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

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.

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

Chipotle’s Bold Move Towards Food With Integrity

By Lauren BergerImage
Note: This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.
In response to Chipotle’s new harrowing ad depicting the realities of factory farming, the Executive Director for the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance said that“It’s a fabrication of how food is produced and fabrication that drives the sales for the food they produce”.Well, that is simply not true.

Chipotle is the black sheep among fast food producers. It spends a fraction of its revenue on advertising compared to most fast food chains and advocates for more sustainable and humane sourcing of food products. Even though Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells says they do not want to inform policy on food issues, their ads speak for themselves. By depicting chickens injected with hormones and sad cows restricted in crates they are trying to raise awareness on the realities of how our food is sourced and the choices we can make, like they have.

When you walk into a Chipotle restaurant and are deciding which burrito/taco/salad combination to order, you will immediately notice multiple statements: they serve naturally raised pork and beef, their is from pasture-raised cows without the hormone rBGH, and they try to source pasture raised chicken (admitting that this is extremely hard to find) that are not treated with antibiotics or other hormones. They even say on their website and in store that they will let you know if they experience a supply shortage of their naturally raised chicken.

Now, we do not know the extent to which “naturally raised” truly means (as we know that “free range” chicken isn’t necessarily truly free range). But for a major fast food chain this is most definitely a step forward.

But Chipotle has received a lot of criticism from the agriculture industry denouncing the ad as “false advertising” and a “romanticized” vision of feeding the world. But Chipotle’s critics contradict themselves: to “feed the world” and meet the demand for animal products Chipotle’s depiction of factory farming is in fact true.

Many of these critics fear that Chipotle’s depictions will influence policy makers and individuals with their “food with integrity”movement, but Chipotle wants to stay out of the policy debate.

The fact is, demand for meat and dairy products continues to grow and Chipotle’s vision of a better world where our food is sourced naturally cannot truly exist as long as the demand for animal products increases. To truly advocate for a better good-food world, they must advocate for lower meat and dairy consumption in addition to naturally sourced food, and doing so would mean not meeting their customers’ demand.

Even so, Chipotle has taken a brave step forward in the conversation on food issues, particularly as a well-known and successful fast food chain, shedding light on the realities of food sourcing and enlightening its large consumer base to the realities of where their food comes from and how they can make better choices.

Photo Credit: Patrn/Flickr

The Human Victims of Industrial Agriculture

By Jessika Ava

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 17, 2013.

On the week of June 3rd, China provided another sad example of the impacts of industrial agriculture-showing that animals aren’t the only victims. A poultry slaughterhouse in Northeast Jilin province caught fire leading to the death of at least 119 workers. The factory was overcrowded, exits narrow and unmarked, and no emergency plan was in place. And, many of the doors, in efforts to keep workers from departing during work hours, were locked from the outside, making exiting an impossible task.

Work place safety standards are commonly poor in China, with unenforced regulations often linked to corruption and prioritizing profit over human rights. But China is not alone, across the globe industrial animal agriculture fails in worker safety standards.

Human Rights Watch has called factory farm working conditions a “systematic human rights abuse”. Slaughterhouse workers regularly experience lacerations and musculoskeletal injuries from the fast-paced repetitive motion needed to uphold extreme production speed demands. Factory farm workers inhale hazardous levels of airborne particles such as dry fecal matter, skin cells, and bacteria, as well as toxic gases including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, making chronic respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular complications common. Workers routinely experience eye and skin infections from contact with hazardous fluids, burns from exposure to hot surfaces, sprains from falls while working in congested, soiled areas, lowered immune systems from toxicity inhalation, and zoonotic flues transmitted from animals.

Moreover, the issue reaches beyond the factory farm and slaughterhouse walls. Modern day slavery exists in the Brazilian cattle industry as men are forced to clear forest land used for beef cows and soy feed production. Attempted escapees are often met with murder.

And the human rights abuses continue to trickle down society. Local small-scale farmers are forced out of business because they can’t compete with large-scale farms. Not only are families losing their income-but the village is also losing its local food source.

Industrial agriculture may produce cheap food, but at the cost of human safety, dignity, and food security, as well as animal welfare and a healthy planet.

Preventing a Livestock Revolution in Liberia: the Need for a New International Vision

By Ross Miranti

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 12, 2013.

In Liberia, the FAO has been involved in a number of poultry projects for both broilers and laying hens. It has constructed three factory farm style operations in the interior of the country to train locals in “modern and intensive poultry production and management practices.” It has also teamed up with the Ministries of Gender and Agriculture under the Joint Program on Food Security and Nutrition to construct ten other poultry houses throughout the country. None of these operations house much more than 1,000 birds, though they are set up like intensive factory farms and provide a model for future operations, which will surely increase in size and numbers as the country develops. So in short, the FAO — which outlined the heavy environmental impacts of the global livestock sector in the widely cited report Livestock’s Long Shadow — is now encouraging the future development of factory farming in Liberia.
The government of Liberia has also led livestock projects. As part of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Resettlement, and Reintegration program (DDRR), it worked with the UNDP to train ex-combatants in animal husbandry, with emphasis on poultry farming. While most other DDRR programs made a positive impact on the livelihoods of ex-combatants, the livestock program had very limited success because of a shortage of start-up animals, the heavy cost of feed and other inputs, and the difficulty participants had in selling to local populations that couldn’t afford to eat meat regularly.

Liberian rain forest

Liberian rain forest

Even though intensive, modern livestock is the wrong way to improve nutrition and food security in Liberia, that is not to say that supporting the production of plant-based food alternatives will take care of the country’s food problems by itself. Resolving these issues is a complex endeavor because Liberia’s food system is dysfunctional in so many ways: unstable property rights, endemic corruption, lack of access to credit, low technological innovation, few storage facilities, the absence of an electrical grid outside the capital, paralyzing flooding that comes with heavy rains, poor transportation infrastructure (especially in the interior of the country, where most food is produced), the reliance of the country on expensive imported food, and low government investment and support for agriculture.

So, reducing malnutrition and promoting food security in a responsible way requires the broader development of the country. While Liberia makes progress in these areas, they should also shift support away from intensive livestock operations and more towards the production of protein-rich, plant-based foods for direct human consumption. This would yield more food per acre and have the added benefit of using less water, lowering carbon emissions, protecting Liberia’s biodiverse rainforests, reducing animal suffering, and, in the long-term, preventing some of the diet-related health problems associated with the high consumption of animal products.

Admittedly, it is a bit unrealistic to think that Liberia or any other developing country could be steered away from adopting diets high in meat, especially when the overwhelming majority of the population eats and craves meat, but is unable to consume as much as they want due to their low incomes. Policy makers in these countries – and in the rest of the world, for that matter – are unwilling and uninterested in supporting policies to lower meat consumption because they themselves have a bias in favor of eating meat and because any such policy would be hugely unpopular with their constituents. And even if the production of plant-based proteins were to be ramped up, as long as there are cheap (and often subsidized) livestock products available on the world market, they will be imported.
Any hopes of keeping meat consumption at bay in Liberia will not only require institutional support but also a dramatic shift in public sensibilities; a social education, of sorts. This seems unlikely to happen in the relatively short period of time that development is occurring, especially given that most of the population is illiterate. Even in the developed world, where populations are literate, educated, and, in general, sensitive to environmental concerns, most people do not perceive the negative impacts of livestock as a major global issue – in fact many don’t see it as an issue at all.

So in the end, Liberia could, hypothetically, do everything in its power to see that it doesn’t replicate the dietary shifts that other countries have adopted during their development, but reversing the livestock revolution there will truly require a global partnership that transcends borders, culture, and habit. It will also require a radical global shift in how people think about food. Hopefully the world doesn’t have to come to a crisis point for its population to see that livestock is not a sustainable way to nourish a burgeoning world population, but the current path we are on is leading in that direction.

This blog is third in a series of three blog posts on Liberia and animal agriculture.

Photo courtesy of Flora and Fauna International

Livestock Intensification as a Misguided Response to Liberia’s Food Woes

By Ross Miranti

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 7, 2013.

rsz_liberianpoultryoperation

Liberian poultry operation

Like much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Liberia struggles with malnutrition and food insecurity. While finding solutions to these problems is a major developmental goal for the country, unfortunately, the government and its international partners’ response has included a strong emphasis on livestock production. This is problematic given the negative impacts animal agriculture has in terms of sustainability, food security, climate change, and animal welfare.

The problems of malnutrition and food insecurity in Liberia are quite distinct from those of East Africa, where there have been repeated climate change-related droughts in recent years. At the height of the 2011 food crisis in the Horn of Africa, 13.5 million people were facing food shortages and 3.2 million were on the brink of starvation due to a lack of food and water. Liberia, on the other hand, gets plenty of rain – in fact, during the wet season the rain can be too abundant for certain crops to thrive (the capital, Monrovia, can get up to 5,000 millimeters of precipitation annually). In the lush tropical climate of equatorial West Africa, where banana, palm nut, and mangoes grow everywhere, Liberians may not be starving, but many are not eating as much as they would like to eat and even more are lacking in certain key nutrients such as protein, iron, and vitamin A.

The funding and support for livestock in the country is grounded in the fact that meat, eggs, and dairy can provide nutrients that are deficient from the diets of many Liberians. To increase consumption of these products, there has been a concerted effort to boost domestic supply. Currently, production falls short of demand since there are only a few small commercial operations and most poultry is still produced in small-scale, backyard operations consisting of a few free-roaming chickens. Because of production shortfalls, the country imports most of its poultry products; according to the FAO, 3,190 of the 6,647 tons of eggs consumed in the country in 2009 came from India, with much of the rest coming from neighboring Guinea.

The support for livestock is misguided in that there are plant-based food alternatives that offer the same nutritional benefits as animal products without the negative impacts. In emerging countries such as China, where incomes have been increasing rapidly, there has been a corresponding rise in the consumption of animal products to levels at or even above that in some developed countries. These massive dietary shifts are not only having negative impacts in terms of sustainability, food security, climate change, and animal welfare, but the health gains are lost as populations become “overnourished” by consuming an excess of calories and animal products, which leads to a range of chronic, diet-related health problems.

So it is commendable that the UN, NGOs, and the Liberian government respond to the country’s food woes by promoting the production and access to food that can keep the population nourished, but the enthusiastic support for modern livestock seems to lack any consideration for the long-term impacts of factory farming and high meat consumption. In other words, if Liberia and its development partners were thinking about how to best develop the country’s food systems in a way that is sustainable, healthy, climate-friendly, and protective of their precious rain forests, then they would not be instructing Liberians in how to set up concentrated animal feeding operations.

This blog is two in a series of three blog posts on Liberia and animal agriculture.

Photo courtesy of Liberia Broadcasting System