Globalisation has transformed what the world eats and how the agricultural industry operates. At the troubled crossroad of poverty and affluence, modernity and tradition, China is experiencing water scarcity and a decrease in public health due to its dramatically increasing supply and demand of animal products.
The trend for increased meat-eating is not restricted to China, but in China and nations worldwide, the increased consumption of animal products is a result of the globalisation of national economies and consumer taste.
Similar to economic globalisation is cultural globalisation, which can be viewed as the process through which human culture changes as human interaction and sharing of knowledge rises. This creates entirely new social landscapes and impacts what people eat, wear, and buy. Individuals, social communities and entire nations and their respective economies can have their culture altered by globalisation, just as they can impact others in exactly the same process.
Just as cultural globalisation informs economic globalisation, it is cultural and economic globalisation that informs global trends in agriculture. As the flow of social and cultural information has linked to worldwide consumer taste, the demand for animal products has shifted accordingly. Processes of globalisation such as urbanisation and global interconnectedness are key factors that are driving this convergence towards Western-style diets and increased meat consumption. As well as these social and cultural sources of globalisation, global technological trends also influence the world’s shifting dietary habits. Advances in communications systems and the rise of multinational corporations (MNC’s), such as supermarkets and fast food chains, are also forces that have enabled this massive expansion of the livestock industry.
Shifting diet and health patterns in China are reflective of the nation’s stance as an economic powerhouse. Economic factors of globalisation, such as the commercialisation and branding of food products through multinational advertising, have fuelled cultural preference and the rise of Western fast food chains and products. While this cultural shift in dietary preferences can come and go from any region of the world, the “overwhelming” global trend is a demand for branded, processed, Western foods and commodities. This “burger culture” has led to changing health patterns, particularly in Asia in the 1990s, and the worldwide rise of Western degenerative diseases (think cancer, diabetes, heart disease).
In China, economic growth has led to increased average incomes and a subsequent change in eating patterns among both the poor and growing affluent. A rise in China’s annual GDP has led to a decrease in the proportion of the absolutely and extremely poor, causing increased consumption of animal products. Meat consumption doubled between 1990 and 2002 in China, and is projected to increase by 68 per cent over the next 20 years.
Historically a healthy nation characterised by a plant-based, high-carbohydrate diet and correlated long lifespans and low levels of lifestyle related diseases, China is not immune to the consequences of poor dietary practice. Following the dietary patterns of the world’s high-income countries puts China at risk of developing the same lifestyle disease epidemics of Western nations. These lifestyle diseases will then lead to “health in equality”.
Health inequality arises because low-income demographics are more vulnerable to the detrimental effects of the Westernised diet that is characterised by excess oil, dairy, eggs and meats. Low-income demographics are more likely to eat higher-fat, cholesterol-containing foods – namely animal products – that become cheaper and more accessible (as well as socially widespread) through MNC proliferation. The same people are less likely to be able to afford adequate healthcare and the luxury of sports and other healthy leisure-time activities.
An increased demand of animal products among both China’s growing affluent and poorer demographics has also led to water scarcity. Meat production is an incredibly water-intensive industry. In China, it takes up to 12,600 litres of water to produce a kilogram of meat, whereas a kilogram of cereal can take as little as 800 litres. China’s recent rise in meat consumption has also pushed the nation’s annual per capita water requirement for food production up by a factor of 3.4 between 1961 and 2003. Compared with China’s population growth (a factor of 1.9 over the same period), these figures suggest that dietary change is causing a high demand of water resources. Given that China, India and Brazil represent two thirds of current meat production, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the meat industry of a nation like China has considerable impact on freshwater use on a massive scale.
Globalisation, generally composed of affluent Western ideals shifting internationally in the cultural, political and economic spheres, has the ability to cause social, economic and environmental problems on a large scale. Health epidemics, economic inequality and water scarcity, like in the case of China, are all examples of the local impacts economic globalisation can have when operating hand-in-hand with cultural globalisation through agribusiness.
However, globalisation’s impacts are not exclusive to devastation, as its reach has a huge potential to create positive change through education, campaigns and the creation of a culture that emphasises sustainable, healthful, plant-based alternatives to the world’s current culture of animal products. Without a marked reduction in the animal products we consume, income inequality, health epidemics, environmental degradation and water scarcity will become more widespread.
[i] (Smallman & Brown, 2011, p. 134) Smallman, S. & Brown, K. 2011. ‘Development’. In Smallman and Brown, Introduction to International and Global Studies, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011: 163-192.
[ii] Dickson-Hoyle, S. & Reenberg, A. 2009, ‘The shrinking globe: Globalisation of food systems and the changing geographies of livestock production’, Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography, vol. 109, no. 1, p. 106.
[iii] Dickson-Hoyle, S. & Reenberg, A. 2009, ‘The shrinking globe: Globalisation of food systems and the changing geographies of livestock production’, Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography, vol. 109, no. 1, p. 107.
[iv] Lang, T. 1999, ‘Diet, health and globalization: five key questions*’, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, vol. 58, p.337.
[v] Lang, T. 1999, ‘Diet, health and globalization: five key questions*’, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, vol. 58, p.338.
[vi] Scollan, N., Moran, D., Kim, J. & Thomas, C. 2010, ‘The Environmental Impact of Meat Production Systems’, Report to the International Meat Secretariat, vol. 1, p.14.
[vii] Du, S., Mroz, T.A., Zhai, F. & Popkin, B.M. 2004, ‘Rapid income growth adversely affects diet quality in China – particularly for the poor!’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 59, no. 7, p.1506.
[viii] Quirke, D., Harding, M., Vincent, D. & Garrett, D. 2003, ‘Effects of Globalisation and Economic Development on the Asian Livestock Sector’, ACIAR Monograph, series 97e, p.2.
[ix] Du, S., Mroz, T.A., Zhai, F. & Popkin, B.M. 2004, ‘Rapid income growth adversely affects diet quality in China – particularly for the poor!’, Social Science & Medicine, vol. 59, no. 7, p.1513.
[x] Liu, J., Swiss, H.Y. & H.H.G. Savenije, 2008, ‘China’s move to higher-meat diet hits water security’, Nature, July 24, vol. 454, p.397.
[xi] Liu, J., Swiss, H.Y. & H.H.G. Savenije, 2008, ‘China’s move to higher-meat diet hits water security’, Nature, July 24, vol. 454, p.397.
[xii] Scollan, N., Moran, D., Kim, J. & Thomas, C. 2010, ‘The Environmental Impact of Meat Production Systems’, Report to the International Meat Secretariat, vol. 1, p.3.