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China Tells Citizens What The U.S. Won’t: Eat Less Meat

New guidelines could drastically help the environment

When the U.S. finally issued its dietary recommendations last year, the product of heavy crossfire and gnashing of teeth, one particular element stoked much anger. Despite overwhelming evidence that it would be better for people and the planet—not to mention direct pressure from doctors, NGOs and 150,000 citizens—there was no suggestion that Americans should eat less meat.

For a more thoughtful approach to dietary improvement, we must look to China.

The Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China just announced their own updated dietary guidelines; front and center, they suggest people should reduce their red meat intake by half. If these reductions were implemented, it could lower global CO2 emissions by a staggering 1.5 percent. China is simply that massive, its meat consumption that prolific.

These new guidelines were developed by the Chinese Nutrition Society, largely with an eye towards human health, according to Matt Grager of the climate-focused NGO WildAid. WildAid, which has offices in Beijing and a working relationship with the Chinese government, has paired with the Nutrition Society to spread its messages. The NGO intends to hammer home the explicit connection between meat reduction and a healthier planet.

Livestock currently account for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the world’s vehicles combined. With global population ballooning—9 billion people are predicted by 2050—our meat and dairy intake is also projected to spike. Can we weather a 76% increase in global meat consumption? Probably not.

On the micro level, cutting down on steaks and chops could do wonders for the human body—red meat consumption is clearly linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Michelle Obama has banged the healthy eating drum so steadily for the last eight years, many were shocked that the updated U.S. Dietary Guidelines failed to advocate for meat reduction. In fact, our guidelines actually listed red meat as a protein that’s part of a “healthy eating pattern.” (If you’re curious how this happened, you may want to follow the money trail.)

Even if it takes us awhile to catch up, China—whose national meat intake dwarfs ours—has made an impressive stride here. And considering Chinese meat appetites spiked 25% between 2003 and 2013, with no signs of abating, the suggestion could not come at a more timely moment. “It’s thrilling to see a major government finally leading on the issue of diet and climate,” says Grager. “I can only hope other countries follow their lead.”

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