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Cultivating risks

In an era of rising temperatures, moving away from animal agriculture could help China alleviate drought and food insecurity while cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, writes Mia MacDonald.

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In recent months, a fierce drought has gripped much of China. It has now eased somewhat, but Shandong, a grain-producing province in eastern China, was the driest it had been in 200 years. Not only the wheat harvest, but also millions of farmers’ livestock and livelihoods were put at risk.

As global greenhouse-gas emissions rise, such droughts are likely to become more severe and more frequent – in China, as elsewhere. So, how can the country become more resilient? One solution exists in China’s booming livestock sector.

China has surpassed the United States to become the world’s top producer of meat chickens (many billions annually) and pigs (more than 700 million each year). China also has 92 million cattle – one of the world’s largest herds – and raises two-thirds of the world’s domestic ducks and 90% of geese used for meat.

As it industrialises, China’s livestock sector puts additional pressure on water and land resources, and helps to fuel climate change. If it expands and further intensifies, these pressures will only increase.

At the end of March, I spent a week at universities in Beijing and Shanghai speaking about the global livestock sector and climate change. For many, the data and issues I presented were not widely known. “The climate change issue concerns everyone on the planet,” said Lin Weiqing, deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences. But looking at the issue from the perspective of agriculture was, he continued, a first for him. “With this new information, we should do something,” he said. “Maybe the conclusion is: eat less meat and plant more trees.”

A number of professors, students and even a few policymakers in Beijing and Shanghai agreed with the importance of the connection between livestock, climate and food security. Others were more sceptical: wary about the economics, how this fits with the national priority of low-carbon development or convinced of the importance of meat in one’s diet.

“It’s a global, capitalist economic system,” one professor in Shanghai told me. “We need to [adopt the intensive production model],” he continued. “If we don’t, we’ll lose out.” He agreed, however, on the need to account for the externalities of intensive livestock production, including greenhouse gases, water pollution and land degradation. Another professor in Beijing declared that while Americans may be fed up with eating so many animal products, that wasn’t the case in China.

However, several students from Fudan University, who attended the presentation at the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences, have decided to research – for the first time – the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by China’s livestock sector. I am glad they will, because challenges – as well as opportunities – for China abound.

Over the past three decades, China has done an impressive job of ensuring national food security. However, intensification of animal agriculture means that “the livestock sector enters into more and direct competition for scarce land, water, and other natural resources”, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

China now allots approximately 28.5% of its grain to livestock feed, more than double the amount 30 years ago. There is an inherent inefficiency here: between two and five times the amount of grain is required to produce the same number of calories through livestock as are needed when grain is eaten directly by people (and as much as 10 times for industrially-produced beef), research by Rosamond Naylor, professor of environmental earth system science at Stanford University, estimated.

Raising livestock is also water intensive: 29% of the “water footprint” of the global agricultural sector is “related to the production of animal products”, concluded a recent study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Researchers found that 98% of the water consumed by the livestock sector is used in the production of feed grains, including corn, soybeans and wheat.

China uses 455 cubic metres of “blue water” (surface and groundwater) and 839 cubic metres of “green water” (rainwater that isn’t runoff) per tonne of wheat converted into livestock feed. While China’s wheat for feed “water footprint” is not the highest of those countries UNESCO measured (the highest is Australia), it is larger than that of India, Germany and Egypt.

The green water required for corn used for livestock feed in China is 791 cubic metres per tonne – below the world average, but well above the US level of 523 cubic metres per tonne of corn. The more feed an animal requires, the larger the water footprint. In general, the researchers found that animal products have larger water footprints than crops do.

The UNESCO report also concluded that “. . . animal production and consumption play an important role in depleting and polluting the world’s scarce freshwater resources.” This, too, is a Chinese reality.

Last year China released its most stringent survey of water pollution and found levels much higher than reported in previous research, which hadn’t counted many agricultural pollutants. Run-off was 13.2 million tonnes – nearly equal to the previous total, which, excluding pesticides and fertilisers, found 13.8 million tonnes of discharges polluting China’s waterways.

The drought this year has also drawn attention to the rapid loss of agricultural land. China has only one-third of the world’s per capita average of available arable land, and the 122 million hectares remaining is just 1.8 million hectares above the minimum estimate of what’s needed to ensure China’s food security.

Of that land, 50 million hectares of farmland and 400 million people, nearly one-third of China’s population, are affected by erratic weather each year. There’s a connection to livestock here, too. The sector is a major source of greenhouse gases, responsible for at least 18% of total emissions worldwide, according to the FAO. (Another study published by two World Bank environmental specialists in the magazine of the US-based Worldwatch Institute, put the level much higher, at 51%.) China is the world’s largest source of methane from manure, emitting roughly 3.84 million tonnes in 2004—more than one-fifth of the global total.

International markets have been rattled by the possible consequences of a failure of the harvest in the world’s largest wheat producer. Within China, the cost of food has been rising for months. The World Bank warned recently that global food prices are at “dangerous levels”. The underlying trends – including erratic weather and rising demand for and production of livestock products – suggest that the price of food, along with food security, will remain global concerns.

The UNESCO report states that “in countries where the consumption of animal products is still quickly rising, one should critically look how this growing demand can be moderated.”

A recent greenhouse-gas inventory by the Low-Carbon Energy Research Centre of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences found that, in Shanghai, greenhouse-gases from agriculture, including large livestock facilities within the city limits, were rising. They will be responsible for a larger portion of Shanghai’s ecological footprint in coming years.

Drought, resource scarcity and food insecurity are urgent domestic and international problems. China has the opportunity to take a bold step—and create, instead of a “meat world”, a more sustainable, humane food system. Such measures would fit well within the low-carbon economy framework China has adopted for future economic development.

This doesn’t mean consigning a majority of Chinese citizens to the “enforced vegetarianism of poverty”, but rather orienting the agricultural economy toward supplying varied, nutritious, safe and plant-centred foods to all Chinese. This could be a model for the rest of the world too.

Mia MacDonald is executive director of Brighter Green, a public-policy action tank based in New York. She is also a senior fellow of the US-based Worldwatch Institute and an adjunct faculty member in New York University’s environmental studies programme.

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Treating symptom as opposed to Cure

Animals grazed in the field are a critical part of eco- nutrient system and meat integral part of diet. Crops per tonne demand more water and certainly exhaust the soil of nutrient and carbon. The nation and planet can no longer keep consuming the baseline assets soil water vegetation atmosphere without replacing repair restoring such assets.
Simply with the very correct master plan we lower CO2 into deserts to build soil soil-carbon and elements with microbic activities flora and fauna bees etc as we are currently doing. The forward plan we will grow food fodder and in time as we restore soil carbon trees native / exotic. We can fed the world
The mass lowering of CO2 1 billion tonnes annually by 2014 will give us time and money to implement non polluting energy such as stoictiometric hydrogen which PRC is well advanced with. So let us dedicate a global undertaking of addressing lowering CO2 that will restart the Carbon Cycle rain and trace element cycles. We will see so called developing nations leading developed nation in restoring the assets while developed nations restore their bankers.The historian of tomorrow have pens poised.
Robert Vincin

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An important topic

Kudos to Mia MacDonald for raising an important subject, one that all countries need to address.

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Global action!

Throughout the past few decades, China has studied the lifestyles of developed countries. Meat has become a symbol of fashion and wealth, spurring a drastic expansion of the livestock sector.Chinese who used to enjoy a vegetarian diet and a simple life have pretty much abandoned their traditions. Disasters triggered by developed countries‘ incorrect eating habits are continuously coming to the fore. What's worse, the bad culture prevailing in our society is infecting people's vulnerable minds!Yet they don't even know where these disasters come from. I would like to extend my thanks to ms Mia MacDonald for her research and analysis of China's livestock sector and environment. Onlookers will see things more clearly sometimes than we ourselves, who instead sometimes fail to be aware of where dangers come from. Therefore, we should make more people understand better with more authentic information.

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Dangerous overpopulation

Thank you for writing on this important topic.

Population has been blamed for our current climate and environmental crisis. This is true, but the real problem is not humans: it is the totally artificial population of livestock we have created. Livestock now outweigh wildlife by an astonishing 8:1 - one study puts the current consumption of livestock at 6 times that of the dinosaurs! For ever person on the planet there are 10 livestock animals - cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens etc. Back in 2005 the UNEP estimated that if we stopped feeding grain to animals and instead we ate it ourselves, we would have a 50% grain surplus.

Articles like these make us realise we have created a hungry monster that is drinking our water, messing our environment, heating our climate and giving us diseases. We can tame this monster very quickly just by changing to a more plant-based diet. We must change the attitude that feeding meat to the family is good - it is the opposite. There are now many tasty nutritious plant alternatives - why not give it a go!

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Very Well Thought Out Article

Thank you Ms. McDonald for your well-articulated article. I'd like to disagree with bob1234, because meat does not need to be a part of the diet and livestock don't need to be a part of the ecosystem. In fact, they are displacing biodiversity at a rate greater than any other single human caused activity. It is these native animals that need to be a part of the ecosystem.

Furthermore, as the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency pointed out in their report "Climate Benefits of Changing Diet," if we adopt a global vegan diet, we would free up so much land (because you can feed more people on less land and water if people eat vegan),we would be able to replace trees, which by 2050 would play such a significant effect on the reduction of CO2 that we could reduce the cost of mitigating climate change by 80%.
The case for eating a more vegan diet is made even stronger by the World Preservation Foundation, which published a report pointing out that livestock are the world's number one source of anthropogenic methane, black carbon and ground level ozone -- all of which dissipate out of the atmosphere very quickly - so we could cool the planet very quickly with a vegan diet.

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常春藤康乃尔大学的营养学系系主任,终身教授考林坎贝尔教授的书《中国健康调查报告》(China Study)是美国最畅销的书之一。有一本流到了克林顿手上,结果他很快吃素了。这之前他已经作了至少两次心脏搭桥(2004, 2010),如果不素大概就要玩儿完了。该书介绍的就是坎贝尔教授在中国多个城市做的二十年的跟踪调查。之所以在中国做这个调查,是因为中国当时的人口流动性不大,地区性疾病和饮食有明显特点。结果发现动物性饮食与慢性病的直接联系。他最近新的研究表明,那些原本多半吃素的慢性病地发区,随着“富起来”,开始增大动物性饮食,同时慢性病的发病率也逐年升高。前一阵央视还播放了采访他的节目。

Livestock industry and health

Actually China has revolved around a plant-based diet for thousands of years. As it opened up and began reform, China has learned a lot of good things from other countries, but also a lot of unhealthy things, such as meat and dairy consumption. There have already been countless studies proving that animal products are the cause of almost all chronic diseases. Right now there are more and more Americans adopting the light diet that the Chinese used to have, but we ended up picking up the bad habits they tossed away.

The China Study, written by Cornell University's Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry Dr. Colin Campbell, is one of America's bestselling books. When it reached President Clinton's hands, he quickly became vegetarian. Before that, he already had at least two heart bypass surgeries (2004, 2010), so it probably would have been the beginning of the end for him if he hadn't become vegetarian. This book introduces Dr. Campbell's survey across many Chinese cities over 20 years. He conducted the study in China because at the time the Chinese population wasn't very mobile, so there were obvious characteristics in regional disease and diet that could be observed. The results showed that there is a direct correlation between animal consumption and chronic disease occurrence. His recent research indicates that as areas with predominantly plant-based diets became wealthier and increased their animal consumption, incidence rates of chronic disease in those areas increased simultaneously. CCTV aired an interview of Dr. Campbell a while back.

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Regarding dairy products

What we should also talk about is milk. Advertisements say that milk can supplement calcium. Milk contains calcium indeed. But scientific research has long ago proven that there is a strong relationship between dairy consumption and osteoporosis. Statistics around the world indicate that incidence of osteoporosis is highly correlated with dairy intake. Population studies have also discovered that milk intake causes calcium loss from bone, possibly because animal protein increases blood acidity levels. So as advertisements for milk become more prevalent, Chinese people are also starting to hear more and more of osteoporosis, a once unfamiliar medical term.

Because the main component of dairy products is fat (50%-80%), dairy is also one of the main reasons for high obesity rates in the US. Of course there are also the hormones in the feed, antibiotics, and large amounts of pesticides.

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Sacrificing ethics for economic growth

The livestock industry's damage to the environment is an established truth, but the government avoids the topic. Right now there are very few people who are completely dependent on meat to survive, so if the government guides the media to publicize the issue, I believe a lot of people will wake up from their old habits and start adopting a more positive and healthy lifestyle.

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中国应该跟上全球步伐 尽快倡导蔬食 环保理念 并立刻付诸行动!


China should keep up with the rest of the world in advocating a vegetarian diet, raising people's awareness of environmental protection and putting it into action as soon as possible!

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A.Jagadeesh Nellore博士,(美联社)印度

Global Warming and Food Production

Excellent article. Yes. Many Nations are concerned on decline in Food Production which may be due to Global Warming.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India