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China and Food: Gobbling up the Goodies
by Valerie Sartor
2008-01-15 10:03:21
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Everything in China is in a state of transition. The Chinese government is enacting new legislation; people are migrating to better jobs; young people soaking up western culture via the Internet and family dynamics are evolving into new patterns. Even the most sacred thing of all: food and its consequent consumption patterns have changed.

Continually improving technologies along with the booming Chinese economy have directly affected nutritional norms in modern China. Advanced transportation, refrigeration and manufacturing technologies, combined with global markets that bring in raw foods and imported western choices and the ability to buy more foods than ever before have all played vital roles.

The Chinese diet, once considered among the healthiest of world cuisines, is now undergoing the same ironic dietary problem Western countries have: an inverse correlation between the wealth and wellness. With the increase in wealthy citizens (currently Beijing has more millionaires than any other city in the world) there has been an overall decrease in nutrition. Statistics show that the poor in China are getting poorer and the rich, richer while inflation is rising, causing food prices to also rise. The middle class and above, while getting richer, are also adopting Western culinary trends rather than observing traditional dictates regarding food norms: balanced nutrition in terms of hot and cold – yin and yang eating patterns, balanced activity and rest, balanced intake regarding fan (grains) and cai (vegetables and meats), and just plain Taoist simplicity and moderation in consumption patterns.

Today contemporary Chinese have more health problems than before it industrialized. Obesity, especially in young well to do children, is increasing due to the high caloric intake and the lack of activity by the urbanized population. In response the Chinese government has implemented a ten-year program to increase nutrition education throughout the nation.

Historically, due to economics and cultural norms, the Chinese spend the majority of their income on food. But the local food chauvinism of Chinese, along with frugality and home cooking, is fast being replaced in richer urban populations with McDonald's Happy Meals and other rival fast foods. Popular but definitely non-nutritious, this trend is putting the affluent population at higher-risk for long-term health problems. The struggle by young overweight Chinese yuppies to balance traditional Chinese food concepts with calorie counting only results in nutritional imbalances; the two philosophies do not merge well together.

Some hip upper middle class Chinese are following Western trends and turning to more natural products and foods. As annual incomes soar so does the demand for fresh, wholesome foods that are now sold at any time due to extended farming seasons created through new technologies. Organic farming, which arrived in China less than 20 years ago, is experiencing a small but significant boom, especially in the south. But given the unregulated industries and lack of supervisory departments, "organic" - defined as non-polluting, safe, high quality and nutritious - does not garner the same security as "certified organic" does in the USA and EU. Moreover, pesticides are not entirely condemned by Chinese organic farmers.

The vast Chinese food culture is unique in many ways. Significantly, Chinese culture has virtually no food taboos. Everything that could possibly be considered as edible – from silkworms to fish eyes, is in fact eaten; nothing is wasted in their food pyramid. To deal with this open mindedness Confucian thought not only emphasized the aesthetics of food but also concepts such as grain finely cleaned, meat finely chopped and food almost always cooked. The Taoists added further precautions in terms of hygiene and cooking food to blend and bring out the most medicinal and nutritious properties.

Another primary food concept for the Chinese revolves around fan and cai: fan being the staple grain, usually rice in the south and wheat in the north but also including several other essential grains such as millet, sorghum, maize (corn), oats, or barley. Cai complements fan, taking the form of vegetables and meats cut into bite sized pieces, harmonious in color, taste and prepared according to nutritional rules developed centuries ago. Fan is always thoroughly cooked: rice is steamed; wheat is boiled into porridge, ground into flour and made into stuffed pancakes, deep fried, steamed, wrapped around fillings as dumplings or buns, or pulled and stretched into noodles. Cai also cooked, including vegetables such as lettuce and tomatoes, which most Westerners eat raw; in China only fruits are served au natural.

To produce grains, vegetables and meat for fan and cai China needs arable cropland. Until recently this has not been a real issue. Agriculture was independently invented in China as well as other regions such as the Near East, Mexico, Peru and possibly more areas such as New Guinea and northern South America. Rice was domesticated in the Yangtze Valley around 8000 BC, the same time when millet and other grains were being planted in other areas of what is now China. And by 6000 BC the Chinese were raising domestic pigs, still an important component in many southern Chinese cai dishes.

Additionally, China had many advantages in population, resources, productivity, learning, and organization up the 17th and 18th centuries. European had nothing over the Chinese regarding agriculture or culture in general; in fact, many historians think that China could have surpassed the West any time before at any time before 1700. But the country remained isolated by choice and agriculture practices did not advance. Farming, especially rice cultivation, required a great manpower ratio, leaving few resources - land, labor or capital – free for development. Prosperous but static, ordinary people lived trapped by cultural lineages that denoted power, small farms, and on thin margins. Autocratic leaders did not promote change, and farming was not a revered profession.

Yet the country was extremely productive for centuries. From the Ming Dynasty onwards farmers were able to feed a growing, increasingly urbanized population. During the Qing Dynasty an effective famine relief system was put into effect and it was lauded as the best in the world during the 17th and 18th centuries. At this time Beijing's food security was excellent and well organized; people had easy access to food supplies. Although historically China experienced horrific famines so did Europe throughout the same centuries. Population growth was not an issue until the 19th and 20th centuries, although it did start taking a toll on the environment, just as it has globally as populations increase in regions around the world.

But today China's incredible biodiversity, the greatest in the temperate zones of the world, is dying out at an alarming rate. The extremely successful, sustainable, intensive nature of Chinese agriculture, which fed hundreds of millions of people over the millennia, has been altered in favor of Western chemical methods that provide quick, short term bumper crops but harm or destroy the existing ecosystems. Old ideas and traditions have been ignored in favor of quick profits. In the past the Chinese took enormous care of their farms and forests. They also avoided building upon fertile lands, and allowed wild animals to remain on uncultivated areas. Their ancient love for the environment is reflected in wondrous gardens, poetry, nature writings and painting.
And despite chronic famines, epidemics, floods, earthquakes, deforestation, erosion, and other human-caused disasters, China never collapsed ecologically the way that Easter Island or the ancient culture of the Anasazi in south-western North America. Dynasties fell, people became desperate, but the common Chinese farmers ultimately managed their environment better than corrupt officials did their government.

That is, until now. China's ability to feed its own people and the rampant destruction of the environment has provoked serious concern inside and outside the country. The very prosperity that has caused China and other world economies to soar together via the path of China's blistering economic growth is now predicted to cause global inflation.

In the late 90s the economist Lester Brown began sounding the alarm about China's impact on global food resources. Brown's article, "Who will feed China?" – pointed out that the country's population is expected to be 1.6 billion people by 2030 despite family planning and that already China does not have enough internal resources to feed itself. Brown suggested that Chinese grain imports would upset global markets. In 1996 many Chinese experts questioned his hypothesis, some were angered by the nationalistic overtones; others thanked him for his timely warning but asserted that China certainly would be able to feed her people without depending upon food imports.

The controversy remained alive despite the refutation. Chinese eating patterns have altered and increased, with Chinese eating more meat than ever before. Experts asserted that if prices continued to go up the frugal Chinese would simply cut back on meat and other imported items. But Brown noted that water, more than grain or meat, might well be the crucial issue at stake from a global perspective. He stated that, "Even as water becomes scarce in a land where 80 percent of the grain crop is irrigated, as per-acre yield gains are erased by the loss of cropland to industrialization, and as food production stagnates, China still increases its population by the equivalent of a new Beijing each year." Brown also suggested that densely populated countries undergoing fast industrialization quickly become grain and food importers as the population base shifts from rural to urban workers.

This indeed appears to be the case for China. The country and the world are now both experiencing rising food prices. The Chinese government is struggling to contain increasing inflation and maintain basic foods at costs affordable to the low end migrant population by mandating price freezes and subsidizing various manufacturing and food industries. Water, clean or otherwise, is an even more serious issue. Water scarcity in China will impact the entire world; the country is experiencing not only scarcity in water but also a lack of potable water due to the massive environmental damages that are the result of rapid industrialization without any powerful regulatory agencies to protect the ecology.

Even more frightening is the fact that agricultural experts worry that China, with 20% of the world's population and only 7% of the world's arable land, is fast losing even more arable land due to industrialization. Former cropland is becoming transformed into airports, houses, factories and roads at lightning speed. In efforts to check this Beijing authorities have mandated that arable land in total cannot fall below a threshold of 120 million hectares (298 million acres), yet an estimated 2.1 million hectares of new construction land were taken from farmland over the past five years. The Beijing News revealed in November 2007 that China's Ministry of Land and Resources noted that the country has lost 8 million hectares, or 6.6 percent, of its arable land in the past decade.

And China is losing popularity in Europe, especially in Germany, according to Martin Walker, editor emeritus for UPI. On August 8, 2007 he wrote, regarding Germany's discontent; "China's rapidly growing demand for milk has boosted prices for (German) dairy products; the price of a liter of milk is predicted to rise by 50 percent by the time schools reopen in September. It is all blamed on a now-famous remark by Chinese leader Wen Jiabao: 'I have a dream -- a dream to be able to provide all Chinese, especially our children, with half a liter of milk a day.'" Moreover, Walker predicts further food price hikes across the board due to severe floods and droughts in Europe and Asia.

While purchasing European milk the Chinese government is also subsidizing its own dairy herds to continue to keep milk product prices low at home. But turning valuable cropland over to dairy production, as well as other livestock, will ultimately produce a great deal less nutrition per acre than grains, vegetables or rice and cause China's ability to feed itself to become more and more constrained.

Indeed, China's growth has fueled the explosion in world commodity prices. Competition for oil and iron ore and steel and shipping and other raw materials has risen dramatically in the last decade; the impact of greater Chinese food demands (beef and pork and milk) has already affected global markets. Food price inflation is in the news and it is a serious worry for China's leaders. According to China's National Bureau of Statistics, the cost of eggs has risen over 27 percent since last summer, and the price of beef and chicken increased by over 20 percent. Grain prices have climbed by 6.4 percent and pork has jumped a phenomenal 60%.

According to Walker and others things are only going to get worse. In 2007 drought affected over 10 percent of China's arable land, pushing up food prices. "But the longer-term outlook is grim, because much of the land being lost to construction in eastern China has been higher-quality agricultural land. This has degraded the overall quality of the country's remaining arable land; only 28 percent is now categorized as high-yielding farmland, while 32 percent is low yielding. Industrialization has also had another toll; official figures suggest that 15 percent of China's total arable lands are polluted by heavy metals, and more than 40 percent have suffered from soil erosion and desertification."

Many economists warn that the downward pressure on world inflation, resulting from low-priced Chinese manufacturing exports, is now going to be replaced by Chinese inflation in wages and also in food prices. The traditional love and respect for the land, the necessity to provide farmers with a decent life and the imperative to establish checks and balances to protect the environment against ruthless industrialization that does not respect nature or incorporate long-term environmental planning – all these ideas must be activated. The Chinese government is taking measures to solve this looming crisis but unless the measures can be effectively implemented in a timely fashion everyone on earth, not just the Chinese, is going to suffer.

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Sand2008-01-15 15:23:05
This seems a well researched informative article and indicates that even though the Chinese draconian policies of limiting population growth were reasonably successful, nevertheless there will be disastrous problems arising over so many people entering modern culture. If humans do not impose solutions, nature will, and the results will no doubt be horrifying.

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