By Jennifer Bates
China will soon surpass the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy.
And now it is poised to overtake this country by yet another metric: environmental protection.
In an unexpected development, China – known for its choking urban pollution and notorious Three Gorges Dam – has introduced new dietary guidelines that seek to cut its meat consumption in half.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because you remember similar guidelines proposed in the U.S. in 2015 — which were promptly rejected by officials on the grounds that dietary guidelines aren’t an “appropriate vehicle” for addressing sustainability concerns.
But what we eat is directly tied to the environment, and large-scale animal agriculture is destroying our planet. You probably know that this industry spews climate-changing greenhouse gases into the air, but animal agriculture’s adverse effects don’t end there. Because the industry relies on water-intensive crops and uses enormous amounts of water to clean out filthy enclosures, provide animals with drinking water and more, the average meat-eater indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day more than someone who just eats plant-based foods.
One pig produces as much fecal matter as 10 humans, and that waste has to go somewhere. Often, the toxic stew finds its way into our rivers and oceans, poisoning aquatic life. Meanwhile, countless acres of rainforest are cut down every day to create more grazing lands or to plant crops intended solely to feed farmed animals.
This industry is also hell on the animals raised for human consumption, who are violently abused and traumatized from birth to death. Male pigs and cattle are castrated without painkillers. Farmed fish are kept in crowded, filthy enclosures full of their own waste. And each year, nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are still alive and conscious when they’re immersed in the scalding-hot water of feather-removal tanks.
The average Chinese citizen consumes about 128 pounds of animal flesh each year. But the average American? Two hundred and sixty-four pounds, more than twice the amount of our Eastern competitors.
By cutting its meat consumption, China will spare billions of sentient beings a terrifying death. Cutting back on meat will also be a tremendous boon to public health, because it will reduce not only air pollution but also diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity. China seems to understand what the U.S. refuses to acknowledge — that the health of our planet and the health of our citizens are irrevocably linked.
Fifteen years ago, the U.S. dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol — the world’s first concerted effort to tackle climate change — with the argument that it was unfair to expect Western nations to curb emissions while exempting China. But now that China has fully signed on to the new Paris Agreement and has taken this important first step toward reducing its meat consumption, what’s holding back the U.S.?
It is a travesty that China acts while we sit on the sidelines refusing to address the most pressing issue of our time. Rather than bickering over “appropriate vehicles” while the planet melts and burns around us, we must respond. The only way to reclaim our status as world leader is by going beyond China’s measures.
First, the U.S. should drop federal subsidies for the animal-agriculture industry in favor of subsidies for plant-based foods. Next, we must lead on the development of in vitro meat, which generates 96 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and whose production requires up to 99 percent less land, 96 percent less water and 45 percent less energy than “traditional” meat. Finally, we must all do our part as Americans by curbing our crippling addiction to animal flesh.
Go vegan, and the health of our environment — not to mention our status as a world leader — will follow.