This week, when governments and concerned citizens from around the world meet in Doha to discuss climate change, China will take its place at the table as an emerging superpower and the planet’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The challenge that faces China, as other nations, is how to maintain food security, alleviate the effects of natural disasters worsened through altered weather patterns, and do its part to lessen soil and water pollution and stop land degradation. One solution exists in the country’s burgeoning livestock sector.

China is the world’s largest producer of chickens and pigs and has about 92 million cattle. The government aims to increase such production by 85 million tons by 2015 – an increase of 17% over 2010 levels. However, as the UN FAO has stated, intensifying animal agriculture means “the livestock sector enters into more and direct competition for scarce land, water, and other natural resources.”

China now provides over a quarter of its grain to feed livestock, double the amount of three decades ago. This is inefficient because it requires between two and five times the amount of grain to provide the same number of calories through livestock compared to when grain is eaten by people directly. Livestock also guzzle water. Nearly 30% of the global agricultural sector’s “water footprint”, according to UNESCO, is “related to the production of animal products.” Given that China experienced a significant drought in 2011, and that the country only possesses a third of the world’s per capita average of available arable land, using land in this way puts the country’s food security at risk.

Increased meat production also makes it harder to reduce GHG emissions, since the livestock sector is responsible for at least 18% of the planet’s emissions, and GHGs are generated at every stage of livestock production.

After two decades of economic growth that has raised hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese people out of poverty, the people and the government are beginning to wake up to the challenges posed by intensive meat production and consumption to human health, the environment, animal welfare, and the climate. Commendably, China has become a world leader in halting deforestation within its borders. But there is also a need, where possible, for countries to go beyond just acting to halt their own deforestation, particularly since deforestation is credited with producing up to 20% of global GHGs. There is an urgent need for the government of China to phase out its imports of livestock products and feed from countries where livestock and feed production are responsible for significant amounts of deforestation – and where continued production does not allow for forests to regenerate (as in Brazil).

In October 2011, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) introduced the “Cool China” National Low-Carbon Action Plan, which offered seven actions individuals could take to lower their carbon footprint. One of the suggestions is to eat a meatless meal one day of the week (others include hand-washing clothes and using the stairs). “Cool China” has now been adopted by five provinces and eight cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. It’s estimated that if everyone in China followed these seven steps, each person would reduce CO2 emissions by one ton per year.

These are positive developments. However, it will take more (and more systemic) re-evaluation of nation states’ commitment to intensifying animal agriculture and increasing meat production before genuine food security can be achieved. As former World Bank lead environmental adviser Dr. Robert Goodland said at the Summit of Science for a Low-Carbon Society in Beijing in 2011, renewable energy must still be increased on a large scale to keep emissions and atmospheric carbon down over the long-term.

But in the near-term, China can become an even greater leader on climate change than it is today by implementing carbon or GHG taxes and applying them to livestock products; by reducing its imports of livestock products and livestock feed; and by vigorously revitalising its traditional diet, possibly adding some new meat and dairy substitutes as a modern twist. According to experts, if the world adopted a version of China’s traditional diet, which uses very few animal ingredients, there would probably be no problem feeding the 9 to 10 billion people expected to be alive by 2050.

After all, replacing livestock products with substitutes might be the only way for governments, industry, and the general public to collaboratively take powerful action to reduce climate change quickly and effectively.


Eve Feng is an associate of Brighter Green, a public-policy action tank based in New York City.