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What if China Halved its Meat Consumption?

As livestock farming produces 20 to 50 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases, finding alternative protein sources is crucial to meeting global reductions in emission targets. Halving China’s animal-agriculture sector could result in an annual 1 billion metric-ton reduction of CO2 emissions. That's more than the total emissions of the global airline industry.

China started it's love of meat only recently. In the 1960s, the average Chinese person consumed less than 5kg of meat annually. But as incomes soared following Deng Xiaoping’s market-driven “reform and opening” of the late 1970s, consumption rose to 20kg per capita by the late 1980s and has now reached 63kg.

Today, China consumes 28 percent of the world’s meat, including half of all pork.

But as in rapidly modernizing societies everywhere, today’s Chinese are embracing healthier lifestyles, not least following health crises like the coronavirus pandemic and African swine fever, which wiped out half of China’s hog herd between 2018 and 2019. China’s market for plant-based meat substitutes was estimated at $910 million in 2018 - compared with $684 million in the U.S. - and is projected to grow 20 to 25 percent annually.

The implications could be transformative not just for China but also for the world. More than any other nation, China has the ability to leverage economies of scale. It has done so many times before: some of China’s richest entrepreneurs positioned themselves at the vanguard of breakthrough technology slated to receive huge state backing, such as solar panels, mobile payments and electric vehicles.

Could the state do the same for meatless meat? Just as international food conglomerates like Nestlé, Unilever and Cargill are plowing millions into plant-based protein, Chinese competitors are jostling for market share in anticipation of huge state contracts and government perks like tax breaks and free factory space. David Ettinger, a partner at Keller and Heckman LLP’s Shanghai office, says now is “the most exciting time” of his two decades specializing in food law: “Rather than managing things, I think China will let the industry lead.”

The largest impact may be not on the economy but on the environment. China has already pledged to see carbon emissions peak by 2030 and make the world’s worst polluter carbon-neutral by 2060. As livestock farming produces 20 to 50 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases, finding alternative protein sources is crucial to meeting these targets.

Halving China’s animal-agriculture sector could result in a 1 billion metric-ton reduction of CO2 emissions. Crucially, state action could have real consequences - China’s authoritarian system enables it to dictate commercial priorities and consumer behavior across its 1.4 billion population.

While Donald Trump disparaged global warming as “an expensive hoax,” Joe Biden has called it “an existential threat.” Whether the superpowers can work together on this issue may ultimately define whether the world can meet its emissions targets over the next decade. “You can’t do anything on climate change unless you bring China with you,” says professor Nick Bisley, dean of humanities and social sciences at Australia’s La Trobe University.

The ripple effects would be felt globally. Apart from reducing carbon emissions, water consumption and the risk of zoonotic pathogens entering the human population, switching to plant-based protein can help safeguard rain forests cleared for the cultivation of animal feed and protect people against the heart disease, cancer and diabetes associated with heavy meat consumption.

Until recently, the primary motivation for people to shun meat was concern for animal welfare. Not anymore. Today, broader concerns about the environment and health are energizing millennials and Gen Z globally to embrace flexitarian lifestyles, where animal products are purged from diets at least some of the time. As in the U.S., China’s cosmopolitan cities are leading the way. In 2008, just 5 percent of Hong Kongers classified themselves as vegan or flexitarian, according to a Hong Kong Vegetarian Society survey. Today, it’s 40 percent.

Signs are building that the Chinese state will put its weight behind plant-based meat. China’s government has published guidelines to cut meat consumption in half by 2030 to reduce pollution and combat obesity. In August, President Xi Jinping launched a “clean plate campaign,” calling food waste “shocking and distressing” and highlighting the need to “maintain a sense of crisis about food security” in China.

For David Laris, an Australian celebrity chef and environmentalist who has had restaurants in New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and London, “It’s just a matter of time before Xi says we’ve all got to eat less meat in a big way.”


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