China’s lessons for the Western diet

mobikes_in_Chengdu

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.

Kunming_hot_pot_April19

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).

Chengdhu_street_food_Apr19

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

Smog over Chengdu, photographed from our Airbnb apartment near Zongfu Road.

 

Advertisements

The limits of science …

Daci_temple_Chengdu_Apr19

Back in a rather smoggy Chengdu I find it easier to describe the environmental problems that China faces than it is to propose solutions but perhaps that is the nature of my calling. Coming from a scientific background, I tend to think primarily in terms of technological ‘fixes’.  I help to define ecological and chemical targets in order that a motley band of regulators and engineers can restore a lake or river to good ecological status.  But these targets, as is the case with most legislation, really define the lower limits of acceptable behaviour, setting a threshold for the point at which the state should intervene to limit bad behaviour.  Achieving ecological targets does not, necessarily, equate to morally good behaviour.

This brings to mind a quotation from the US environmental lawyer Gus Speth: ‘I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems.  But I was wrong.  The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy … to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.’

The only part of that statement with which I disagree is the need for 30 years of good science. In the case of aquatic ecosystem health, I think we already know what needs to be done in broad terms.  Reconciling the investment required with the ‘willingness to pay’ is as big a challenge in China just as much as in Europe.   Willingness to pay recognises that environmental improvements come with an ‘opportunity cost’ – a pleasure that has to be foregone.   And by focussing attention on selfishness, greed and apathy, Gus Speth is spot on, for China just as for the West.

The irony of the situation in China is that two of its most prominent religions – Buddhism and Daoism – have a philosophy that should, in theory, provide a justification for a less materialistic lifestyle but which, somehow, exist in an uneasy equilibrium with modern China’s capitalism.  This is amply summed up by the photograph at the top of this post: showing the Daci Bhuddhist temple close to the centre of Chengdu overlooked by the gleaming skyscrapers that encapsulate modern Chinese capitalism.   The monks and continue their devotions just a few metres from an upmarket shopping mall that has been built around this temple complex, complete with Western brands such as Gucci, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Cartier (see “Reflections from the banks of the Yangtze” for another of these paradoxes).

Yuantong_temple_Kunming

The shrine to Guanyin, goddess of mercy and compassion, at the Yuántōng Temple in Kūnmíng. 

It maybe that we in the West see Buddhism, in particular, through rose-tinted spectacles.  The reality is that most Chinese are only nominally Buddhist (often with a seasoning of Daoism and Confucianism too) rather than strict in their adherence.   Somehow, these eastern religions co-exist with materialism, just as Christianity does in the West.   The infrastructure of all religions depends upon individuals producing more than they need for basic sustenance and being prepared to donate part of the surplus as ‘alms’ or ‘tithes’ in return for the benefits that the religion confers.  This is exemplified by the prominent shrines to Guanyin, the goddess of compassion and mercy (roughly equivalent to the Virgin Mary in Catholicism) and a mediator between worshippers and the divine.   The temple becomes a focus for transactions, rather than for reflection and transformation.  In this way, Buddhism can be one more part of a system that indirectly encourages wants and desires even if the religion, in theory, is about transcending these.

I would encourage you to read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, for an inspirational look at how modern economic theory has resulted in an unsustainable situation.  She also proposes solutions yet, for these to work, each of us will have to accept that creating a sustainable world will carry a considerable opportunity cost.  That will mean an adjustment in expectations, and a need to find a source of contentment that is independent of materialism.   The environment, to be blunt, cannot be considered without also thinking about economics.  At the same time, radical thinking about economics will need to be accompanied by a deeper shift in behaviour and attitudes if it is to succeed.  That pushes us to the very edges of rationalism, and into the realms of mysticism.

And, yes, this whole post was written in China so I have to admit to an element of hypocrisy if I am to write about a more sustainable world whilst still indulging in long-distance air travel.  More about that in a future post.

Pagodas_over_Dali

Pagodas at the Chongsheng temple complex at Dàlī, with Ērhāi Hú in the background.

Chongsheng_temple_Dali

The Chongsheng temple complex at Dàlī, against the backdrop of the Cāng Shān mountains.