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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Health experts worldwide agree, people who eat a lot of red and processed meat should cut back

As physicians we recognize that lean meats may be a healthy part of almost anyone’s diet. However, based on the preponderance of evidence compiled by scientists and health experts across the globe, there is little doubt that a diet high in red and processed meats is linked to serious health risks and that we would all be wise to keep our consumption down. New dietary guidelines, recently released by the United Kingdom’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) bolsters this conclusion. The SACN’s Iron and Health 2010 report advises that Britons can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer while maintaining healthy levels of iron by keeping their red meat and processed meat consumption to 70 grams or about 2 ½ ounces a day.

Cutting back on red and processed meat could do more than just ward off colorectal cancer.  Research has linked it to other diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s. A landmark United State’s study, published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Meat Intake and Mortality, which included data from more than half a million members of the AARP, concluded red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases of “total” mortality in addition to cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. An equally important Harvard study, published in Circulation in 2009, that followed more than 84,000 female nurses, found that red meat intake increases the risk of coronary heart disease. More importantly researchers concluded that shifting sources of protein from meat based to plant based could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

The Washington Post reports that cutting down on red meat could save an estimated 3,800 Britons from dying of bowel cancer every year. However, SACN researchers made it clear that their report did not address other potential health risks associated with meat consumption, which means many more lives could be saved from other preventable diseases. Read More >

Notes from New Zealand: China’s Investment in NZ Agriculture and a Bumper Crop for Grapes

CLF Director Robert S. Lawrence, MD, is on sabbatical in Auckland, New Zealand, where he is studying the country’s agriculture system.

As we waited in the Sydney airport for our connecting flight to Auckland, I picked up a copy of The Australian, one of the major newspapers in Australia, and noted an article titled, “China hungry for local food assets.” The article noted that China was preparing a multi-billion dollar investment campaign to acquire Australian agricultural lands to provide farm produce over the next five years. My thoughts went racing back to Lester Brown’s Who Will Feed China: Wake-up Call for a Small Planet, published in 1995 and arguably the single most important book in shaping the strategies of the early years of the Center for a Livable Future. Brown exposed the myth of Chinese grain self-sufficiency and predicted that China would soon become a major food importing country as water resources were depleted or diverted to the booming industrial sector; rising standards of living would shift dietary choices to a higher meat, western diet; and increasing amounts of grain would be diverted from direct human consumption to animal feed.

Grape VineyardThe Australian reported that in the last six months there has been a dramatic increase in the interest of Chinese buyers in purchase of segments of the agricultural sector “with the sweet spot being in ‘under the radar’ private farms, aggregation and processing businesses worth between $10 million and $200m.” Why this range of enterprise? Because under Australian law the Foreign Investment Review Board is limited to investigating sale of businesses to foreign enterprises that are worth more than $231 million. So a partial answer to Lester Brown’s question of who will feed China is a loose consortium of Australian agricultural resources, each valued at less than $231 million.

The Chinese buyers are showing particular interest in grain, meat, and wool opportunities. To date the majority of China’s investments in Australia’s agricultural sector have been less than $10 million with examples cited of dairy farms, orchards, vineyards, and Tasmanian spring water. But China’s appetite is growing with reports of one Chinese company looking for 5000 hectares (about 12,500 acres) of grain production land, worth about $75 million on the current Australian market.

The government of Australia has responded by launching a parliamentary inquiry into foreign ownership of Australian agriculture, all reminiscent of Russia’s decision last summer to ban export of wheat after their record-setting drought, India’s restrictions of rice exports in 2008, and other signs of countries protecting their domestic supplies while remaining a player in the global food market. Read More >

Response to Professor Mitloehner

Dear Professor Mitloehner,

I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post.  What you wrote was informative, but your response also raised additional questions for me.  I will lay them out here and you are welcome to respond again.

From your response:

“I did not write the press releases and feel that a lot of the recent reporting has been a line-up of catchy sound bites.”

I have spoken to researchers here at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and they report being highly involved in the creation of press releases and in making sure the documents are not only accurate, but difficult to misrepresent.  The UC Davis press release contains the following text:

“…it is simply not true that consuming less meat and dairy products will help stop climate change, says a University of California authority on farming and greenhouse gases.”

And these direct quotes:

“Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”

“We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk.”

As I stated before, those statements are not backed up by “Clearing the Air.”  Based on the report, examples of supported statements include: (1) Livestock’s Long Shadow used flawed methods when they compared global GHG emissions from animal agriculture and transportation, and (2) due to differences between developing and developed countries, some country-level and regional analyses are significantly different than a global comparison of livestock and transportation GHG emissions.  The “catchy sound bites” in the media follow directly from the UC Davis press release (and the subsequent ACS press release).  Do the press releases accurately represent your statements?

“This key statement in LLS’s executive summary – “The Livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18% of GHG emissions measured in CO2e. This is a higher share than transport.” – has been quoted extensively over the last few years by animal welfare and food activists, leading to Meatless Monday and other social policy initiatives. This statement has now lost its validity (see BBC report http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8583308.stm), which is regretted by many who advocate for meatless nutrition. That’s what happens when a social or political agenda tries to use science as its sword.”

Even though a new comparison of GHGs from livestock and transportation is in the works at the UN, this does not mean eating less meat has no impact on GHGs.  To make that claim, research would need to compare GHG amounts linked to diets with different amounts of animal products and find no difference.  Again, I have not seen any such research.  Also, stating that the Meatless Monday Campaign was created in response to Livestock’s Long Shadow (or livestock GHGs in general) is incorrect.  It was created in 2003 in association with the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to prevent disease by decreasing saturated fat intake.   The campaign incorporated the environmental benefits of decreased meat consumption (including GHG reduction) in its messages in 2009.  It is a public health campaign strongly rooted in scientific evidence, and twenty schools of public health have supported it for many years.

“We should not relax on any issue concerning our society’s mass consumption and what it takes to make these products available. My personal approach is to purchase to the greatest extent possible food that is produced locally and sustainably, and that includes meat and dairy products, which we purchase from producers at our local food co-op and farmer’s market. My scientific objective, however, is to find real solutions for society at large that support a reduction in greenhouse gases and other pollutants.” Read More >

Farming our Schools

When is the last time you walked around an urban public high school in the United States?  For most of us, it’s been a while.  For me, it was just last month and I will tell you what I noticed when I walked around.  It wasn’t the dilapidated buildings, the lack of experienced teachers, or the missing vocational and practical trades that disappeared a long time ago with shrinking budgets.  I noticed land.  I saw opportunity.

What some say is the last vestige of the “commons” in America, our public school system sits on an incredible amount of land!  Walk around a public high school and you see land that is not being used; it’s either being under-utilized or it is completely abandoned.  Pavement and asphalt is the default, and green-space upkeep costs too much money for strapped urban districts.  Was it ever used?  I don’t know, but it’s time to utilize this public space for the community. 

As we stare at our nation’s expanding waistlines and the “franken-foods” that dominate our store shelves, we realize that what the communities of our great nation need is real food.  We’ve watched the obesity rates in our children triple in the last two decades, and we are left with no choice but to creatively respond to this epidemic.  If we don’t, there is a good chance they may become the first generation in our history to live a shorter life span than their parents. 

As a Government and Economics teacher in a deeply urban school in California, I come face to face with disturbing daily realities.  Recently, a 16 year old Latina student came up to me in astonishment and asked, “Are you telling me that a lemon is a fruit?”  Equally astonished are the students that walk out to the school garden and marvel at the sweet peas they can pick fresh off the vine.  “I never knew that came out of a flower,” I’ve heard them gasp.  They recoil at the sight of dirt touching a piece of produce, yet they don’t blink at paying $2 for bottled water that is less regulated than the water coming out of their tap.  I don’t blame my students for a system that produces 3,800 calories per day per person (we only need half that amount) and then uses the most sophisticated marketing tools on the planet to get our youth to consume them.  As a teacher, I have learned that you must accept your students “where they are” because getting angry about how they got there is wasted energy.  Accept the challenge and then work like hell to help them reach their potential.  I’ve accepted that the industrialized food companies got to my students first, and now I know through local food production in the schools, I can help them become healthier once again. Read More >

Beyond “Museum” Gardens

With all of the coverage of Michelle Obama in the news lately, you would be a fool not to think that gardens are the answer to all of our public health problems.  In addition to the “White House” garden, you’ve got the new “People’s Garden” at the USDA building in D.C., you’ve got Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and his wife cheering the establishment of gardens at local Washington D.C. elementary schools.  The public and the food movement should laud these efforts and they are not without merit.  I similarly applaud states like California that began the “Garden in every school,” initiative and I’m glad they have supported that initiative with some funding.  However, it’s like the old proverb, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  Those wonderful intentions without substantial follow through are “paper tigers” against the environmental and health issues that face our public with regards to the food system, most notably: food insecurity, obesity, loss of bio-diversity and environmental degradation. Gardens that exist as exhibitions to only be looked and talked about will not move us anywhere close to where we need to go.  We need this garden movement to move far beyond what Michelle Obama has heroically brought to the nation’s attention.

I want to push beyond the awareness building of the White House garden and I see this garden movement at the crossroads of two paths. One path makes us all feel better, but yields very little in the way of reduced obesity, urban food deserts and local control of food.  The other requires more effort, but actually can affect, not only our local food shed, but more importantly, our children’s nutritional path, future health and prosperity.  Right now, we are on path number 1.  Throughout the United States, if students learn about food in school it is through “museum” gardens.  I call them “museums” because they exemplify our look but don’t touch mentality towards food production. If your child is lucky, their school may grow herbs, some vegetables and receive a lesson or two about nutrition, plants and the growth cycle.  The students may even be able to take home a carrot or munch on it happily.  Then they walk into the corner store, the vegetables disappear and there’s no significant follow up to those isolated nutrition lessons. This could explain why the Associated Press reported that out of 57 federally funded programs of over 1 billion dollars spent to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among children, only 4 succeeded in their task.  We need to shed this museum mentality. Students can no longer stare at our food system from behind protective glass, wearing blindfolds and waiting for the teacher to take them to the food court.  Follow the proverb; we need to hand them that trowel and teach them how to grow.

Our children face an unrelenting obesity epidemic the world has never seen.  A recent study out of the Bloomberg School at Johns Hopkins estimates that 75% of adult Americans will be overweight by 2015.  These numbers have consequences, not only for our health as a nation, but our economy and future prosperity.  One in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime and for minorities that number is one in two.  A recent study by Kenneth Thorpe, the chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University finds that at current trends, by 2018, annual obesity related health care costs will total more than 20 percent of total health care spending.  That means that in less than a decade, health care costs attributable to obesity will have more than doubled. Read More >

What is CLF’s Involvement in Meatless Monday?

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) is an interdisciplinary academic center that promotes research and communicates information about the complex interrelationships among diet, food production, environment and human health.  Some of  CLF’s work focuses on understanding food environments and the influence they have on eating behaviors; identifying what helps people adopt healthier eating behaviors; and creating food environments so that people have access to nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate, and healthy food on a regular basis.

CLF serves as a scientific advisor to the non-profit initiative, Meatless Monday , serving as a primary source for evidence-based health and nutrition information. Meatless Monday was developed following the release of Healthy People 2010 in 2000 by then U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher. One of the goals for the nation was to reduce the consumption of saturated fat by at least 15 percent by 2010 – a goal that is consistent with the dietary recommendations of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the American Heart Association. Read More >

Early Death Attributed to High Diet of Red Meat

A new study has found that high intakes of red or processed meat may increase the risk of mortality. The research, just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined more than a half-million middle-aged and elderly Americans and found those who consumed four ounces of red meat a day were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10-year length of the study.

According to an article in today’s Washington Post, researchers analyzed data from 545,653 predominantly white volunteers, ages 50 to 71, participating in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. In 1995, the subjects filled out detailed questionnaires about their diets, including meat consumption. Over the next 10 years, 47,976 men and 23,276 women died.

And the implications of a high-meat diet go beyond human mortality. “There is a global tsunami brewing, namely, we are seeing the confluence of growing constraints on water, energy, and food supplies combined with the rapid shift toward greater consumption of all animal source foods,” said Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, whose editorial is published with the study.

Mark Bittman Makes Appearance on The Colbert Report

Check out Mark Bittman’s appearance on Tuesday night’s Colbert Report. It’s hilarious! Bittman, who discusses his book, “Food Matters, A Guide to Conscious Eating,” make great points about the connection between diet and climate change. Jokes Colbert: “Are you implying that I’m eating while being unconscious?” Colbert clearly has an interest in environmental issues, hosting a variety of guests over the years to discuss diet, global water shortages, and farming. Incidentally, Comedy Central’s Colbert Report reaches millions of viewers around the world each night!

Study: Eating Less Meat Could Save $20 Trillion in Climate Change Costs

An article published in today’s NewScientist Magazine says cutting back on meet intake could save $20 trillion in the fight against climate change. According to the article, researchers involved say that reducing intake of beef and pork would lead to the creation of a huge new carbon sink, as vegetation would thrive on unused farmland. “The model takes into account farmland that is used to grow extra food to make up for the lost meat, but that requires less area, so some will be abandoned. Millions of tonnes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, would also be saved every year due to reduced emissions from farms,” say the authors of the study. 

If the global population shifted to a low-meat diet – defined as 70 grams of beef and 325 grams of chicken and eggs per week – around 15 million square kilometres of farmland would be freed up. Vegetation growing on this land would mop up carbon dioxide. It could alternatively be used to grow bioenergy crops, which would displace fossil fuels.