On Shaping China’s Food System: A Conversation with Wanqing Zhou

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Earlier this month, the Yale-China Association and the Yale Sustainable Food Project (YSFP) co-hosted Wanqing Zhou for a conversation about China’s food industry, especially in regard to the relationship between the meat industry and climate change.

The talk was part of the YSFP’s “Chewing the Fat” series, which regularly hosts policymakers, researchers, activists, and more to open up discussion about food systems and how they influence various aspects of society. Zhou received her bachelor’s degree in Ecology & Biodiversity and Biotechnology from The University of Hong Kong and her master’s in Climate & Society and Environmental Studies from Columbia. For the past six years, she has worked as an Associate at Brighter Green, a policy action tank based in New York that strives to raise awareness and change policy related to the environment and sustainability. There, she has published a discussion paper on “The Triangle: Factory Farming in the US, China, and Brazil” that explores the relationships among the global meat industry’s three leading players and represented the organization in numerous international conferences and events.

Recently, Brighter Green has been placing a significant amount of focus on activism and education in China. Meat consumption is of special concern in China due to its alarming rate of growth – nearly twice that of the US. China alone is responsible for nearly half of the world’s pork consumption. Zhou explained that this phenomenon boils down to the dramatic shift in the relationship between human beings and nature following the Green Revolution. Traditional farming culture utilized the multifunctionality of animals; by placing them alongside plants on the same piece of farm land, they acted as natural fertilizers, pesticides, and more. However, the Green Revolution made cheap synthetic fertilizers and pesticides widely available. As many animals’ functions were replaced by these synthetic materials, their only purpose left was to be raised for meat, dairy, and eggs. This transition from a culture of stewardship to profit-oriented factory farming is of enormous environmental concern because of harmful consequences such as toxic runoff.

Brighter Green has been experimenting how to most effectively communicate this urgent message to Chinese audiences. Some efforts include the utilization of WeChat, the most popular social media and messaging platform in China, and the organization of a screening tour of a 2009 documentary by a Chinese filmmaker titled What’s for Dinner? to slowly build a network of audience and open dialogue. The documentary addresses the history of meat consumption and production in China.

Zhou identified the three essential components to Brighter Green’s food sustainability and environmental activism in China. First, it was crucial to provide systematic and accessible information to the public in Chinese. Much publicly available information and research was done in other countries are not in a centralized location online. Second, outreach should enhance engagement beyond communities that are already knowledgeable about the issue. Speaking to groups that already follow plant-based diets and support a systematic transition towards more sustainable nutrition is inefficient. Finally, focusing on local activism and research is essential in ensuring the continuity of dialogue beyond stand-alone outreach and education events. By partnering with colleagues at the Good Food Fund in China, Brighter Green has been able to address all three of these components of effective activism. Publishing an online knowledge hub for centralized information, organizing a Good Food roadshow that engaged local farmers in speaking tours and cooking workshops, and hosting a Good Food Hero Summit that brought together about one hundred food activists are just some of their most successful efforts in recent years.

Zhou continues to speak publicly about Brighter Green’s outreach efforts and emphasizes the importance of a holistic, comprehensive approach to the problem.

“In the future, we hope to keep our emphasis on food systems thinking and to encourage and facilitate more action and collaboration among different parts of the food system,” she said. “We all know that this is a system-level problem that no one can tackle by themselves – we can only deal with it by working together.”

Looking forward, Zhou also recognizes the need to appeal to the young and urban populations when discussing topics like the relatively new clean meat industry. Developments like lab grown meats and plant-based alternatives face intense stigmatization from older populations. Large, cultural shifts and fundamental changes in attitude towards these innovative new possibilities must and will come from the upcoming generations.