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

Brazil’s New Dietary Guidelines: Cook and Eat Whole Foods, Be Wary of Ads

Brazilian homes

By Mia MacDonald and Judy Bankman

This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

What if your national dietary guidelines advised you to cook and enjoy fresh, whole foods, and serve them with friends and family while thinking critically about advertising? Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Well, that’s exactly what Brazil’s Ministry of Health is recommending with the “food based” dietary guidelines it issued recently.

Unlike the U.S. dietary guidelines (or “MyPlate”), which focus on reducing solid fats and added sugars, and pinpoint a long list of nutrients to consume or reduce, Brazil’s guidelines keep it simple by encouraging people there to eat more fresh, unprocessed foods.

Here are the guidelines in full:

1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.

2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.

3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products.

4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.

5. Eat in company whenever possible.

6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.

7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.

8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.

9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.

10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

“I think it’s terrific that [Brazil’s guidelines] promote real foods, cooking, and family meals, rather than worrying about the nutritional quality of processed foods or dealing with single nutrients,” Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, told us recently.

Like many developed and developing countries, Brazil has seen recent spikes in the numbers of overweight and obese people. In 2011, nearly half of Brazilians were overweight, and about 16 percent were obese. Carlos Monteiro of the University of Sao Paolo attributes this widespread increase in body mass index (BMI) to the transition from unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as rice, fruits, and vegetables to “ultra processed foods.”

Like the U.S., Brazil is a major agricultural producer. Brazil-based JBS is the world’s largest processor of animal protein, and the nation tops the world in exports of beef and chicken. It’s also a leading player in the global soybean boom, and miles and miles of Brazil’s rainforest and savannah have been bulldozed in recent decades to grow livestock feed. In addition to their thriving export trade, Brazilians have begun eating more meat, dairy products, and eggs. And as the Brazilian middle class has grown, transnational food companies like McDonald’s, KFC, and Coca-Cola have expanded their operations and marketing in Brazil, spreading U.S.-style fast food culture further.

But these new guidelines are pointing in the opposite direction: They advocate slower food. By focusing on the importance of taking the time to prepare meals and eat in good company, the new Brazilian dietary guidelines prioritize food culture and the environment in which meals are eaten. This is extremely important: Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown a link between eating outside the home and increased obesity.

Brazil’s new dietary guidelines are especially illuminating when we compare them to the ones we’ve been told to follow here in the U.S. Our latest guidelines, dating from 2010, focus entirely on specific nutrients. They include statements like “reduce daily sodium intake” and “consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.” While these are clearly good recommendations, their specificity makes it difficult to know exactly what foods to consume. This complicates and can even obscure the fundamentals of a truly healthy diet.

Critics have also pointed out that the U.S. guidelines implicitly protect the food industry by leaving out a recommendation to eat less of specific food products. They also complicate individual decision-making. For example the guidelines state, “Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oil.” For those well-versed in nutrition, this statement might mean, “replace red meat with plant proteins.” But for many others, it’s hard to know for sure what you’re being encouraged to do (or not do).

As the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee works on the 2015 guidelines, they’ve also been accepting public comments. Some commenters have suggested the Committee use Brazil’s new guidelines as a model. “It’s clear from the questions the Committee is asking that its members are increasingly concerned about cultural and environmental influences,” says Nestle. “This is a good sign.”

The tenth and final recommendation, “Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products,” is particularly unusual in the world of dietary guidelines. This indicates the Brazilian government is aware of the harmful effects of advertising and is actively trying to combat food industry manipulation through its policy statements (and actions).

There’s a history here. In 2013, the city of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, fined McDonald’s $1.6 million for using toys and other inducements to appeal to children. São Paulo also was the first city in Brazil to adopt Meatless Mondays (“Segunda Sem Carne” in Portuguese), which has now expanded to 15 cities across the country. Brazil’s government has also mandated healthier school food.

In contrast, our dietary guidelines mention food marketing to kids just once, on page 59 of a 95-page document. And while non-profit groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are working to combat junk food marketing to kids, most government agencies are silent on the issue. First Lady Michelle Obama did announce a new proposal to regulate the marketing of junk food in schools, but it is yet to be seen whether any such language will make it into the 2015 dietary guidelines.

Perhaps the drafting Committee will look south, and Brazil’s pioneering food guidelines will encourage our own policymakers to put more value on a critical-thinking, home-cooking, socially vibrant culture of real food than on the interests of the food industry.

See Brighter Green’s multimedia policy research on climate change, animal agriculture, and natural resources in Brazil here (in English and Portuguese).

Photos courtesy of Gabriel Prehn Britto

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

India and the Hidden Consequences of Nutrition Transition

By Judy Bankman

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

indiacover5.5

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