Obesity, Malnutrition, Diabetes and Deforestation

The Economist examines the spread of obesity and diabetes brought to China by changing diets and lifestyles:

More than a quarter of the adult population, or roughly 350m people, is overweight or obese (more than 60m squeeze into the latter camp). That is at least twice as many as are under-nourished. With rising incomes and more diverse diets, Chinese people are consuming much more fatty food and fizzy drinks. Meals now contain more than twice as much oil and meats as in the 1980s.

This is producing a health calamity, both in heart disease (which now accounts for over a third of deaths) and in a less-noticed explosion of diabetes, which is closely linked to obesity. The prevalence of diabetes has grown more than tenfold during the past three decades. According to a recent national survey, 11.6% of Chinese adults are diabetic, a share almost as high as in America, whose obesity rate is much greater.

[…] The Chinese are not actually eating more as they get richer: the average daily intake has dropped a little over the past ten years, from 2,100 calories in 2002 to a little more than 2,000 today. This suggests that a sedentary lifestyle may be hurting people’s health as much as changes in diet. Rapid urbanisation means more people are leaving the fields to work in less strenuous manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile in the cities, walking and biking have been replaced by driving cars and sitting on public transport. Recent surveys show that less than 10% of urban dwellers exercise regularly. [Source]

The article notes that obesity has been increasing even more quickly in rural areas than in the cities, even as malnutrition there remains a major problem. A second Economist piece focuses on widespread undernourishment of infants and children in China’s countryside:

China used to have more undernourished people than anywhere in the world except India: about 300m, or 30% of the population in 1980. Economic growth has pulled half of them out of poverty and hunger. But that still leaves about 150m, mainly in the countryside. Out of 88m children aged six to 15 in the poorest rural areas, around a third suffer from anaemia because of a lack of iron, according to survey data. Iron deficiency can stunt brain development, meaning many of these children will grow up ill-equipped to better their lot. “They are far behind compared with urban kids,” says Lu Mai, secretary-general of China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), a government-run charity. […]

Even where children get the calories they need—as most do in rural China—they are not being fed the right things. In one study of 1,800 infants in rural Shaanxi province in China’s north-west, 49% were anaemic and 40% were significantly hampered in developing either cognitive or motor skills. Fewer than one in ten were stunted or wasting, meaning that in most cases the problem was not lack of calories, but lack of nutrients.

China shares this affliction with much of the developing world. But it has the resources to respond. Parents have the means to feed their babies properly. And with a relatively modest investment, the government could do a better job of improving childhood nutrition. The difficulties lie in educating parents—and officials. [Source]

Meanwhile, Tom Levitt writes at chinadialogue, China’s changing diets are straining the country’s own resources and indirectly threatening environmental damage elsewhere:

Rapid changes in diet in the country – particularly the shift to eating more animal products – has seen a rise in imports of feed crops, including soy and maize.

Controversially, a new report from the World Bank now suggests China should allow these imports to continue to rise. “Such realignment would help China preserve land and save water,” says the report.

[…] However, the report makes no mention of the impact any shift to a greater reliance on food imports will have on land-use in major commodity exporting countries like Brazil.

[…] “The Cerrado in Brazil is fast becoming a soybean monoculture largely to feed the Chinese market,” says Janet Larson, from the Earth Policy Institute. “Soybean farmers have been pushing cattle farmers further into the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, leading to the burning of forest with impacts on local biodiversity, regional climate regulation and global carbon emissions.” [Source]

Last month, China’s Ministry of Agriculture rebutted arguments that Chinese food imports could trigger a destabilizing global “scramble for food.” Read more about food security, obesity, and the “catastrophic” spread of diabetes in China via CDT.