China’s Changing Diet: How to Turn the Tide

Part 1 and Part 2 of the China’s Changing Diet blog series portrayed how individual and systematic dietary changes impact health and the global environment. Reversing trends takes time, but throughout history, the collective actions of committed individuals have had far-reaching impacts. In this section, we will discuss some changes already happening in China.

Chinese-language Meatless Monday poster

Chinese-language Meatless Monday poster

Moving the dial, motivation and Meatless Monday

Whether Dietary Guidelines can effectively spur diet changes is a difficult thing to assess. In China as in most countries, the rapid shift toward sugars, oils, meat and processed foods is counter to their past and present Dietary Guidelines. However, Dietary Guidelines can support the conversation and guide promotions toward diet changes. Much of the impact of the DG relies upon publicity, tools and education that follow their release. Read More >

China’s Changing Diet: Environment and Health Impacts

In Part 1 of the China’s Changing Diet blog series, we provided an overview of the recent shifts in how Chinese citizens eat and live as a result of economic growth, urbanization and food availability. In the following section, we will discuss the local and global impacts of these shifts and how Chinese health experts have addressed these through the newly-revised Chinese Dietary Guidelines.

Diet changes have lasting impacts on health and the environment locally and globally

In China, the incidence of obesity and its related complications have increased rapidly alongside dietary changes. The overall prevalence of overweight and obesity among Chinese people was increased by 38.6% and 80.6% respectively during the period of 1992-2002.[i] In 2012, 30.1% of adults were overweight and 11.9% were obese. 9.6% of youth were overweight and 6.4% were obese.[ii] Taking into account the sheer size of China’s population, over one fifth of all one billion obese people in the world now come from China.[iii]

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Doing What Congress Won’t: China Bans Antimicrobials as Growth Promoters

In 2009, China produced 450 million pigs

China has announced that it will join the European Union in banning the use of antimicrobial growth promoters (AGPs) in food animal production, reports.  When implemented, the ban could affect food animal production throughout the country.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated Chinese production at more than 4.7 billion chickens, 450 million pigs, and 84 million cattle in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available.  This is clearly big news.

The use of AGPs in food animal production has long been a concern in the public health and medical communities.  The administration of non-therapeutic doses of antimicrobials to increase animals’ growth rates has been found repeatedly to select for resistant bacteria.  The practice could even induce mutations that make bacteria previously susceptible to antibiotics become resistant to them. Read More >

Dam Water in China: Water Losers

Along the Keriya River, one of twelve waterways in western China where dam construction began last year, the mood is weary and palpably tense. For those on the bank, what the dams will bring remains uncertain; what they have taken away is already great.

Construction camp along the Keriya River

New York Times journalist Jim Yardley writes, “[Large dams] lie at the uncomfortable center of China’s energy conundrum.” The construction of dams reduces the nation’s reliance on coal-fired power plants, yet it creates enormous human and environmental upheaval. None know this discomfort more than the millions of riverside peoples displaced by dam construction.

“I am a farmer,” a wrinkled man says in Uygur, the local language, “But now I work construction.” Like many of the men sleeping in canvas tents, he once grew millet and herded sheep downstream. His grandfather settled alongside the Keriya, furrowed trenches for irrigation, and eventually passed on the right to water, as is traditional among the Uygur, as a form of property to his son. (He inherited the water from his father.) However, as the river’s conquest by the hydroelectric project began, the water supply downstream dwindled, and the trenches grew clogged. No longer able to sustain his fields, or himself, this man joined on, instead, as a construction laborer with the project. Read More >

Dam Water in China: Is It Worth It?

In western China, massive dams are being built along 12 waterways. The dams are supposed to aid economic development—but experts are saying it’s likely that the dams will do more harm than good.

Reservoir created by dam, the Pamir Mountains

When China pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45 percent of the 2005 levels at the Copenhagen Summit, the latest in a series of UN Climate Change conferences held in 2009, its energy agenda rested on the construction of dams. These dams are emblems of economic development. They create hydropower and control floods. They spread irrigation and, according to their advocates, they increase the nation’s agricultural production via increased irrigation water supply. They are touted as technological marvels, a point of national pride.

Under the New Socialist Countryside program, the Chinese government has pledged $62 billion (U.S.) to construct 12 large dams on China’s western, alpine rivers. In a 2010 paper for the Chinese Journal of Geotechnical Engineering, government engineer Ming-Jiang Deng describes the construction as “an effective measure to control and regulate rational allocation of water resources.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry adds that China is “carrying out [all dam construction efforts] according to the principles of sustainable development.” Dams promise the export of food and power to the heavily populated eastern coast, and therefore the sustained maintenance of the nation. And while all China’s populations deserve food and power, the Ministry’s aerial view fails to acknowledge the ways in which dams degrade riverbeds. Read More >

Again Ethanol and Food are in Conflict

Once again the conflict between the use of corn for ethanol production and the amount of corn available for consumption by swine, beef, dairy and poultry has come into conflict.

Corn prices have increased an astounding 85% in 6 months.

There simply is not enough corn to go around, and thus the price of corn increases. When corn prices rise, prices of other grains also rise. Wheat, rice, even barley rise.And surprise, surprise, the price of  processed food rises.  Why is this?

First, one has to look into the dark world of agricultural economics. Corn, in many ways similar to oil, is a world-wide commodity. Many countries produce corn (for example, China grows more corn than the United States, but has a lot more people to feed). But only a few countries have enough left over to sell on the world markets. Argentina along with the United States are the main exporting countries. And when the corn crop declines in other consuming countries such as China or Mexico, they buy more corn on the open market. And as these countries move “up the food chain” to consume more red meat, pork, dairy and  poultry, they need more corn. So they buy corn from those few countries that have some to spare. But with several countries bidding for corn and a limited supply, the price goes up. It is an “inelastic” situation.  If corn is not available, wheat will do nicely, so will sorghum, etc. So these grains become more valuable. And “wala” food prices rise. Most affected are foods that rely on corn, such as pork, beef, chickens and eggs. But bread soon follows. and this brings food riots. Even the recent uprising in Egypt is being blamed in part on rapidly increasing food prices (I feel this is a stretch,but do not claim to be well-informed in such matters). Even the price of tamales goes up in Mexico. Sure they use white corn, but white corn is also good pig feed so it is bidding against our yellow corn.

Ethanol plays a central role in this fray. Processing a bushel of corn gives about 2.8 gallons of ethanol (less if one converts the energy in ethanol to a gallon of gasoline). The government in its wisdom has mandated that we must use about 12 billion gallons of ethanol by next year. That translates to a lot of corn, about 25% of all the corn grown in the United States. In Iowa, by far the largest ethanol producing state in the nation, about half the corn goes to ethanol. So when supply goes down while demand goes up, the market “bids” for corn. They buy corn from other uses by paying a higher price, and the higher price encourages farmers to plant more corn next year. More grassland and highly erodible land go into cultivation. This increases erosion and water pollution, and turns the countryside even more into a row crop desert.

It seems pretty clear that changing climate is impacting the discussion. This past year, corn production dropped in the United States by about 9%, a huge decline. Bad weather in other parts of the world have cut down on grain production as well. In the meantime, demand for meats and  for foods made from corn continues to increase.

The struggle between the farm state politicians who push for ethanol from corn (and they must or they are summarily dismissed by the farm block supporters such as Farm Bureau and National Corn Growers) and the rest of the country who are being pressured by food wholesale and retail interests, as well as by swine and poultry growers). It is all part of the farm bill, no matter how altruistic the discussion may be.

I have said for years that ethanol policy was really corn policy. Its objective was to assure a demand for corn and a stable high price. Well it worked. Now we have the unintended consequences. At least for the next few months higher prices for many food staples will increase. And to hear some say it, corn based ethanol is to blame. I tend to agree, but as you can see, it is not simple. But then nothing in the convoluted world of farm policy is.

Biogas digesters for industrial agriculture in China

Biogas Digester for 8,000 pigs in Zhejiang Province

Biogas Digester for 8,000 pigs in Zhejiang Province

While researching meat consumption and production in China last month, I visited two farms that have installed large-scale biogas digesters. These intriguing, bulbous contraptions capture animal waste, prevent pollution, make use of a renewable source of energy (methane), and transform the icky stuff into a rich fertilizer for crops. Biogas digestion  has not been widely used by farmers in the U.S. (for reasons I’m still trying to understand) but has long been part of China’s rural energy strategy: the government estimates that today some 35 million small farmers have small-scale digesters installed in their backyards, a figure reflecting decades of work to distribute them. China has been called “biogas capital of the world” and now is making another big push to encourage large-scale farms, which are a key part of the government’s agricultural intensification strategy, to install them too.

How does it work? Well, biogas is a byproduct of the fermentation of waste. Micro-organisms go to work in anaerobic conditions, though I understand some digesters operate under aerobic conditions. As the bacteria work their way through the waste, they kill off the pathogens, and release a mixture of gas heavy on methane with a touch of carbon dioxide. That gas can then be used to power a stove, a farm, and can even go back into the grid if there’s enough of it and the transmission lines are set up.

In my conversations with Chinese farmers and even officials from the Ministry of Agriculture it was difficult to get a handle on exactly how many biogas digesters are in use on industrial-scale farms in China. This is an important question as small farms are increasingly replaced by big farms and farmers grapple with mounting piles of waste that can pollute waterways and contribute to dead zones in the ocean. (According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the volume of livestock and poultry manure increased from 3.8 billion tons in 2000 to 4.8 billion tons in 2008 and is responsible for much of the phosphorus and nitrogen discharges into waterways.) But an article recently published in China Daily cites a discouragingly low number: less than one percent of the 4.2 million large-scale farms for pigs, cattle and chicken use biogas digesters to dispose of livestock waste. I learned that some provincial governments are offering a number of incentives and subsidies — up to 50 percent of the cost of installation in some places — but apparently this coupled with the myriad environmental benefits of using the digester is not enough to lure most farmers.

Alabama bans imported catfish after testing

Farmed catfish made news in November as Alabama Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks announced a ban on all untested fish from Vietnam and China due to antibiotic drug residues detected in imported catfish from those countries (Associate Press). Catfish from Vietnam (i.e. basa, tra, or pangasius all called “Vietnamese catfish”) and China’s channel catfish contained residues of fluoroquinolones, a group of antibiotics prohibited by the FDA in fish or seafood.

Though catfish may look cute, aquaculture-raised channel catfish are big business in the Southeast United States fetching over $400 million in 2003 and accounting for 46% of the value of all domestic aquaculture (Miss State Extension Service). In 2006, the US produced about 560 million tons of catfish, compared to about 28 million tons of imported catfish from Vietnam and China in the same year (Associated Press), which is beginning to create a rivalry between US producers and imports.

picture-1channel catfish :: wikimedia commons

The recent ban on imported Vietnamese and Chinese catfish in Alabama could represent a move to regain control of the US catfish market. The Catfish Farmers of America have taken out advertisements in the Washington Post and Politico urging Congress to improve testing of imported fish. Reading between the line in catfish industry statements, it is hard to tell whether the true motivation is consumer safety (due to exposure to antimicrobial residues in fish fillets) or protecting domestic catfish market share— or both (Associated Press). Read More >