Things have changed remarkably since then. In the past three decades, breakneck industrial development and economic growth have driven millions of Chinese from rural areas to cities, altering much about the Chinese way of life, especially in terms of their day-to-day eating habits—an evolution perhaps most pointedly crystallized in the average Chinese consumer’s access to meat. Once a rare luxury, it has now become a commonplace. “I still remember when beef was nicknamed ‘the millionaire’s meat,’” said Zhang, who reckoned that he spends around 600 yuan, or $88, each week on food, and half of that on meat. “Now I can eat it every day if I want.”
Fueled by rising incomes rather than urbanization, meat consumption in China has grown sevenfold over the past three and a half decades. In the early 1980s, when the population was still under 1 billion, the average Chinese person ate around 30 pounds of meat a year. Today, with an additional 380 million people, it’s nearly 140 pounds. On the whole, the country consumes 28 percent of the world’s meat—twice as much as the United States. And the figure is only set to increase.
But as the Chinese appetite for meat expands, the booming nation is faced with a quandary: How to satisfy the surging demand for meat without undermining the country’s commitment to curbing greenhouse-gas emissions and combatting global warming—goals that have been expressly incorporated into national economic and social development and long-term planning under the Xi Jinping administration.
Raising animals for human consumption, after all, generates climate-changing emissions at every stage of production. For one thing, it requires vast amounts of land, water, and food to raise livestock. For another, cattle are themselves a source of huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. Finally, cattle raising is a major contributor to deforestation, another cause of increases in carbon emissions. Overall, emissions from the livestock industry account for 14.5 percent of total carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and these emissions are likely to increase in the near future as the production of meat is predicted to nearly double in the next 30 years.
With the world’s largest population and a rising craving for meat, China will be one of the biggest sources of increased demand. Experts at the advocacy group WildAid say that average annual meat consumption in China is on track to increase by another 60 pounds by 2030.
“One could argue that Chinese just want to enjoy the kind of life Westerners have for years. In the end, per-capita meat consumption in China is still half that of the United States,” said Pan Genxing, the director of the Institute of Resources, Environment, and Ecosystem of Agriculture at Nanjing Agricultural University. But, he added, “given the sheer population size, even small increases in individual meat intake will lead to outsized climate and environmental consequences worldwide.”