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How Hard It Is to Have a Good Meal

One of the most common and simplest questions is "What should I eat today?"


No matter what the answer is, there is the same logic behind it: the question is, what do we "want to eat"?  Because you can eat almost anything you want.


Whether it's fried chicken, pickled fish, bananas shipped from South America, or cherries imported from the United States, if you live in a Chinese city, you can get these foods in an hour simply by placing an order on your mobile phone.


Mobile Internet and payments, a 4 trillion yuan catering industry, as well as efficient large-scale agricultural product planting systems, global cold chains, and local rapid logistics networks are businesses and technology that have combined to form a “new system.” Now food sources are plentiful, and furthermore, the development of technology ensures that food will not rot even if it is transported over long distances. The only foods you can't think of are the foods you’ve never eaten.


If, for example, for those living in China today, our taste buds have long been satisfied, then one cannot help but wonder, will we always get to live like this all the time?



After the Green Revolution, people can have a New Year-like feast every day in daily life.


During the 40 years of reforming and opening up to the world, we ate like New Year every day.


It was not a joke. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, from 1982 to 2013, we consumed three times more meat per year, six times more cooking oil, five times more aquatic products and eggs, and a third times more sugar.   However,  grain consumption went down by a third, and vegetable consumption decreased by 40%. [1]


Now picture these figures. Fish and meat, which were served only during the Spring Festival 40 years ago, and sugary drinks and milk, rarely seen in the past,  are now prevalent.  On the contrary, grain and vegetables are eaten less.

Why? One apparent reason is "affordability.” Compared to 1982, per capita income has risen more than sevenfold. But increased income is not the only reason.


In a broader sense, our current standing is the result of the cheap food system that was built after the "green revolution" of 1968.


In 1968, William Gold (William Gaud), director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), first proposed the term "green revolution.” Simply put, Green Revolution means using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, crop improvement, and land system reform, marketing, and other new methods to build a food system using cheap labor and raw materials.  American biologist Norman Broug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for cultivating low-cost wheat during this revolution.

There is no doubt that the Green Revolution was a success. Between 1960 and 1980, the yield of global grain has  more than doubled, and from 1950 to 1980, India's wheat production increased by 87%. From 1976 to 2002, food prices continued to fall. These food productions were similar, from food crops, fruits, and vegetables to meat, eggs, and milk. They are all produced similarly, like "factories,” so it is also referred to as "industrial farming.” [2]


In China, technologies for producing meat have also developed rapidly since the reform.


Currently, 90% of the domestic livestock farms are small and medium-sized,  yet the industry concentration is very high in the 10% of medium and large farms as they account for 30-50% of the national share.


According to the China Statistical Yearbook, domestic meat prices fell sharply between 1997 and 2006, dropping 19% in urban areas and 17% in rural areas.


Combined with revenue and new farming technology, the number of chickens, ducks, cattle, sheep, and pigs has multiplied compared with that number in the 1980s, leading to more people naturally choosing to eat meat the same is true for fruits. [3].


While eating meat daily was once reserved only for the rich, it has become an everyday lifestyle for everyone.


By 2019, China's per capita for meat and egg consumption will become very close to the level of developed countries, as China in recent decades has changed from a society of mainly plant-based diets to an "animal diet.”[4].


It is worth mentioning that we are not the only country eating more sugar, oil, and meat.


In the last 30 years, with economic development and rising per capita income, the public demand for animal protein per capita has also increased in developing countries striving to achieve modernization (India is an exception because of cultural factors).

The technology to scale meat production has rapidly transformed some developing countries into global "meat factories." For instance,  Brazil is now the world's largest beef and chicken exporter, exporting 1.87 million tons of beef in 2019, accounting for 20% of global beef exports. [5].


Asian countries such as Thailand have also become one of the world's largest chicken exporters in recent years, second only to Brazil and the United States.



Now: the true costs of animals and agricultural products.


Although these foods can be a “mouth blessing,” operating such large-scale agricultural products comes at a heavy price. First, it creates a weaker food system.


In the United States, where agriculture is more industrialized than China, the average size of a farm is 16000 square meters--the equivalent of 38 basketball courts.


Patches of wheat and corn fields are the usual scenery along the roads of these.

The use of monoculture, large machinery, and chemicals can significantly reduce labor costs.


However, because single planting doesn't mutually balance the food chain, it can easily give rise to serious pest problems. Besides, weed treatment and soil fertility supplements are needed to maximize efficiency, so it is inevitable that a large number of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used. Crops in the industrial system are treated with drugs, and so are the farm animals raised in this system.


For example, we often eat white feather chicken meat. Generally 50, 000 to 100, 000 chickens are raised on a single farm. With so many chickens huddled together, it is common to add antibiotics to the chicken feed to control parasites and infectious diseases.


Right now, 2/3 of the antibiotics in the world are used in animal breeding and eventually end up in our stomachs through our diet, rivers, and drinking water systems.


In China, 40% of pregnant women and 80% of children in the Yangtze River Delta have antibiotics in their urine, and these veterinary antibiotics are forbidden in clinical medicine. [6]


The life of farm animals is also hard to imagine.


It may only take 40 days for the chicken to be born and served on the table. To make a piglet grow faster, it is necessary to separate the piglet from its mother at an early age and not breastfeed it but rather give it feed.


But because the piglet still has the instincts to suck, it likes to bite the other piglets’ tails in the pen, causing the piglet to get infected and sick.


To steadily raise pigs, farm operators not only used antibiotics but also cut off the pig's tail in advance.


This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the concern of animal abuse in these systems.


Agriculture and forestry accounts for 1/4 and 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions, respectively, and the reduction in agricultural production due to its amount of greenhouse gas emission is also controversial.

According to a study, India's wheat production has fallen by 80% since the 1980s, with global economic losses due to climate change reaching $5 billion a year. [7].


The price of cleaning up animal droppings is not low. According to World Environment magazine, which cited data from the United States Bureau of Agriculture, farm animals in the United States produce 61 million tons of manure each year, 130 times that of Americans.


100 million fish died in a nearby river when a tank of animal waste burst in North Carolina. [8].

The idea of feeding everyone with cheaper agricultural products has not yet been fully established.


According to the United Nations, the number of people threatened by hunger has been growing every year since 2013, and there are still 800 million people around the world who often face the problem of lack of food. [9] The environmental impact of climate change will also be the first to affect the health and safety of agricultural populations in developing countries, which make up 75% of the world's food producers.

The cheap food system we have built in the last half-century now pushes us to the brink of a cliff.



Future: there is not much time left for us to fix it.


In 2020, COVID-19 brought these problems hidden in the B side of economic development into the public’s eyes.


At present, we still have too much unknown about the virus: how does it infect humans from bats? Who is the intermediate host? How will it evolve in the future?

But no matter what the specific answer is, this is the reality brought to us by the food system we have established together: centralized animal breeding environment, large-scale unitary crop cultivation, constant excessive use of pesticides, unstoppable meat consumption, astonishing food waste, nearly 800 million hungry people, the ultra-long carbon footprint of cross-border food transportation, and depletion of marine fishery resources.

In the future, the challenge will only be more severe. In 2050, there are expected to be 9 -10 billion people on the planet. According to the current growth in consumption, we need to slaughter more than 1200 billion livestock and animals each year, and we also need to increase the basis of existing grain by 25-70% to meet the market demand. At the same time,  land and freshwater resources will be more scarce because of rising temperatures. [10] We have all seen the consequences of lacking food and drinking water countless times in past wars, conflicts, revolutions, and traumatic memories that last for generations.


In the last 50 years, humankind has improved efficiency by reducing costs through science and technology and developing cheap food, goods, education, and health care systems through large-scale expansion. They shape our contemporary lives, but they also expose the entire ecosystem to the threat of collapse. Over the next 50 years, our task will be to find a sustainable lifestyle that allows us to live and thrive with all life on Earth.


The challenge is severe, and the task is urgent.


Some scientists predict that there are still 10 years left for us to reverse climate change. [11].


Crisis and hope coexist. At the business and policy level, changes are taking place: eco-agriculture and more high-tech precision agriculture have become the targets of support in many countries; "plant-based meat," which provides alternatives for meat consumption, has become a new favorite in Silicon Valley's capital market; in China, restaurants and food brands that focus on sustainable and local agricultural systems are also on the rise.


As consumers, each of us has three opportunities every day to choose and treat our food well. After all, food provides us with nutrition for survival and spiritual satisfaction and our identity, cultural characteristics, economic choice, and an important way for each of us to connect with the world.


So, have you decided what to eat today?


[1]Food Consumption In China --Zhangyue Zhou

[2]《廉价的代价》--Raj Patel

[3]食品价格和饮食知识在提高中国饮食质量方面的作用,《宏观质量研究》2015 --下川哲

[4]Food Consumption In China --Zhangyue Zhou



[7]IPCC,2007.36;2014;Lobell and Field,2007.



[10]How do we feed the planet in 2050?

[11]We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN

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