The Chinese are lovers of food. It’s a big part of their culture. While China is the land where tofu was born, it’s also no secret that the Chinese love eating meat. These days, however, literally millions in China are apparently going vegetarian — not because they have to, but because they want to.
Certainly, vegetables are less expensive than meat, and some of the shift is probably due to simple economics. There’s also no denying the centuries-old influence of Buddhism, which teaches adherents to exercise compassion. Many Buddhists adopt a vegetarian diet in response.
In addition to these factors, however, there’s a developing trend of eco-consciousness, particularly among the younger Chinese generation. It is helping to turn twentysomethings into card carrying vegans and vegetarians. More to the point, it’s turning China into the country with the most vegetarians and vegans per capita in the world.
Embracing Vegetarianism as an Environmental Issue
The ability to provide a meat-filled repast is considered a sign of Chinese prosperity. Adults who grew up eating mostly vegetables, beans and rice take pride in the fact that they can now afford to feed their families in a way they themselves weren’t able to eat decades ago.
All that meat eating comes at an environmental cost, though. Just like its neighbors in the West, China experiences all the same negative impacts of full-bore, hard charging meat production. Livestock production spews greenhouse gases into the air and pollutants into the water, animals suffer horrifically in industrialized factory farms, chemicals are added to meat to boost production and battle contamination, and the list goes on.
Sadly, the country’s extraordinary appetite for flesh means it reportedly breeds more pigs for slaughter than the next 43 pig producing countries combined. It’s a depressing example of factory farming on steroids. Let’s not forget the country’s growing obesity problem, credited to its enthusiastic adoption of the crappy fast food culture we in the West have come to know and love.
Add to all of this a continuing parade of Chinese meat scandals — fox meat sold as donkey meat, injection of dirty pond water into meat to increase its weight, horse meat found in beef lasagne — and it’s easy to see why some Chinese are inclined to stop eating meat entirely.
The younger set in China is raising a collective eyebrow at all these problems. Some want to assume personal accountability for the environmental and animal welfare issues. They are changing how they eat in response.
“Times have really changed,” vegan Chinese pop singer Long Kuan told Public Radio International. “Maybe 10 years ago, when I was a vegetarian, a lot of people said, ‘Why, are you Buddhist?’ or something. But now, it’s completely different. The young generation, especially, they love to be eco-friendly, and they love to be compassionate. And they really care about the environment and the quality of life, about pollution … they really care about fellow creatures on this planet, animals and even trees.”
Restaurants in China are seeing more patrons in their 20s and 30s asking for vegetarian and vegan fare.
“The average age of our customers is under 33 years old,” Dong Ziyang, a vegetarian restaurant manager, told China Central Television. “They’re particularly interested in the concept of eating for a low carbon life. Young people are more environmentally aware and more open to new ideas. They love to be in the trend or lead the trend.”
China Needs Pigs. Lots and Lots of Pigs.
To be sure, relative to the overall population of China, vegans and vegetarians represent only 4 to 5 percent of the dietary spectrum. In a country as big as China, that’s an impressive 50 million or so people. It’s still a minority in comparison to those who eat meat. Chinese meat eaters will demand 35 percent more of it by 2020, while their consumption of flour and rice is expected to dip by 5 percent each.
As we’ve posted previously, the world cannot sustain its current level of agricultural production aimed at feeding livestock to produce meat. Nowhere is this more true than in China, where diminishing available land is making it difficult to produce enough pork to meet demand. Still wondering why China bought Virginia’s Smithfield Foods, Inc.? Now you know. They need the pigs.
In Chinese, “bu chi rou” means “we do not eat meat.” Millions are starting to say exactly this, for all the right reasons. Something has to change.
Photo credits: Thinkstock