China's meat, processed food consumption is rising. What does that mean for China?

China's eating habits are catching up with the United States, as the country's meat and processed food consumption continues to rise. If the pattern continues, China may see serious damage to its economy, health, and environment.

Bobby Yip/Reuters/File
Some of the products of WH Group are displayed at a news conference on the company's IPO in Hong Kong. In recent years, China's meat and processed food consumption has been steadily rising.

If everyone in the world ate like the average American, the Global Footprint Network estimates that we would need 4.1 planet earths – unfortunately, we only have one. Now imagine if China’s 1.3 billion population was following suite.

With its burgeoning middle class, annual meat consumption in China has gone from being a third of that of the US in 1978, to now more than double it according to statistics from the Earth Policy Institute. Though, per capita, Chinese consume half the amount of meat as Americans their per capita demand for pork has caught up with US and exceeded those numbers since 1997.

Not only is meat consumption on the rise, which has spurred a shift from household and small farm production to larger factory-like meat operations, China’s intake of processed foods has increased as well. According to Euromonitor International statistics, the Chinese market for processed food will surpass America’s by 2015. While that still means the average Chinese person eats only about a quarter as much packaged food as the average American, there is startling room for growth.

“As countries move from low to middle income, meat consumption increases, then from middle to high income you see a spike in demand for processed goods,” said Andrew Muhammad of the Economic Research Service speaking at this year’s National Food Policy Conference.

The food trend in China is also followed by new highs in levels of obesity and diabetes. China now ranks second in the world in number of obese residents, a growing proportion of which are children. According to statistics from the Wall Street Journal, 23 percent of Chinese boys and 14 percent of girls under age 20 are overweight or obese – high rates even among wealthy countries. Even more starkly, China leads the way in number of diabetics with 114 million diagnosed with the disease, a third of all global diabetics.  

The changes in diet occurring in China carry rippling effects around the world. What China’s hungry for makes a difference, said Janet Larson of the Earth Policy Institute, adding that, “when a few people jump it may cause a ripple, but when a billion people jump, it’s a major shockwave.”

China’s higher demand for meat not only carries implications on global prices and trade, but also the environment. A net-exporter of grains until 2007, China is now the second largest grain importer, with a third of grains going to livestock feed in 2011. Once self-sufficient in soybean production, China now imports over 60 million, the number one export from the US to China. In addition to being energy and water intensive, land used for livestock contributes significantly to deforestation as well as water pollution and carbon emissions.

Though the US is still home to some of the highest proportional levels of obesity and diabetes in the world, US meat consumption has fallen each year since peaking in 2007, and new trends to eat less meat and steer away from processed foods may be catching on with campaigns like Meatless Monday and Food Day. Rather than exporting our diet around the world, perhaps the US could learn something from diets based on a higher consumption of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and nuts in setting a trend to follow.

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