Eating Vegetarian in China to Save the Planet

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Tianchu Miaoxiang restaurant in Haidian District. Credit: Claire Du

A slew of recent news means we can no longer ignore that the planet is groaning under the weight of 7 billion-plus humans. The good news is that one of the most effective ways to minimize our personal negative effect on the environment is with our food choices. Going meatless is helpful anywhere in the world, but eating vegetarian in China can also be surprisingly easy and satisfying.

The evidence of human impact on the globe is everywhere. Two years of drought in Texas forced legislators to focus their attention on the water supply,  and a report released in January by the United Kingdom’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers showed 30% to 50% of all food produced globally gets wasted because of systemic inefficiencies, never making it to people’s plates.

In Beijing, you may have heard that air quality readings from the U.S. embassy broke all past records since figures were first released in 2008, skyrocketing to averages up to 22.7 times the standard the World Health Organization  considers healthy. The Beijing city government recently closed more than 100 nearby factories and ordered one-third all government cars off the road.

The change can start with your dinner plate

We all know we should do our part in minimizing environmental impact, but the recommendations are confusing, conflicting, misleading or just plain inconclusive. Except for one very obvious habit that is part of our daily lives and over which we all have control: the way we eat. By reducing the amount of meat each individual consumes, especially beef, we can immediately reduce our impact in terms of water, land, air and energy, to name but a few key issues.

Regarding water, here’s an amazing tidbit: If you gave up showering for one year, you’d still save less water than what’s required to make a single pound of beef. One pound of beef consumes more than three times the water a pound of pork does, and six times more than chicken.

In terms of land use, it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. That’s 94% more land. And 94% more pesticides, which, along with fertilizers, are responsible for using 40% of the energy expended for agriculture purposes. All told, livestock eat 70% of all the grain we produce.

As for greenhouse gas emissions, worldwide agriculture is responsible for 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions, with about 18% attributed to livestock alone, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. That doesn’t include carbon wastes attendant to meat production, such as cutting down forest to start a farm, fertilizer and diesel fuel to grow the corn, and truck exhaust from shipping cows.

Beyond carbon, livestock produces about 50% and 70%, respectively, of overall anthropogenic CH4 (methane) and N2O (nitrous oxide) emissions. Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-CO2 GHGs put together.

Meat production contributes disproportionately to energy consumption, in part because feeding grain to livestock to produce meat instead of feeding it directly to humans involves a huge energy loss. The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated our system necessitates 3 calories of energy to create 1 calorie of edible food. Other foods require more, for instance grain-fed beef, requiring 35 calories to produce 1 calorie.

AAs Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said of cutting down meat consumption: In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity.” Every small step is valuable. Simply start with one meat-free day a week. I started with Meat Free Mondays, the movement begun by Paul McCartney.

Where to start eating vegetarian in China

Despite all the dirt on Beijing, there are plenty vegetarian options in the Chinese capital — a whopping 30, according to the list compiled by Tianchu Miaoxiang (click the tab “Beijing Veg Map”). Here’s a quick list of my personal favorites from least to most expensive, so when you visit you too can savor the incredible flavors, creativity and breadth of Chinese vegetarian cuisine.

  • Xu Xiang Zhai: This cozy eatery is nestled behind the Confucius Temple on charming Guozijian Road, which is  across the street from the must-see Lama Temple. Daily all-you-can eat buffet lunch (68 Chinese Yuan Renminbi or about $11 per person) spans a mind-boggling variety of classic Chinese dishes, including top-notch cold dishes.
  •  SuHu: Located across from the East Gate of Tsinghua University in the Wudaokou student district, this is popular with students, professors and the tech community who work in Zhongguancun, which is China’s Silicon Valley. Vegetarian lion, as the restaurant’s name means, sells a great selection of vegetarian products to take-away.
  • Tianchu Miaoxiang: Like the two aforementioned, its classic home-style Chinese dishes are entirely re-imagined or re-created using meat substitutes. But what makes the two locations of “Heaven’s Chef Fantasy” so special is the restaurants’ focus on seasonality, reflected in rotating specials. Cold dishes, soups and iron skillet eggplant are my regular go-to’s.
  • Pure Lotus: This is perhaps the most famous veggie eatery in town, even among carnivores. It is known for its evocative and imperial setting, attentive and knowledge service, and encyclopedic, yet poetic, menu descriptions of delicious dishes that are plated carefully to recall misty mountains and romantic dalliances.
  •  King’s Joy: The newest addition to Beijing’s non-meat eating scene is also the most upscale, located in a beautifully renovated courtyard setting (ie: traditional Ming Dynasty style aristocratic home) with modern, but minimal, interiors and posh, hushed environs best for impressing guests.

King’s Joy restaurant in Dongcheng District. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein


Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at manuelasweb.com.

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