Wednesday, May 25, 2016

China’s New Dietary Guidelines Could Be Good News for the Climate

Chinese food has fans around the world, but in China it’s creating a problem.  A recent study found obesity and other diet-related diseases are skyrocketing.

Recently, the Chinese government took a major step to reverse that trend by issuing a new set of dietary guidelines.

While dietary experts will weigh in on the nutritional aspects, buried in the pages is a recommendation with potentially huge implications for climate change.

The Chinese Ministry of Health is urging citizens to limit meat and egg intake to 200 grams daily.  They are advising individuals to eat more fish and chicken and less red meat.  Currently, China’s per capita meat and egg consumption amounts to around 300 grams per day, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.  (National Geographic put together a detailed, interactive country by country breakdown of these data.)

While widespread adoption of a protein-rich, Western-style diet is fueling a surge in diet-related ailments, increased meat consumption among China’s burgeoning middle class is also a big contributor to climate change.

It’s difficult to predict what effect the new guidelines will have on global warming.  That depends on a number of variables — how many people follow the recommendations, the proportion of red meat versus fish and poultry consumed, etc.  Also, because many Chinese people currently consume less than recommended maximum amounts, not every individual will necessarily eat less meat.

Animal Based Foods Are More Resource Intensive than Plant Based Foods (Credit: World Resources Institute) Click to Enlarge.
That being said, here is rough idea of how the recommendations might impact global carbon emissions:
Similar measures have been met with resistance in the United States.  Last year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended Americans eat less red meat and avoid processed meat products like hot dogs and beef jerky.  In the final draft of the U.S. dietary guidelines, the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services lumped in red meat with fish and poultry, contrary to the advice of the committee.

If the United States committed to cutting meat consumption, it could produce enormous reductions in carbon pollution.  According to National Geographic’s interactive, Americans eat about 300 pounds of meat per year, roughly twice as much as the average person in China.  According to a new report from the World Resources Institute, if Americans cut that in half, that would reduce food-related carbon emissions by more than 40 percent.

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