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.

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

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

Cruelty-Free and Sustainable Meat?

By Lauren Berger

Would you eat a lab created burger?

Would you eat a lab created burger?

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

At the New York Academy of Sciences Frontiers in Agricultural Sustainability: Studying the Protein Supply Chain to Improve Dietary Quality seminar a few weeks ago, scientists unveiled a new and exciting development into sustainable and cruelty-free meat and leather (an oxymoron, to say the least): lab created meat and leather.

So how can meat and leather be sustainable and cruelty-free? Scientists in Denmark and the United States have figured out how: by taking skin and tissue biopsies from cows, scientists are able to grow meat and leather cultures in a lab ultimately to the shape of a hamburger or a piece of leather, without killing animals and without producing harmful waste from factory farms. The biopsies are similar to biopsies humans receive, minimally harming the animals and allowing them to live after the procedure.

So, why the move towards lab based meat? Citing the harmful impacts of livestock production on the environment, the world’s growing population and demand for meat, and animal welfare concerns, scientists are looking to develop alternative ways to deal with these issues.

It seems like an ingenious, albeit costly, solution. Cultured Beef, one of the organizations that looks to develop lab based meat, says that as humans we are conditioned to like meat and proposes lab based meat as a solution to the negative effects of this primal need. When asked if the scientists support a plant-based diet in addition to lab based meat in order to reduce the impact of meat consumption, Dr. Mark Post, the scientist that debuted the first lab created beef burger to positive reviews in London, said that it is hard to tell people, particularly in the developing world, to stop eating meat when they have just begun to be able to eat meat due to financial growth.

This world of lab created meat and leather is intriguing as the process itself pretty much removes the negative effects of meat production. But would you eat lab created meat? What would it mean to eat lab based meat if you are a vegetarian or vegan? Would you think it was “odd” or “inorganic” in the same way processed foods are? Or would you view it as a way to get your meat fix in a more environmentally and animal friendly way?

Lab created meat and leather is extremely innovative and raises a lot of questions, but overall, it offers a new and exciting solution to the detrimental effects of livestock production: something we should all applaud.

Photo courtesy of Lucas Richarz/Flickr

Meat and Development in Liberia

By Ross Miranti

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

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

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

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

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

 Source: FAOSTAT

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

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

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

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

Graph created by Ross Miranti using FAOSTAT statistics