Why the Terminator is telling Chinese to eat less meat

Chinese eat 50 percent of the world's pork, which two Chinese groups say is unhealthy for the planet – and the country.

Reuters/File
An employee picks up a piece of pork at a stall selling meat of Shuanghui (Shineway) Group at a supermarket in Nantong, China, in 2013. Chinese companies are buying farms in America to produce enough feed for the country's livestock industries.

Can star power and climate fears prompt 1.3 billion people to consume less meat? China is about to find out.

This week, a pair of public health and environmental groups launched a flashy media campaign to persuade China’s consumers to eat less of what they love, as way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Chinese Nutrition Society and WildAid China have enlisted Chinese stars and Hollywood figures to appear on billboards and in videos for the campaign. They include Titanic director James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger – both highly popular in China.

“China’s move to cut meat consumption in half would not only have a huge impact on public health, it is also a massive leadership step towards drastically reducing carbon emissions,” Cameron says in one of the clips

Chinese consumers eat about 80 million tons of meat a year, more than twice the amount consumed in the United States, according to a 2013 report by California Environmental Associates. And as the Chinese grow richer, and able to afford more varied diets, meat consumption is rising. By 2030 it is expected to hit nearly 130 million tons

This will worsen global warming since animals – especially cattle – emit methane when they belch and break wind and methane traps heat many times more strongly than CO2. If China could significantly reduce its production and consumption of meat, that could deliver sizeable benefits, say climate campaigners.

But there are reasons to doubt whether the Chinese population is prepared to become less carnivorous.

Like other nations, China has a strong cultural attachment to the eating of meat, especially pork. The Chinese character for “home” depicts a pig underneath the roof of a house. China maintains a strategic pork reserve to protect against volatile price fluctuations.

While the population ate little meat during the wars and famines of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, consumption has risen sharply in recent decades. China now consumes 28 percent of the world’s meat and 50 percent of its pork.

To keep up with demand, Chinese companies have been buying farms in the United States and Australia to provide feed for the country’s livestock industries. 

In late 2013, a Chinese company, Shenghui, purchased the largest US pork producer, Smithfield Foods, for more than $4 billion.

Some experts say this will be a hard trend to stop. China's own meat production is limited, says Jeremy Haft, a trade expert at Georgetown University in Washington, because "you can fit China's total arable land into an area the state of Texas.

But that just means the country will import more from elsewhere, he predicts. "China's skyrocketing demand for meat will continue to grow," he adds. "From a climate perspective, the methane will still be created, but will be shifted to the United States."

Leaders of WildAid and the Chinese Nutrition Society hope a convergence of messages might prompt Chinese consumers, and even the government, to curb the nation's meat-eating ways. China does not like becoming dependent on other countries for imports of food products. Meanwhile, obesity and diseases related to unhealthy diets are on the rise.

"Our national meat consumption is increasing every year," Yang Yuexin, an academic who serves as president of the Chinese Nutrition Society, said in a statement. "Much evidence has shown that long-term overconsumption of meat, especially processed meat, will impose adverse effects on our body, affecting our health in the long run."

In May, the Chinese Nutrition Society issued new dietary guidelines urging people to eat more vegetables and dairy products and less meat. But even though the ruling Chinese Communist Party apparently approved the advice, it did not attract much attention from state media.

Per capita, Chinese people eat about a third of a pound of beef, pork, poultry, and lamb a day. That is only half what Americans eat, but the Chinese Nutrition Society’s new health guidelines recommend cutting back by half again.

If the Chinese do what they are told, global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 12 percent, according to WildAid China. The group, which has run successful campaigns to limit the trade in wildlife, includes on its board such Chinese celebrities as actor Jackie Chan and former NBA center Yao Ming.

Climate crusaders are hoping that the Terminator will bring muscle to the message of eating less meat in China. Schwarzenegger, a former governor of California, is seen in the video lauding his state’s programs to reduce greenhouse gases. 
China, he said, “is now inspiring us.”

Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report.

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