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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

The Meat of the Matter, in China

The story of Eliza Barclay's summer voyage to China to study increasing meat consumption there began when she first noticed what was happening with a very different product: American and Brazilian grain.

"So much grain was being shipped from the U.S. and Brazil to China, to feed increasing numbers of livestock there," she notes. At the same time, Barclay, MA '10, recognized that more people in China could afford to eat meat. "There's a bigger middle class there than in the past."

Barclay—a freelance journalist who has spent the past six years covering international politics and environmental issues for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post—knows what increased meat consumption can do to populations and the environment. Higher caloric intake can lead to obesity and other health issues, while improperly managed large farms can harm soil and water.

"I had worked in Africa and Latin America," she says, "and then I read The End of Food by Paul Roberts." That book, she says, inspired her to find out how the Chinese were changing their diets—and the health and environmental effects that will have on the world's most populous nation: some 1.3 billion people.

But investigating foreign dietary data isn't normally the purview of a master's degree student in the Writing Seminars. So Barclay ended up applying for, and winning, a $15,000 innovation grant from the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future. The grants are given for multidisciplinary study—though usually not to humanities students.

Barclay, who completed her master's degree in May, admits her application "was a really, really long shot. Most of the other research is being done by scientists." But given her extensive experience reporting on environmental issues, the award for her project—"The Rise of a Meat-Intensive Diet and the Seeds of a Sustainable/Healthy Food Movement in China"—wasn't really such a stretch.

China is already both the world's largest producer and greatest consumer of agricultural products. Though beef is starting to make some inroads, pork is still the prime meat consumed in China; roughly 92 billion pounds of pork were eaten in China last year, and there are about 500 million pigs in the country ("It's the only nation with a Strategic Pork Reserve," Barclay notes). Despite China's rapid urbanization, most of those 500 million pigs are raised not on factory-scale farms in the countryside, but in single-digit numbers at the household level, even in cities.

"Eight out of nine pigs in China are raised by households, but bigger farms are coming," Barclay says, noting, "It's actually easier to regulate pollution from big farms than from millions of little ones."

Barclay spent several weeks in late June and early July in Beijing and the Zhejiang Province. Working with a Chinese-American graduate research assistant from Harvard, she interviewed health and agricultural experts and met with urban pig farmers. What she's looking for is information about how three groups—the government, farmers, and consumers—are driving and managing the changes in meat consumption.

"This is mostly a project about urban consumers," says Barclay. "But as [the system] goes more 'green,'


Pork is still the prime meat consumed in China, with roughly 92 billion pounds
of it consumed last year.

 

 

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