seen an increase in weight gain and related chronic health conditions among youth. A2012 study in Obesity Reviews Journal compared the risk of chronic disease in China to other countries including the U.S.

The researchers found that approximately 12 percent of Chinese children and adolescents aged seven to 18 were overweight and about 1.7 million children under 18 suffered from diabetes. Additionally, the rate of diabetes among Chinese adolescents aged 12 to 18 was about four times that of American teenagers.

Of course, fast food consumption is only one piece of a larger puzzle. Obesity is a result of both biological and environmental factors, including one’s access to and knowledge about healthy food and one’s family traditions around food. What drives someone to eat fast food is complex, and perhaps in China, this drive is amplified by the one-child policy.

As its name implies, the government’s one-child policy requires families to have no more than one child, barring a few exceptions. Single children are called xiao huangdi, which means “little emperors.” In fact, Wikipedia even has a page devoted to “Little Emperor Syndrome.”

This glorified status within the family structure is often said to create an environment where adults dote upon the child, feeding them whatever foods they desire. Essentially, the single child gets an excessive amount of attention, which often leads to eating a lot of fast food.

Whether the high rates of diabetes and childhood obesity can be blamed on fast food, “Little Emperor Syndrome,” or both, these issues demand serious public health attention. The Chinese government should carefully regulate fast food marketing to children and teens, as well as encourage fitness programming in schools.

The EatSmart@School Campaign, a program run by the Chinese Department of Health, assists primary schools that want to create a more sustainable, healthy food environment. This campaign helps schools establish “healthy eating policies,” in order to increase awareness, and provides online resources including recipes and printable nutrition education materials for teachers and parents.

While these types of campaigns are beneficial and necessary, attitudinal shifts also need to occur in order to effect lasting change in consumption habits. Though it will certainly prove a complex task, the global image of American fast food as a trendy, modern sign of wealth needs to change. In fact, it needs to be reversed completely so that developing countries like China do not fall victim to the same chronic diseases we know so well in the U.S.

Although no country has yet attempted to transform the image of American fast food, perhaps China can take on the challenge. As a nation moving rapidly through an economic and nutrition transition, maybe China will understand the recent links between health and the Western-style diet and begin to reconsider the idealized image of American fast food.

Photo courtesy of Brighter Green