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Eat Less Meat


Eat Less Meat


With Taiwan's diet increasingly skewed toward meat and wheat, its food supply is ever more vulnerable. To fight global warming, bolster Taiwan's security, and improve your health, maybe the answer lies on your own plate.



Eat Less Meat

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 436 )

In late October, Taiwan's central government suddenly announced a major relaxation in restrictions on U.S. beef imports. But before they opened the gates, opponents cried foul. The entire focus of the ensuing dispute was over the safety of U.S. beef. No one ever asked: "Should we really be eating this much meat?"

Taiwanese annual meat consumption is now on a par with those keenly carnivorous Americans.

According to Council of Agriculture statistics, the average Taiwanese consumed 77 kilos of meat in 2006, twice the average meat consumption of Japan or South Korea. But average Taiwanese consumption of fish and cereals was less than half that in Japan or South Korea. (see table)

A survey by the Bureau of Health Promotion last year indicated that among Taiwanese adults 18 and older, just 23 percent of men and 27 percent of women get the recommended minimum requirements for fruits and vegetables in their daily diets. The figure for children was just six percent.

Let's set aside the health implications. This sort of diet is just not environmentally sound.

Meat Lovers Hostage to International Grain Price

A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) attributes 18 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions to livestock farming and ranching. Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who two years ago shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice president Al Gore, last year admonished that meat was a carbon emissions-intensive product and that the best individual action one could take to reduce their emissions footprint would be to eat less meat.

Even more importantly, meat lovers are destined to have international grain prices lead them by the nose. Livestock farming in Taiwan is entirely dependent on imported animal feed; if the international price of corn goes up, the price of meat goes up with it.

In addition to meat, Taiwan's reliance on external sources for cereals is also high.

According to research by Professor Shen Yuan, chair of National Chung Hsing University's Department of Soil and Environmental Sciences, while climate change has not necessarily affected Taiwan's agricultural production, there is a real problem with the supply side. Taiwan is able to produce only 32 percent of the food it requires, and only 24 percent of its staple cereals. According to Shen's observations, the Taiwanese diet is gradually moving away from a rice-based diet to other grains, but Taiwan produces virtually no wheat or corn.

"Rice is the only grain staple that's suitable for Taiwan, yet it accounts for less than half of all grain consumption," Shen says. With Taiwan's capabilities for growing rice, the fact that people are eating so little of it is akin to surrendering food independence, he contends.

A diet that is heavy on the meat and wheat, and light on the rice and veggies increases the risk of food insecurity and negative economic impact.

Food Supply Vulnerable to Abnormal Weather

National Taiwan University Global Change Research Center Director Liu Chung-ming says Taiwan's over-reliance on imports for its food staples means that any disruptions such as drought or other abnormal weather in major agricultural nations such as the U.S., Australia, Brazil or India would pose a direct threat to Taiwan's food security.

Taiwan has a total of 430,000 hectares of paddy fields, enough to supply the nation's grain demand. Nevertheless, as rice consumption continues to decline, so does the ratio of paddy fields under cultivation – half lay fallow last year. Furthermore, with the government continuing to relax conditions on the use of agricultural land, Shen worries whether Taiwan will have enough cultivable land remaining in the event of a crisis in global food supplies resulting from increased frequency of extreme weather events.

"Cultivable land is like Taiwan's food reserve, and we should always have some on hand," Shen advises. "If you fritter away your whole stake, in the end you'll have to go to the loan sharks."

Prior to the 1970s, Taiwan's foreign exchange earnings were primarily reliant on agricultural exports. Now, the agricultural sector has become the single biggest source of trade deficit. Shen's figures showed Taiwan with an average annual trade surplus of US$9.1 billion between the years 2004 and 2008. Last year Taiwan's food and livestock feed imports totaled US$9 billion.

"Much of our foreign trade earnings are going to imported livestock feed and foodstuffs to feed the people," he says.

For the sake of your health, to combat global warming and to avoid having your food controlled by others, Shen recommends that Taiwanese people cut their meat consumption in half and eat more fish and rice, which he says could reduce Taiwan's feed corn imports by half. If fallow fields were planted with corn, perhaps feed corn need not be imported at all.

In June Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney and a number of well-known chefs jointly launched the "Meat Free Monday" movement, calling on people to save energy and reduce carbon emissions by eating less meat. Taiwan's Society of Wilderness and the Homemakers Union and Foundation recently called on social groups and the government to get behind "Meat Free Monday." For each person that goes a day without meat, seven kilos in carbon emissions can be saved, according to Environmental Protection Administration statistics.

According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization forecast, grain prices will remain high through next year. Meanwhile, The Economist news magazine reports that the global population is expected to grow by a third in the next 40 years, increasing demand for agricultural produce 70 percent, with meat consumption doubling. So before you start complaining about the rising cost of bread or why breakfast is so expensive, consider starting with a change in the food right there on your table.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 抗暖化  請少吃一塊肉