It seems that the way that governments around the world view meat and dairy is finally beginning to change. Recently, the UK government recommended citizens consume less dairy, the Netherlands released a set of dietary guidelines that recommends limits on meat due to sustainability concerns.  And now in a monumental announcement, the Chinese government released a new set of dietary guidelines that have the potential to see the country’s consumption of meat drop by a whopping 50 percent.

The Chinese Ministry of Health, the government body responsible for health care services and guidelines for health-related laws and regulations, is urging citizens to limit meat and egg intake to only 200 grams daily (China’s per capita meat and egg consumption totals out to around 300 grams per day).

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These new guidelines were developed by the Chinese Nutrition Society with the goal of reducing obesity among its citizens. This is a timely action considering a recent study found that obesity and other diet-related diseases are on the rise in the country, potentially tied to the growing trend in high meat and dairy consumption. Not only do these new guidelines stand to benefit public health, but a report from WildAid asserts that if recommendations are followed, it would reduce China’s greenhouse gas emissions related to meat consumption by an amount equal to 1.5 percent of global emissions.

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The significance of China’s decision to recommend reducing meat consumption should not be overlooked. A meat-centric diet might be typical in the West, but it is only a more recent trend in rapidly developing countries like China and India.

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Here in the U.S., Americans eat roughly 384 grams of meat per day, more than the average person in China. But what most people don’t realize is the tremendous cost producing meat has on the planet.

 45 percent of land worldwide is already occupied by animal agriculture and another 33 percent is used just to grow livestock feed (dependent on commodity crops like soy and corn that are devastating the planet). Not to mention, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions while other organizations like the Worldwatch Institute have estimated it could be as much as 51 percent. The stark reality is that if we hope to continue sustaining our population on this planet, we desperately need to shift away from meat, eggs and dairy and rely on protein from other sources.

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This is something that many world powers are starting to realize and actively address, however, shockingly the U.S. is lagging far behind. A recent report from the World Resources Institute found that if Americans halved their meat consumption, it would reduce food-related carbon emissions by more than 40 percent. Yet, when the idea of factoring sustainability into the most recent version of our dietary guidelines was brought to the table, it was ultimately ignored thanks to the large, highly distracting sacks of money supplied by the meat and dairy lobby. Naturally, a more important matter than the question of future food security and health of the American public.

While on whole, Americans are generally eating less meat, around 30 percent are choosing to leave meat off their plates more frequently and overall consumption has dropped by one-third since the 1970s, there is a very valid question as to whether this action alone will be enough. If we hope to see swift and lasting change in our food system, government action will need to play a significant role as well.

Our everyday food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, help improve global health, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future. While innovation in plant-protein and even cultured meat is underway (so people can still enjoy their favorite foods), by simply reducing meat consumption, we can begin to lower the impact of our diets.  With governments from Sweden, Brazil, the Netherlands, the UK, and now China, all taking action to include “more plants, less meats” recommendations in their dietary guidelines, it is now up to the rest of the world’s leaders to follow suit. The future of our planet and health of our population depends on it.

Lead image source: STS Schweizer Tierschutz/Flickr