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

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.

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

Sochi & Environmentalism (& Brighter Green’s Primer in Russian)

By Elana Sulakshana

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

Brighter Green is partnering with the Global Forest Coalition (GFC) and Biofuelwatch on a new project studying the intersection of deforestation, climate change, and industrial animal agriculture, in hopes of bringing attention to the connections between these issues at the global policy level. Brighter Green and the Global Forest Coalition recently produced a primer on this project that can be viewed here. We also recently translated this primer into Russian, opening it up to a wider audience. Russia is a significant importer of meat products from Latin America, where the livestock and feed industries are major players in the region’s deforestation.

Russia also has been in the hot seat by environmental standards, as much controversy swirls around the Sochi Olympics. In 2007, when Russia received the bid for the games, the administrators claimed that they would work as hard as possible to be “green” and produce “zero waste,” but the past few weeks have revealed a lack of follow-through on these ambitious (and vague) promises.

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Though they spent nearly $51 billion, environmental standards were almost completely ignored; there is absolutely no mention of provisions for waste disposal in the budget. The Russian government relaxed environmental standards in order to build the Olympic village, which cuts through 8,000 acres of Sochi National Park and the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The construction destroyed much plant and animal life, in what is considered the region of Russia with the most biodiversity.

Despite their zero-waste promise, tons of waste was produced, and it has been disposed of in the Akhshtyr dump, an illegal landfill located in a water protection zone. This trash has contaminated Sochi’s potable water and is expected to continue to do so for 10 years; journalists covering the Olympics have reported disgusting yellow-colored tap water.

Russian administrators have taken drastic steps to suppress all who have raised awareness of these issues. Russian environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko co-authored a report that chronicled the ecological impact of preparing for the Olympics, detailing, among many problems, the devastation of salmon populations and the building of ski slopes inside Sochi National Park. He was recently sentenced to three years in prison–for spray painting a fence. Members of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, with whom Vitishko conducted research and wrote the paper, have reported being in a “state of war” with the Russian government, facing threats from the Federal Security Service.

Russia has continuously put up a front against these claims. A representative for Olympstroy, the state-owned company in charge of the majority of Olympic construction said, “Issues of environmental protection have become a priority in the design and construction of Olympic infrastructure.”

Russia must get on board with the protection of our earth and allow free environmental expression and activism, and the international community should place pressure on them to do so. We cannot face these same issues in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 or Pyeongchang in 2018; sustainability must be a key feature of future Olympics.

Photo courtesy of: Kenyee/Flickr

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

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