Just before I set off on my journey to China back in April I heard George Monbiot respond to the question “what can we do to save the planet”. His answer was “two things: eat a plant-based diet and avoid air travel”. One ten-hour flight later I arrived in a country where it is notoriously difficult for a non-Mandarin speaker to avoid meat altogether so, it seems, I failed spectacularly on both counts. The evidence behind Monbiot’s statements is strong yet I am not alone amongst academic environmental scientists in having a carbon footprint that is way above average. For this to be justified I need to learn lessons as I travel that offset the environmental costs. On this trip, those lessons came through the Chinese diet.
Whether we should eschew meat altogether is a moot point. There are large parts of the UK where arable farming is not practical and livestock rearing makes practical sense, even if current economics leads to overstocking and what Monbiot has termed “sheepwrecking” of the uplands. I’m more in favour of a substantial reduction in meat consumption, based on some realistic scenarios in a report produced by the French think-tank IDDRI (Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations internationals) and some other recent publications pointing out the environmental benefits of a less meat-rich diet.
Before I went to China I thought about this in terms of eating a higher proportion of vegetarian meals. After my trip I started to think more in terms of a lower proportion of meat in any given meal. More importantly, meat does not have to dominate a plate but, rather, can act as a flavouring, enhancing the taste of dishes that were, essentially, vegetable-based. Whilst it was not easy to get a meal that was dish that was through-and-through ‘vegetarian’ in China, few dishes were as meat-heavy as a typical meal in the West. There are exceptions – Peking Duck being the obvious example – and two fortnight-long trips to this vast country does not make me an expert, but that is the impression that I have formed.
A Sichuan-style hot pot: note the liberal application of whole chillis. If you look very closely you will see Sichuan peppercorns between the chillis, just in case you were thinking that the seasoning was too tame. The photograph at the top of the post shows Mobikes (and rival brands) for hire in the centre of Chengdu. A monthly subscription costs less than a US dollar.
The other lesson I brought home from China is that they are not so focussed on the prime cuts and more use made of body parts that a Western cook might well throw away. The cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop explains this as a greater interest in the texture, rather than just taste, of food in China, compared to the west. I’m not sure that duck intestines will appeal to everyone, but I also suspect that many will dismiss the idea without even trying. But if we are to move to more sustainable diets that includes meat, then we will need to think about how to make use of the whole beast. We may, actually, be exposed to more of this so-called ‘nose-to-tail’ eating than we think in the west as much of the meat that goes into highly-processed food comes from animal carcasses that have been mechanically-rendered. The difference is that the Chinese actively embrace and take control of this concept (though they do seem to have an inexplicable fondness for luncheon meat).
Street food in Chengdu close to our Airbnb apartment: total price, including beer, was about £2 each.
Back in Europe, I find myself less interested in a binary divide between ‘vegetarian’ versus ‘non-vegetarian’ as a result of this trip. I did not have a Damascene conversion as such, as I have been trying to eat less meat for some time. I’ve also tried to focus on the provenance of any meat that I buy but, when I did cook meat, it was usually a centrepiece of the meal. Now, I find myself noticing how Italians toss pasta in a ragùsauce and serve what is, in effect, flavoured pasta rather than the British corruption of ‘spag bol’ where a pile of mince sits on top of the pasta. That must be a better way to go.
How does this fit into a blog about natural biodiversity? I often write about how the diversity of organisms is greatest in those lakes and streams that are in the most remote places. The fertilisers that farmers use to boost production are a major source of nutrients in freshwaters. These have significant effects on the communities that I see, and on the way that streams function. One way that ecologists differ from other scientists is that they realise that they can never be wholly independent of the systems that they study. To comment on how agriculture influences freshwater is also to realise that, as a consumer of agricultural produce, I am part of the problem. And, potentially, part of the solution too.
Smog over Chengdu, photographed from our Airbnb apartment near Zongfu Road.