China’s government has put forward dietary guidelines to reduce the country’s meat consumption by 50 percent. And they have even enlisted global celebrities, like the beefy Hollywood actor and former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to spread the message “Less Meat, Less Heat” — less beef consumption is not just good for your health, it’s needed to preserve a livable climate.
The livestock sector generates some 7 billion tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions a year, according to a 2015 study by the Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs based in London. That is almost 15 percent of total global GHGs. So the full life-cycle GHG emissions of meat and dairy are comparable to the tailpipe emissions of every vehicle on the planet.
As the study noted, some types of meat generate a lot more emissions than others:
In America, the update of U.S. dietary guidelines generated a flurry of excitement last year when an early draft indicated they might recommend eating less meat for sustainability and health reasons. Spoiler alert — they didn’t.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which update the guidelines every five years, caved to industry lobbying in their final “2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” As Politico reported in January, “In the face of furious lobbying by the meat industry, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines do not explicitly urge Americans to eat less meat — as an expert panel advising the government had recommended last February.”
In China, average meat consumption per person has risen a stunning six-fold since 1978. China now consumes 28 percent of all meat eaten around the world, and half the pork.
Although the average Chinese citizen still consumes only a bit more than half the meat per day of the average American, China’s 1.3 billion people were eating twice as much meat in total as the United States by 2012. That is double the meat the Chinese were eating a decade ago.
This rapid adoption of the Western diet is having serious health impacts. Paul French, author of “Fat China: How Expanding Waistline Will Change a Nation,” has said “urban China is fat, and getting fatter — fast.”
WildAid reports “China has 20% of the global population, but 33% of the world’s diabetics. Child obesity has quadrupled in a single generation.” And this is happening on top of their terrible pollution-driven health problems: “Over 50% of the population is suffering from environmental-related illnesses, many of which are made worse by higher meat consumption, such as heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.”
So it is no surprise the government would like to see its citizens’ diets improve — especially since the numbers are headed in the wrong direction. Per capita meat consumption has risen six-fold since 1978 to reach 140 pounds (63 kilograms) a year, which is about six ounces (173 grams) a day. Absent a change in trend, those numbers instead would rise another 50 percent by 2030 (but still be below U.S. per capita consumption of meat.
The new dietary guidelines from the Chinese Nutrition Society (CNS) instead recommend cutting meat consumption by more than half, reducing the daily average from 173 grams to no more than 75 grams (and as low as 40). If this dramatic shift is achieved, not only would the health benefits be tremendous. so too would the climate benefits.
This chart from WildAid shows the GHG reductions if everyone in China started following the guidelines today — and what the savings would be in 2030 compared to current projections:
If the Chinese could cut per capita meat consumption in half in the next 14 years (rather than having it rise 50 percent), their GHG emissions would be nearly 10 percent lower in 2030.
Dietary changes, like all behavior changes, are likely to be some of the slowest type of mitigation strategies to get adopted. Usually a major change in behavior requires a broad societal realization that the behavior is harmful to both the individual and society.
That’s one reason the Chinese Nutrition Society (CNS) is partnering with WildAid and bringing in celebrities like Schwarzenegger. After all, if an iconically beefy guy like him — a man who won the Mr. Universe contest when he was 20, who won the Mr. Olympia title seven times, who became famous worldwide as Conan the Barbarian and the Terminator — says it’s cool to eat less meat, then it must be.
Because of the huge climate impact of the entire livestock industry, Schwarzenegger has been urging people to eat less meat for a while. You can see his remarks back in December at the Paris climate conference here.
A BBC reporter asked him then, how do you get people to eat less meat when “there’s a whole generation of young men want to eat meat and weight powder to look like Terminator.” The actor and former governor of California replied:
Luckily we know you can get your protein sourced from many different ways. You can get it through vegetables. If you’re a vegetarian, I have seen many body-builders and (weight) lifters that are vegetarians.
Schwarzenegger thinks it is “a good idea” if people stop eating meat but he thinks persuading people to change their behavior is so hard that “you have to start slowly.” He recommends people “stop eating meat one or two days a week” and go from there.
That would also be a good message to bring to Americans.