China, the world’s most populous nation with more than 1.3 billion people, has just issued an updated set of dietary guidelines that could dramatically decrease meat consumption—a benefit not only for human health, but also the planet by curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The new dietary guidelines are quite similar to the last updates released in 2007, with the exception of one key distinction: The new guidelines, while still recommending no more than 75 grams of meat and poultry per day, and a total of 200 grams for meat, poultry, fish, and dairy, have enlisted a reduced recommendation on the lower daily limit of animal protein, dropping from 50 to 40 grams.
“If such reductions were to actually occur, it could be a major win for the environment,” reports the Washington Post. “Agriculture is one of the primary contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, mostly in the form of methane and nitrous oxide — when forestry and other land use changes are factored in, the agriculture sector may account for as much as a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.”
And while a reduction of 10 grams may not seem like much, especially since the maximum recommended limits haven’t shifted, if China's citizens follow the guidelines, it could help to achieve reduced farm emissions needed to meet the Paris Agreement climate goals.
“The meat industry — and particularly beef production — is one of the biggest culprits,” explains the Post. “In addition to the huge amounts of land, water and food required to raise livestock, cattle are infamous for belching large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. And cattle raising, in particular, is known for being a major contributor to deforestation, which also drives up global carbon emissions.”
Meat and dairy consumption has been steadily increasing in China in recent years as more people are moving to urban environments and earning higher wages.
“According to the China Health and Nutrition Survey, in 2011, per capita consumption of meat and dairy was nearly twice as high in urban areas as in rural areas,” Richard Waite, an associate in the World Resources Institute’s food program and one of the authors on the recent WRI report, told the Post. “So the new guidelines might still mean that some people…would actually consume more meat and dairy than they do now.”
But Waite says the guidelines do start a national conversation, which, as we’ve seen in the U.S. recently with issues such as trans fat content, GMO labeling, and artificial ingredients, can cause manufacturers to respond to consumer concern, “by raising the profile of the issue,” Waite says. It can prompt food manufacturers to reformulate products, and move food service providers like cafeterias and restaurants “to change what’s on their menus.”
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Chinese meat market image via Shutterstock