BEIJING — To say the options at my first meal here were less than desirable would be an understatement.
In traditional Chinese fashion, the round table contained plates on a rotating disk for my group to share. As a vegetarian, it at first was unsettling to see that the choices before me were duck tongues (in a fat-based gelatin, no less), feet, gizzards and hearts.
I went for the gizzards. Not bad.
Yabin Zhang, editor-in-chief of Beijing Youth Daily and chairman of China Open Ltd., hosted the dinner, at a restaurant famous for its Peking Duck, for seven other MU students and me who are here to report at a professional tennis tournament.
Part of my reasoning for eating the meat was courtesy. Our host eagerly explained the dishes and insisted we give them a try. I didn’t want to disappoint him, and really, when was I going to have that opportunity again?
The other more practical reason was that even the vegetarian items on the table were not truly meat-free. I could eat the asparagus, but it was swimming in a duck-based sauce. Most other vegetable dishes were cooked using animal-based products, such as oil.
As we ate dessert, Zhang handed out “commemoration cards” for the ducks on the table. I had eaten the heart of duck No. 129520, and I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty as I stared at its ID card.
That first meal was a crash course in the harsh reality of Beijing: It is more or less impossible to be a vegetarian when eating out. (I took a break from writing this to order a bowl of tofu over rice — seemingly meat-free until I spotted pork nuggets.)
More importantly, it is hard to be vegetarian when eating with others. In China, meals are just as much about socializing as eating. And in family-style Chinese dining, meal options are dictated less by individual taste and more by the appetite of the group as a whole.
The dilemma of being a vegetarian among meat eaters is nothing new to me. Trips home during holidays always are complicated. I am the only vegetarian in a family of people who eat meat almost daily, and they frankly don’t care to cater to my diet.
But does my family, and many others in the U.S., really need to eat meat so often?
It’s easy to answer no, but meat’s accessibility — especially compared to half a century ago — sure is appealing. And we have factory-style farming to thank.
In short, factory farming renders livestock as cogs in a machine to maximize production. It undoubtedly is efficient, but animal welfare is an afterthought. They are confined to unnaturally small spaces and are given enhancements to defy nature — hens laying more than 250 eggs per year, for example.
As a result, meat output has increased exponentially, thereby driving down cost and making it more available. However, the total number of farms in the U.S. is decreasing, as agriculture becomes more a corporate than individual practice.
Additionally, a high concentration of livestock, such as hens and pigs, ramps up food-safety risks and pollution. If farms are multiplying the animal population, where do you think all that waste goes?
The discourse about factory farming in the U.S. has been going on for a long time already, but the concept is relatively new in China. Although the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported China’s factory-farming output is proportionally less than the U.S., it is following America’s example. Meat consumption in China has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
In 2008, University of Houston professor Peter Li told Brighter Green, a New York-based sustainability group, that when he was a child in southeast China, people were allotted one pound of pork per month as part of government sanctions under Mao Zedong.
Li went on to suggest people now are “eating meat in revenge” for the government’s policies in the past. Production has increased to meet the demand, such as pork, which has seen a more than threefold increase in production over the past 30 years.
The meat demand, added to population growth and a mushrooming presence of Western fast-food chains, presents a bleak future for China. So though I feel more comfortable today eating meat in China because of its more trustworthy origins, that might not be the case forever. Maybe the days of personal ID cards for ducks are numbered.
But if food culture is so based on what we eat with our friends and families, what we pass on to our children, aren’t we the ones in control of the future?
Basic economics tell us that a sharp decline in demand would put pressure on supply to adjust accordingly. In other words, if more people began to think critically about their meat and where it comes from, maybe we could fuel a paradigm shift in agribusiness that could return it to some incarnation of its past.
In the meantime, eating meat here in Beijing was tasty while it lasted, but I personally am ready to do my part and return to vegetarianism when I get back to Columbia. But I’ll never forget you, duck No. 129520.
Josh Barone, a reporter and designer at the Missourian, is in Beijing covering professional tennis for the China Open 2010 website. For the record, he thought the gizzards were tasty.