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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.

Homepage image from gyhgyh

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一, 素食的经济性
二, 素食与节能减排
三, 素食与健康
四, 素食与国家安全和世界和谐

Start from the Chinese proverb "Vegetables and tofu ensure peace and security"

When I was young I often heard my grandparents nagging: "Vegetables and tofu ensure peace and security". We thought they wanted us to live a frugal life and didn't think much of it.
Throughout the years I've always paid close attention to vegetarianism, and have naturally done some research on it. As I studied and thought about it more, I suddenly realized: In such a general proverb actually lies the great wisdom of our ancestors and their immeasurable concern for future generations!

1. The economy of vegetarianism
2. Vegetarianism and energy savings and emissions reduction
3. Vegetarianism and health
4. Vegetarianism and national security and world harmony.

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Should encourage vegetarianism, health, sustainability, environmental protection

UNESCO's report points out: In countries where meat consumption is rapidly increasing, people should seriously consider how to make adjustments to this type of consumption growth.

China's livestock industry has brought added pressure to the country's water and land resources, while making further contributions to global climate change. If the livestock industry expands and industrializes even more, these pressures will be intensified. I strongly agree!!!

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如果你把这篇Mia MacDonald 写的报道和《经济学家》近期的涉及类似观点的报道,你会发现Mia MacDonald 女士的文章更富洞察力,而相比之下,《经济学家》的报道不知为何在很大程度上忽略了气候风险。该报道见http://www.economist.com/node/18200678

Exercise in comparison

If you compare this posting by Mia MacDonald to the Economist's recent report covering similar ground, you'll see Ms. MacDonald is much more insightful than the Economist -- which, for example, somehow managed to largely overlook climate risks in their report at http://www.economist.com/node/18200678

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There's no nutritional need for meat anyway

This is a very important topic and insightful article, so I highly commend China Dialogue for publishing it.

A few further points of importance:
1) Netherlands Govt Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) found that a non-animal products ('vegan'/plant-based) diet/lifestyle would save 80% - eighty percent - of climate change mitigation costs by 2050; an amount equivalent to perhaps 40trillion dollars.

2) the same agency reported in a separate report that a no-meat diet would reduce biodiversity loss by over 60%.

(WorldPreservationFoundationDotOrg. have some nice overview papers on their site.)

There's no nutritional need for animal foods. The American Dietetic Association states in their position paper (2009) that “vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, and are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes."

The steps forward are clear; let's lend a vegging hand to courageous leadership.

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An urgent call of emphasis on this article

To begin with, policy-makers, implementers, academia and media communities should take the lead in the revolution of the animal husbandry and the industry of animal-derived products. Also, the whole society should answer the call in terms of raising awareness, making practical contribution and so on. The reality is that, in some livestock-intensified regions, deteriorating soil and polluted waters have been undermining the normal life of local residents, let alone the profound impact of the greenhouse gases from industrial production and circulation. In my estimation, the task is systematic as well as tenacious. Only with full understanding and hard efforts from all communities can we make substantive improvements on such fields as environment, climate change and public health. It’s of great significance to publicize unbiased science researches, accurate information and fair views on food. Besides, scholars, intellectuals as well as media professionals should assume their respective responsibilities.

The comment is translated by Hunt.Lee

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这篇文章引发了这么多广泛深刻的评论和探讨,对此我表示十分感激。此外,我非常高兴这篇文章吸引了大家的目光,并欢迎大家分享其他角度的观点和文章。密集型畜牧业资源需求庞大,加之肉奶为主的过度消费(多谢提出这个观点),我认为,这一系列问题会被提上中国社会公众和领导的议日程。中国的干旱问题仍然没有完全得到解决 ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/world/asia/17dr ought.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=china%20drought&st=cse),粮食进口量也在增加。然而跨国农业公司集团在中国的扩张仍然在继续,而且以动物为主的产品市场也并没有缩 减。我在上海的宾馆里打开电视时(中国的电视有两个遥控器,比我在美国用的先进多了),第一个看到的就是麦当劳的广告。可爱的中国小姑娘,大汉堡,第一口咬下去以后到处都是满足的笑脸;结尾处相继出现中文和英文的,众所周知的麦当劳标语:我就喜欢。


Thanks to readers for the insightful comments

I appreciate the breadth and depth of the comments posted in response to my article so far. I'm glad that it's peaked a number of people's interest, and encouraged postings of additional resources and perspectives. My sense is that this set of issue will get on the agenda of China's public and its leaders as the vast resource requirements of an intensive livestock sector and high meat and dairy (thanks for that point) consumption become clearer. China's drought still hasn't fully abated (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/world/asia/17drought.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=china%20drought&st=cse) and grain imports are rising. But the expansion of international agribusiness into China continues and the marketing of animal-based products is unabated, too. When I could finally get the TV on in my hotel in Shanghai (two remote controls: far more modern than what I've experienced in the U.S.), I literally tuned into an ad for McDonald's. Lovely young Chinese woman, big burger, smiles all around after the first bite; at the end, Chinese text, and then in English the McDonald's tagline that has also gone global: I'm Lovin' It.

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yes, western diet ads attacks too fiercely!

it is being much exposed to these ads that people around me got addicted into junk food.if only Mcdonald's converted to vegan restaurants!