China’s meat consumption is going up, not down – and dietary guidelines alone won’t change that

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The Chinese government is planning to cut their population’s meat consumption by 50% through “new dietary guidelines“, according to a recent story in The Guardian. But this is highly misleading, as reported changes are very unlikely to achieve anything close to a 50% decrease. In the absence of a larger, as yet unspecified governmental initiative, it’s clear that dietary change alone will be insufficient to curb China’s growing hunger for meat in coming decades.

A look at the updated Chinese Dietary Guidelines reveals that little has changed since they were last updated in 2007. Back then, the per capita maximum intake for “meat and poultry” was set to 75g/day, a figure that for some reason remained unchanged in this year’s update – even though actual consumption per capita rose from 110g to 135g in the meantime. So while the new guidelines do indeed recommend people to eat about 50% less meat than they currently do, it’s clearly evident that simply setting up these guidelines has not achieved its desired result in the past. Without providing stronger nudges for people to follow the recommendations, it’s unclear how this demonstrably failed approach is supposed to make consumers to cut their meat intake in half. Viral ad campaigns starring Arnold Schwarzenegger may help, but are unlikely to make the cut.

Nevertheless, the article sheds important light on the massive, yet relatively overlooked problem of China’s growing demand for meat (a matter we touched upon in a previous post). Following three decades of rapid industrial and economic growth, a majority of Chinese households now find themselves able to afford eating meat on a regular basis – a practice considered rare and luxurious until relatively recently. As a result, meat consumption in China has increased at such a staggering rate that, since 2000, Chinese consumers (along with those of India, but we’ll focus on China here) have been pushing the global average meat consumption upwards – despite the fact that the rest of the world has seen a reduction in meat consumption during the same period.

It’s hard to overstate the devastating effect this will have on sentient animals in food production. Despite producing more than half of the world’s pork, the People’s Republic of China does not have any laws in place to protect farm animals from cruelty, and its domestic animal industry has become infamous abroad for engaging in a number of extremely cruel slaughter practices. Moreover, the new guidelines actually recommend a 20% increase in egg consumption compared with 2007 guidelines – which, if followed (it’s unclear whether they would be), this would spell even worse news for the Chinese egg industry’s hens – of which there are already around 2 billion. Even in countries with some of the world’s best animal welfare laws, egg-laying hens are routinely forced to endure lifelong suffering in factory farm conditions.

Plant-based diets and moral concern for animals may be close to achieving critical mass in the West. But the same achievements are still far away for Chinese animal activists, who despite their persevering efforts continue to find themselves held back by a political environment marked by government censorship and crackdowns on civil activism. Additionally, many of the soy-based meat substitutes enjoyed by vegetarians in the West have a much lower social status among consumers in China, where they’ve been a staple food of farmers for centuries.

Rising meat consumption in China is already a problem of truly massive proportions, and the country’s unique political environment means that addressing this problem is likely to require different approaches than those that have proven effective elsewhere. At the same time, solutions like cultured meat may prove even more effective in China than elsewhere, given the high level of coordinated engineering that will be needed at some point in its development timeline. Other, as yet unknown solutions may prove to have an even greater comparative advantage. This highlights the importance of exploring many different approaches in our efforts to phase out the suffering of factory farmed animals.

In any case, it’s important that we remain focused on finding effective solutions to reducing suffering – and that includes not being distracted by misleading accounts of apparently good news.

This post is a correction to our sharing of the Guardian article in question on our Facebook page a few days ago. Many thanks to Kelly Atlas for drawing attention to the article’s problematic claims, and for her input on this post.

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