Why I’ve become a vegetarian: Chinese filmmaker speaks out about environmental impact of eating meat

Jian Yi, director of 'What's For Dinner?', says he was shocked into becoming a vegetarian by the environmental and animal welfare costs of meat production

Jian Yi, director of ‘What’s For Dinner?’, a film about the meat industry, speaks to Tom Levitt about his own views on China’s burgeoning livestock sector.

Tom Levitt (TL): What inspired you to make this film?

Jian Yi: Before making the film I’d only been vegetarian for a month. Mia MacDonald, founder of New York environmental group Brighter Green got in touch via documentary distributor Karin Chien, asking if I would make a short film on the environmental impact of the meat industry. I didn’t agree right away, as I’d only just become vegetarian and I didn’t think I had enough understanding or experience of the issues. But Mia kept sending me their reports and when I read them carefully I was actually shocked. I’d never thought about how something as basic as what we eat could affect us so much. If we don’t reconsider and make some changes, nature will sooner or later take its revenge. So I decided I would make the film, using the opportunity to explore this issue and bring it to wider attention. 

TL: What did you learn or come to understand through making this film?

JY: It turned me into a staunch vegetarian. Before it’d just been a little lifestyle experiment, I wasn’t sure how long I’d stick with it. After making the film, there was no going back. There’s no way my conscience would let me sit down and eat the flesh of an animal and think there wasn’t any harm being done. When I realise that we, humanity, have better options, how can I kill animals just to keep myself fed? How could I not remember that our appetites result in livestock suffering? How could I pretend the environmental damage was nothing to do with me? I can’t do that.

Who in the film had the greatest impact on you?

JY: The vegetarians we interviewed, people like Xie Zheng and Dr Yu. Both because they were actually taking action to demonstrate better ways of living, and because with their support my wife and I were able to have a vegetarian wedding and raise a vegetarian child. When society as a whole lacks understanding of healthy and green eating habits, support from friends like that is invaluable.

TL: How aware do you think the Chinese people are of the issues covered in the film?

JY: The vast majority aren’t aware of the effect of the meat industry on the environment. It’s important information, easily found online. So why haven’t they seen it? Humans can have a kind of selective blindness sometimes, not just in China but everywhere. And our social values still favour money, enjoyment, quick rewards. Civil society is weak, there’s little space for public debate, and many more obvious environmental issues aren’t being taken seriously either, never mind the more easily ignored impact of the meat industry.

What I want to say is that even if people are aware, that doesn’t mean they’ll do anything. There are examples all around us. Unlike driving cars and shopping, which also affect the environment, eating is something that everyone does, that is very close to everyone’s hearts, it’s both a very personal and very public matter. What we choose to put in our mouths is a very personal matter. You can see this in the attitude my parents have to our raising our child as a vegetarian. They can accept our own choices for ourselves, but they’re strongly against us making the same choice for our child. They think it’s like we’re carrying out an experiment. (Or put it another way, they’ve been captured by mainstream views of meat-eating and are trying to impose that on our child).

But there’s also a public aspect to eating. When food is grown or raised, harvested, processed, or sold, this is a societal matter How do these processes affect society as a whole and us as individuals? That’s something we still need to take a closer look at.

For vegetarians that lack of understanding, even opposition, from other people and even loved ones, is not necessarily a bad thing. What’s worse is a lack of concern. Opposition at least drives us to think about why and what we eat, and how we eat it. To better understand how this affects us and our world. If vegetarians can look at animals, can look at the world, with compassion – why can’t we do the same for other people who haven’t reached the same stage of understanding we have?

TL: What factors do you think are increasing meat consumption in China?

JY: I was amazed by the impact the meat industry has on the environment we live in, but what worried me more is that in China, with one fifth of the world’s people, meat production is going to expand and become more intensified in line with economic growth. There’s plenty of research showing that this, coupled with China’s huge population, will be hugely bad news for human health, animal welfare, food security, climate change, and many other fields. And the root cause of this is the changing values of the Chinese people.

In the last thirty years China has been powered by economic growth. Reforms have remolded Chinese society and our values. Our self-worth is now defined by our ability to consume. But the market reforms have been incomplete: we still lack the rule of law and the transparency associated with markets, leading to our current economic structure and distorted social development. Economic development can influence politics in the West too, but China’s challenge is that the ruling party and the government are bound together. Government legitimacy rests almost solely on economic growth. So the government has to push GDP growth and make economic activity the dominant role in the people’s lives. All social activity becomes about the economy. It’s like instant noodles – all calories, no nutrition.

The sudden acquisition of wealth and disposable resources has made the Chinese people, emerging from the planned economy’s low standard of living, think that the individual is now in charge of their own lives. And to an extent that’s true, we have money, we can travel or even emigrate, we have money to fulfill our ownership urges, we can eat delicacies from all over the world, drive sports cars and sail yachts, fly private planes. If you’ve got the money, you can do what you want, and it all seems great.

But all these material possibilities have been accompanied by deterioration in the environment we live in, and humanity’s future looks under threat. When we use the language of economics to describe the world, when we use our material possessions to understand ourselves, of course we can’t hear the cries of the animals, the complaints of nature, or the sighs of future generations. 

Were you a vegetarian before making the film?

JY: I’ve been vegetarian for five years. Five years ago my wife and I saw a couple we were friends with living a life of tranquility and moderation, and that inspired us to cut out meat. That was how it started. Then I took on this film and decided to stick with it. I mentioned this earlier.

I’d decided to go vegetarian before that, and that lasted for a year.

That time it was coming up to the Chinese New Year of 2005. I was filming a rural family that was being resettled. They were very poor; they had nothing but some cast-off furniture and a hen. That hen was so precious to them it had spent its whole life tied to the leg of the kitchen table. And as they were being resettled, they decided to kill it for the New Year dinner. And the guy, with his first swing he cut the bird’s throat, then on the second he cut the rope it was tied up with. And that made me think. I wasn’t religious then, but the fate of that hen for some reason made me think of our own fates. Are we only set free from our own fetters when we die? That made me decide to eat vegetarian for a year. But I never thought about it further, so I didn’t stick with it.

There was something else that happened in between which made me go vegetarian again. In 2008 I was in New York, eating dinner with a group of international friends. A chicken dish came out and someone said it was really good. And because in English they use the same word for ‘chicken’ and ‘chicken meat’, it sounded for a moment to me like she was saying the chicken was very good for having allowed us to eat its meat. For people, there’s no difference between a chicken and its meat. For diners, a chicken’s life has no value, the only value is when it’s served up as meat. I was eating a lot of meat at the time, and that was a shocking thought.

That reminds me of something a vegetarian friend, Brian, told me. His four-year-old daughter is proud to be a vegetarian, as it means she doesn’t love the cute animals in the cartoons one minute, then turn around and use a real animal for food the next.

Is the film aimed mainly at those living in the cities, where consumption of meat is much higher? 

JY: The film isn’t for anyone in particular. But it’s more likely that people in cities will see it. As for the differing levels of meat consumption between the cities and rural areas, I haven’t looked into that, so I can’t say for sure. But from what I’ve seen, more meat is being eaten in the rural areas than in the past. And that’s even more the case in the cities. People have more purchasing power, salaries are higher, so in the cities people expect to eat meat. For restaurant owners different types of meat, and in particular exotic types, sell well and allow for much more profit than vegetarian dishes. So restaurants will try to tempt and encourage people to eat more meat.