The traditional Chinese dinner plate is getting a makeover as tastes in the country begin to change. Exotic seafood and different meats are now being purchased at increasing rates.
In fact, China is the largest overall consumer of seafood in the world-with an increase of more than ten percent in fish consumption over the past decade according to the World Bank. During that same time, the USDA reports, the amount of pork people eat in China rose nearly 40 percent.
Michael Fabinyi, a Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, notes substantial socioeconomic trends are influencing what people eat in the Middle Kingdom.
“This is part of a broader change in food consumption patterns in China that include a shift to a greater consumption of meat,” said Fabinyi. “Some of the broader, larger factors contributing to this shift are urbanization and increased incomes.”
Pork has always been a staple in China, but as the middle class in the country grows and has more money to spend, its consumption of this traditional meat-as well as others-is increasing rapidly.
In addition to the evolving Chinese economy, social factors are driving people to buy more of these products than ever before. Fabinyi claims the luxurious banquet culture among the country’s elite is a large reason why the high-end market for seafood like live reef fish, sea cucumbers and shark fins is thriving.
”It’s a way of cementing social ties with important business and government partners,” said Fabinyi. “Often, people who are in high level positions in government or the private sector attend several banquets a week as part of their work obligations. During these banquets, hosts are expected to impress their guests by serving very high status foods like these types of seafood.”
Analysts note Chinese regulations, recently put in place to eradicate government corruption, are diminishing the effects of banquet culture but high-end seafood and pork consumption are continuing to grow overall.
In spite of this, some government policies are actually encouraging Chinese people to eat meat and seafood-and have done so throughout history.
USDA agricultural economist Fred Gale said Deng Xiaoping-one of China’s first post-Mao leaders who focused on directing the country toward a market economy-made it a point to support the changing diet to keep the Chinese people competitive in the global marketplace.
“[Deng Xiaoping] stated, we must fundamentally change the racist food structure-increasing the meat and dairy intake in our diet to improve the physique of the Chinese people,” said Gale. “So, they will rank among the excellent members of humanity. At this point, meat and dairy became a nationalistic thing and promoting production became a major national policy goal.”
Regardless of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions, negative effects associated with the increase of pork and seafood consumption are leaving a bad taste in some peoples’ mouths. Environmentalists argue there are ecological problems occurring on land and at sea within these animal populations.
Fabinyi explained the environmental problem of over-fishing spans beyond China affecting countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia which are seafood suppliers-especially when ultra-effective methods are used to catch fish.
“A tablet of cyanide is dissolved in a water bottle which is then squirted by a diver into the coral that stuns the fish,” said Fabinyi. “Then, the fish are scooped up and revived when taken back up to the surface. Because this is a much more efficient method than hook and line, it obviously is a large contributor to fishing pressure, apart from the effects that the cyanide has on the coral reefs.”
Problems associated with sourcing food are also an issue on land. Disease is affecting the increasing number of pigs imported from the United States. Most western breeds are not meant to be raised in outdoor areas.
But in China, these animals are being exposed to the elements as well as insects, mice and other carriers of dangerous illnesses. Gale said the effects of these conditions on the environment have many Chinese worried about food safety.
“As the marketing chain distance between the consumer and the pigs increases, the consumers don’t really know where their pork came from or what’s in it,” said Gale. “There are a lot of things like this on the Chinese internet where a local person, in some village, is complaining about the big farms near his house and how they dump all this manure in the water making it undrinkable.”
But not every aspect of getting these increasingly popular foods to the dinner table is unpalatable. Fabinyi argues fishing opportunities for people living on islands with poor agricultural potential provide a livelihood for a population that has few other natural resources to draw from.
“The trade in live-fish has been a massively important economic stimulus to local communities,” said Fabinyi. “Relative to where they were previously, many households have been able to improve their standards of living from assistance-level only to being able to invest in basic-level education for their children, some level of healthcare and material goods that have resulted in the improved standard of living.”
Chinese eaters are becoming more adventurous than ever before. In turn, as the flavors they seek grow in complexity, so do the effects of the country’s massive consumption. Food experts claim both the positive and negative consequences of China’s changing diet are already beginning to cross borders, become international issues and will continue to do so as consumption grows.