China’s rapidly changing diet has ramifications not only for the supply of land and water, but also for energy supplies and greenhouse gas emissions, according to research at The University of Western Australia.
PhD student Jacob Hawkins from UWA’s School of Agricultural and Resource Economics said as millions of Chinese people had become wealthier, their diet had shifted from largely vegetarian to more fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, meat and dairy products.
Mr Hawkins said his research involved analysing how much of the increases in greenhouse gas emissions were as a result of increased food consumption, the types of food consumed and the technologies used to produce foods.
“What has been surprising is that while the consumption of meat and dairy in China has more tripled in the 20 years from 1991 to 2011, emissions from this increased consumption has only increased by about 70 per cent,” he said.
“This can be explained by improved efficiency in food production. So while the increased consumption of livestock products generated 430 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, more than all of Spain and Portugal combined, improvements in production methods reduced this amount by 240 million tonnes, roughly the greenhouse gases of Singapore and Malaysia combined.”
China’s rapid rise to economic powerhouse poses questions about how its culture, diet and consumption patterns have changed and continue to change, according to Mr Hawkins.
As the world’s most populous nation, China plays a crucial role in the health of our global environment and as its wealth has grown, so has its potential for damaging the environment.
But the Chinese government was becoming increasingly proactive about improving air quality and had the ability to make rapid and progressive environmental changes that could place it at the forefront of climate change reform.
Mr Hawkins said there were valid concerns about a limit as to how carbon-efficient the livestock sector could become.
“Meat will always generate a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas relative to crops. But my research is finding that while China’s diet is changing with its growing wealth, innovation is limiting the rise of greenhouse gases associated with its meat consumption to levels well below what has been feared.”
Mr Hawkins said China’s farmers had demonstrated that production efficiency could be harnessed not only for profit but also for tempering harmful effects on the environment following dietary changes as a result of greater wealth.