A less meaty China, please?

A hot pot restaurant in Shanghai. New guidelines issued in May set recommended weekly intakes for meat, as well as for seafood, at 280g to 525g, or between 14.5kg and 27.3kg a year, a more than 50 per cent drop from the current 63kg of meat consumed
A hot pot restaurant in Shanghai. New guidelines issued in May set recommended weekly intakes for meat, as well as for seafood, at 280g to 525g, or between 14.5kg and 27.3kg a year, a more than 50 per cent drop from the current 63kg of meat consumed by the average Chinese.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

New guidelines push for less seafood and meat consumption as health woes, CO2 emissions rise along with incomes

Construction firm boss Mo Haoyan, 52, still remembers vividly how, as a boy growing up in Hunan, meat was rationed: Each person was allowed only 250g a month under China's planned economy. That's slightly less than three palm-size pieces of lean meat.

Memories of a diet dominated by vegetables and grains like corn have fuelled his now insatiable appetite for all things meat, especially the spicy fried pork dish cooked in the signature Hunanese style.

As his income rose and China's food options increased over the years, Mr Mo has been able to satisfy his meat cravings. He estimates at least 50 per cent of his diet now consists of meat.

"I must have meat at every meal wherever possible. If not, I would feel I haven't had a proper meal," he told The Straits Times.

But the Chinese government now wants people like Mr Mo to cut back on their meat consumption, along with their seafood intake, according to the latest set of dietary guidelines, which are released every 10 years.

RESISTANCE

It is unfair to expect the Chinese people to eat less meat to save the planet. Environmental protection is important to us, but it should not come at the expense of our diet.

'' BEIJING MEDIA PROFESSIONAL GAO NAN, who is a self-professed meat lover.

Drafted by the Chinese Nutrition Society and approved by the National Health and Family Planning Commission, the guidelines issued in May set recommended weekly intakes for meat, as well as for seafood, at 280g to 525g, which is between 14.5kg and 27.3kg a year.

The new targets mark a more than 50 per cent drop from the current 63kg of meat consumed by the average Chinese person a year. It will also be a marked dip from the current per capita seafood consumption of about 40kg.

If achieved, the lower meat and seafood intake has ramifications for China's public health, food security and relationships with neighbours.

Given that China feeds 20 per cent of the world's population but has only 8 per cent of the world's arable land, what its people eat could potentially impact on climate change, global land use and resources.

MEATY GAINS

Increased wealth amid rapid economic development since the late 1970s has been singled out as the biggest factor behind the robust demand for higher-value food like meat and seafood. But e-commerce and changing lifestyles have also helped whet China's appetite.

 

  • The reduced weekly intake of meat as well as seafood recommended by the new guidelines. - 280-525g

    The amount of meat the average Chinese consumes a year. It was 13kg in 1978. - 63kg

    The amount of seafood the average Chinese consumes a year. It was 6kg in the late 1970s. - 40kg

    China's share of meat consumption is the world's highest. - 28%

    China's share of seafood consumption is also the world's highest. - 35%

Mr Mo Xiaomin, 32, who joined his family's wholesale seafood company in southern Xiamen in 2011, has seen good business since he began an online retail arm last year.

The business generates about 200,000 yuan (S$40,500) in revenue each month from selling seafood, at least four times more than in the initial period.

More than half of Mr Mo's customers do not live in Xiamen, and he keeps in touch with them through social networking sites.

"It shows there is growing demand for seafood in the inland provinces. I believe there is immense potential if I can improve on my transportation system and marketing efforts," he told The Straits Times.

The growing demand for meat has lured many into the food business.

Engineering graduate Jiang Shenglan, 25, started an eatery offering braised pig trotters after university and has since set up two more in north-western Xi'an city.

"I think meat consumption, which has been strong in the big cities, is now seeing growth in the smaller cities as well, as incomes rise," he told The Straits Times.

But China's rising meat and seafood consumption, which has come at the expense of vegetables and grains, has caused problems for the country on some fronts.

Health studies show the spike in Chinese meat consumption has produced exploding rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Growing demand for meat has also pushed up carbon dioxide emissions from livestock.

So if Chinese eat less meat, this could, according to the new guidelines, reportedly cut carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from its livestock industry by 1 billion tonnes by 2030, from a projected 1.8 billion tonnes.

Growing demand for meat has also sparked higher imports of grain feeds like soya beans, which have tripled since 2005.

The United States is poised to set a record soya bean production for the third year in a row.

Rising meat consumption has reportedly led China to abandon its sacrosanct self-sufficiency policy in 2014 by setting an output target lower than domestic consumption levels. It has also been buying up farmland in foreign countries.

China's growing demand for seafood has also led to over-fishing in China and also in countries, like Mexico, that supply to the Chinese.

Chinese fishermen have often flouted fishing bans set by the government and even ventured into the fishing zones of neighbouring countries.

China's high court recently issued new rules to curb such activities, which it says have blighted the country's public image and affected foreign relations already strained by Beijing's disputes with other claimants in the South China Sea.

MEAT vs HEALTH

China's efforts to cut meat consumption have been applauded even by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and movie producer James Cameron, who produced a series of videos in support of the impact on the environment.

But many in China are doubtful about the need to lower the intake of meat and seafood in their diet.

Beijing media professional Gao Nan, 38, a self-professed meat lover, noted that despite its high total meat intake, China's consumption on a per capita basis still lags behind that of a dozen countries including the US and Australia.

"It is unfair to expect the Chinese people to eat less meat to save the planet. Environmental protection is important to us, but it should not come at the expense of our diet," she told The Straits Times.

Beijing S&P Information Con- sult analyst Li Sen, who studies the agriculture sector, said it is hard to cut China's meat intake per capita given how important eating is here.

He cited how spending on food here exceeds that in Western countries. For instance, the Chinese spend about 27 per cent of their consumer expenditure on food, compared with about 7 per cent in the US.

"The pace of increase in meat and seafood consumption could slow as more become aware of the need to eat healthily, but I doubt we will see a dip in the near future," he told The Straits Times.

To make real progress, the authorities will need to step up publicity efforts and also use pricing mechanisms to moderate demand for meat and seafood, he added.

Highlighting the health impact might be the most effective tool.

Beijing local Du Jiangang, 45, who chooses his annual overseas holiday destination based on whether it offers good, cheap seafood, said he is open to eating less of his favourite fish, prawns or crabs.

Mr Du, 45, who has visited Hokkaido in Japan, the Maldives, Thailand's Koh Samui and Singapore with his wife during their annual Chinese New Year break in the past three years, said his love for seafood stems from his childhood days in the Tianjin port city.

"But doctors have warned that I have high blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels," said Mr Du, who is currently not employed.

"As age catches up with me, I might have to eat less seafood."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline 'A less meaty China, please?'. Print Edition | Subscribe