US–China Climate Leadership: Can the “Food Superpowers” Collaborate?
In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we are joined by Jennifer Turner, Director of the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum, and Karen Mancl, Wilson Center Fellow and Professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at The Ohio State University. They discuss a new Wilson Center and Ohio State University joint project, Cultivating US and Chinese Climate Leadership on Food and Agriculture. The project “engages with US and Chinese agriculture, food system, and climate experts with two goals in mind: illustrate the complex climate footprint from US and Chinese agriculture and highlight opportunities for bilateral cooperation on policies, projects, and strategies to reduce agriculture’s climate footprint.”
US–China Climate Leadership: Can the “Food Superpowers” Collaborate?
This is an unedited transcript
00:00:11:01 - 00:00:31:04
Hello, I'm John Milewski. Welcome to Wilson Center Now, a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guests today are Jennifer Turner, director of the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum, and Karen Mancl, who is a fellow with that same program, also a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the Ohio State University.
00:00:31:05 - 00:00:58:23
I know, Karen, you appreciate. When I say the like all of the regulars out here at the university. Today we're going to be talking about a project that started back in September of 2022 called Cultivating U.S. Chinese Climate Leadership on Food and Agriculture, a partnership between Ohio State and the Wilson Center. And Jennifer, before we begin digging into the subject matter, could you tell us about the nature of the partnership and the newest publication that is now available?
00:00:58:26 - 00:01:21:03
Well, I've known Karen for about five years now. She actually started off as an intern. That's a longer story. But now we've been we've been working together on a lot on food and and I really wanted to do something on food and climate because of all the greenhouse gases in the world. 31% of it comes from the food supply chain.
00:01:21:06 - 00:01:45:01
And a lot of you know, U.S. and China were, number one greenhouse gas emitters in the world and focus a lot on fossil fuels. But if we ignore the food sector, it's all over this one. I'm guessing that's not commonly and I'm guessing that's not commonly known how big of a role food plays and also not at the China Environment Farm.
00:01:45:01 - 00:02:13:04
I've been really lucky to have a front row seat on US-China climate relations and a lot of other parts of our environmental and energy sector relations and food and agriculture. Food ag have not been part of the climate conversations yet. So mind the gap, the Wilson Center, the Ohio State University, where we're trying to fill it with information and we we over the past year plus we've produced a whole bunch of blogs and webinars and podcasts.
00:02:13:04 - 00:02:35:02
And then finally, just last week, we reduced we've produced our roadmap for us in China to to look at the food and ag sector for a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions and work together. And I want to let our viewers know that's available now online at Wilson Center, Dawg. And if you come to the programs tab and find China Environment Forum, you'll find it.
00:02:35:05 - 00:03:04:04
Karen So coming out of of Cup, we have some new at least intentions stated by an assurance that they will work together and chief among those China and the United States just because of their sheer size them working together is critical. Yes, indeed. And the other thing that we noted in our roadmap is that China and the United States are both food superpowers.
00:03:04:07 - 00:03:38:12
The United States and China produce the most food. And also, China is a big consumer of and the biggest market, actually, for U.S. agriculture. So it's really important to include this them in this food and climate discussion because we're such big players. Jennifer, what should we be optimistic about the potential for collaboration? Is there are there precedents where the two nations have worked together in this way or, you know, what should we expect?
00:03:38:14 - 00:04:03:27
Well, Karen can wax more poetic on this, but I exchanges for the very first exchanges between the U.S. and China after we normalized relations. But the the the unique space of food and agriculture is one that we don't compete except for catfish. Another conversation later on that. But so because as Karen just mentioned, our food sectors, we depend on each other.
00:04:04:00 - 00:04:32:28
And but that that the issue of you know, our main topics we focused on in this first report was soil, rice, food waste and cows. And last time I checked, I don't think there's geostrategic conflicts around soil. Sorry, Karen. She's a soil scientist, not trying to belittle your specialty, but that the idea that this is a kind of safe space where scientists in both countries have been working on some of these issues, the U.S. is maybe we can say ahead and some Chinese others.
00:04:33:01 - 00:05:01:22
But it's it's a it's a space where we can share lessons learned because it benefits both of us. Our countries, the US and China in November did signed a Sunnylands agreement in California about how we're going to restart our climate cooperation. And they do mention food and agriculture. Not a lot of details, but methane is a big concern and there's a lot of methane that comes from rice and cows.
00:05:01:22 - 00:05:21:12
And if you want to get a bowl of rice and talk to Karen about methane emissions from rice, she's well, you know, at the risk of another bad pun here. Well, let's dig in a little bit on some of the details. And and, Karen, let's start with you and soil. Let's talk about what do people need to know about soil and about rice and and how they factor into this equation?
00:05:21:12 - 00:05:43:15
I think when most people think of issues around climate, they don't automatically think of soil. Well, one of the the wonderful things about soil and agriculture is that there's a lot of emphasis on we need to be pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. We there's too much being generated. There's too much in the atmosphere. And guess what?
00:05:43:16 - 00:06:13:20
Nature has developed a very efficient way of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and that is plants. Plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And as those plants develop roots and then they die and decompose that organic matter, that's that's created stores that carbon in the soil. So the the soil is a tremendous carbon sink and one that is really underutilized.
00:06:13:23 - 00:06:55:03
Part of the problem that we have with our modern agriculture and our modern construction practices is that when we disturb the soil, until the soil, we release that that carbon that the plants have pulled in and stored. So in the United States we've heavily promoted the the promoted conservation agriculture, a particular set of practices that encourage the the sequestration of carbon in the soil and about 25% of the farmers in the United States and more practice conservation agriculture.
00:06:55:05 - 00:07:26:06
China is just beginning to look at conservation agriculture as a practice to both improve the quality of the soil and to sequester carbon. Only about 6% of of China's farmland is under conservation agriculture. So it's an area that we can definitely improve. It's been talked about at the COP as as a goal to help to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in the soil.
00:07:26:08 - 00:07:51:07
What is the barrier to doing that that only 6% of farmers in China? Is it a scalable technology? Is are the cost prohibitive? Why isn't that practice more widespread? Well, one of the big obstacles is the equipment, the type of equipment that you need to plant plants in soils, in farmland that has that's undergoing conservation agriculture. You need different types of equipment.
00:07:51:11 - 00:08:20:00
You need a different type of planter. And the United States, we started developing these planters, you know, right after the dustbowl days when we started to look at conservation agriculture to help to protect our soils. And these planters were developed. But China has a different style of agriculture, and they couldn't use our equipment. So it took some efforts through the Chinese Agricultural University to develop the types of planters.
00:08:20:01 - 00:08:42:27
So those have been developed now, and they're starting to be demonstrated and distributed throughout the country so that farmers have the right tools. But it also takes a different approach to farming. So so in terms of teaching farmers, I'd kind of a different way to farm. In the States. We have the Cooperative Extension Service that teaches farmers in China.
00:08:42:27 - 00:09:07:05
They have a slightly different approach to teaching farmers, but it's getting the information out to teach them this new way of farming. They are. Jennifer, I'm sorry, Go ahead. Please go ahead. Well, the other concern is you don't in China, they're very, very concerned about growing enough food to feed their very large population and they can't afford to lose any yield.
00:09:07:08 - 00:09:31:22
And at first, when you when you switch over from this conventional farming to conservation agriculture, the yield can drop for a few years until you build up the the quality of the soil. And there's a certain amount of resistance to adopting this new way of farming. If you're going to do more work and not grow as much and that change never goes down easily right?
00:09:31:24 - 00:09:50:25
No matter who we're talking about, farmers are no exception. So Karen, earlier, Jennifer mentions Rice as one of the things highlighted in the new paper and in the focus of your work. What is it about Rice in particular? Is it is it the crop itself or is it the amount that's being produced? Well, rice is a very interesting crop.
00:09:50:28 - 00:10:20:07
Rice is grown in wet soils, flooded fields. And when you flood a field to grow a plant and as those plants, you know, grow and produce the rice and then the the roots and the other plant material starts to decompose. This is in a kind of a swamp like environment. And one of the things that's liberated in swamps is a swamp gas, which is essentially methane.
00:10:20:10 - 00:10:49:21
So, in fact, the Chinese word for swamp gas for methane is swamp gas. So so methane is liberated in the natural production of rice because it's grown in these wet soils. So rice is the number one emitter of methane of all of the of greenhouse gases, of all the different grades. So it's a small problem, the United States, because we don't grow a lot of rice in the United States.
00:10:49:28 - 00:11:12:03
But in China, China is the number one rice grower in the in the world. So there's a great opportunity to perhaps change the way they grow rice in order to reduce the amount of methane. Why is methane important when you look at the greenhouse gas potential of carbon dioxide? We'll call that one. If you look at the greenhouse gas potential of methane, it's like 80.
00:11:12:05 - 00:11:35:16
So it's way more powerful. So, so liberating, you know, having methane moving up into the atmosphere has a very big impact on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Speaking of of of methane, Jennifer, and this division of labor and what you're focusing on, I know you're going to talk to us about food waste and cows and cows, another major emitter of methane.
00:11:35:18 - 00:11:55:23
Well, first, before I go, though, I want to mention that we we did while we were doing our research and we finding people for our podcast, we did discover a group of Chinese researchers and some US researchers that were working on a kind of perennial rice rice. So you don't have to replant it every year. And they were also looking into the climate benefits.
00:11:56:00 - 00:12:17:22
So, you know, we named that podcast the same as our chapter we call Rice the Sticky Climate Challenge. We've got we have more bad that one can bear. So we like we yeah, well, you know that the the methane footprint of cows is a big one. I mean, cows, the most of methane comes from their burps like 97%.
00:12:17:24 - 00:12:53:03
The other end little bit their manure also a fair amount. But but what's what's interesting is that we found that both in the US and China, there were scientists who were well, particularly over the past four years, who had to go back to independently researching. I think there were a lot of these groups were partners before, but because of COVID and politics, they weren't working together but looking at different ways how to approach this well, different additives to the food, red seaweed, the timing of the food, how to deliver these kind of additives, you know, either like Salt Lake type things up breeding.
00:12:53:06 - 00:13:18:10
So it's really interesting how that in both countries. Well, well, well, in China, the government is not yet heavily prioritizing agricultural climate emissions yet. I mean, more so on food waste and on fertilizers, you know, because they really see, you know, the big the big elephant in the room for climate change for them is coal. Yeah, but but in the you know but in that but still there are scientists that are working on this.
00:13:18:14 - 00:13:47:00
And I think the scientists in China, when we had conversations with them, seemed to indicate like they're ready for it. Right. When the government says we're doing cows, they say we're here at the dairy, we're doing it. And but California in particular has been really big, not just with the scientists, but their emission trading system there also includes agriculture, so that there's financial incentives to encourage dairies to try low methane cow raising methods.
00:13:47:02 - 00:14:11:29
And that's a kind of a bigger piece that we want to, you know, take a bite out of later in our future work is looking at how do we finance a lot of these good scientific ideas, similar to what I asked Karen earlier about race. Jennifer, I want to ask you about food waste. Is the problem that if we wasted less and we'd have to grow less and we'd be dealing less problems with soil and all the other, is that it?
00:14:11:29 - 00:14:30:15
Is that what we actually do? One third of the food that the world produces is lost or wasted losses, referring to what happens on the farm when it rots or doesn't get to the market. The waste look in the mirror, everybody. It's the people. It's the restaurants. It's the hotels. After the consumer gets it that we just we don't start.
00:14:30:15 - 00:14:58:19
Well, whatever. And if if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emissions in the world. China's first US second, food waste third. And so it's, you know, this is the low hanging fruit, though, because food waste, I mean, there are I mean, industries often need to be kind of engaged on this because you can't just go around blaming the consumers because sometimes the infrastructure is not there to collect your food waste to compost it.
00:14:58:21 - 00:15:27:12
But a lot of like the West Coast states have been working with WWF and a group called Reef Fed about how they could come up with, you know, working to incentivize industries to the restaurant industry and others to do more to reduce food waste. And it's and it's a total win because it's like if you're wasting the food that you're producing, you're losing money and the world loses water and soil farmers waste there, it's it's a real no brainer.
00:15:27:12 - 00:15:51:24
And this is another area where I think the U.S. and China could be sharing lessons learned. China actually is one of the few countries in the world that actually passed an anti food waste law two years ago. I mean, it used to be kind of a campaign and, you know, campaigns and they don't necessarily last forever, but they are getting much more serious and trying to come up with better ways of collecting and sorting the waste that they get.
00:15:51:24 - 00:16:14:26
And so it's it's kind of exciting. So I think that this is, you know, in some ways you could say we're on equal footing. And while China is, you know, 1.4 billion people, so a lot more than us, but per capita, the Chinese are almost the same as the U.S. now in terms of food waste. I want to ask both of you a question that I'll apologize in advance, because it's somewhat unanswerable, because it's a it's a mystery question.
00:16:14:26 - 00:16:36:00
But in the short time we've been speaking here today, both of you have made a compelling arguments about how if we're going to be talking about climate, we need to be talking about these things that aren't the headlines where usually our focus is on fossil fuels. And my question is, if this is such a significant piece of the puzzle, why aren't we talking about it more?
00:16:36:03 - 00:16:58:00
And I know that's a difficult question to answer, but I'd be one of our colleagues, Ruth Greenspan. Bell has looked at behavior and attitudes toward climate. She's thinking about a book about this, about why people are unmotivated, to do the things that might create the most impact. And so I know it's a difficult question to answer, but I'd just be interested in in both of your thoughts on this.
00:16:58:02 - 00:17:21:03
And is it a growth area? Is this becoming more and more part of the conversation? I mean, at the last, as you mentioned, the beginning of it, food is on the climate negotiation table. You know, back it started about 20 years ago. There was some discussions, but now it was right at one of the main declarations was on food and Climate, which the US and China signed on with 150 plus other countries.
00:17:21:06 - 00:17:52:28
We committed ourselves that now in our climate action plans we have to show we have to walk the walk and actually have policies and targets to what to do on food waste or food, you know, other greenhouse gas emissions should. I should point out here, though, that under the Biden administration, with all the, you know, the two main infrastructure bills and the and the IRA it had in there infrastructure investments for food and ag and climate, in fact, the USDA probably had to double check this.
00:17:52:28 - 00:18:24:06
I think it's the largest, largest grant program that they've ever started. Right, Karen? It's called Climate Smart Agriculture. So trying to not only look at, you know, everything from cows to rice and soil, but but, you know, supporting companies, NGOs, farmers and farming groups to do some experiments, but also, you know, so encourage the science, encourage better practices and to incentivize action here because in the end, as Karen was talking about, like if you protect the soil, it keeps carbon.
00:18:24:06 - 00:18:47:16
It but it also, you know, makes your soil richer and it helps guarantee food security. It's a crazy win win, win win. And I think its day has come. I don't care. Am I too optimistic? I think one of the problems that we have in terms of thinking about food and food production is that people are kind of removed from food and food production.
00:18:47:19 - 00:19:21:10
You know, when I first traveled to China in the early 2000s, more than half of the population lived in the countryside and worked on farms. And even in China, more and more people are moving to the city. In the United States, we have such a small percentage of our population that are involved in food production. So some of it might just be that where, you know, a few generations away from the farm, you know, we forget about the impact that that particular part of our society can have on reducing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
00:19:21:12 - 00:19:43:09
What you know, we are all involved in eating the food. And so I wonder on the on the cultural level, how sensitive it is to start to talk about how nations construct their dinner tables. And, you know, it gets it's it's like what you see with fossil fuels, right? People don't want to be told how much to drive or what to drive.
00:19:43:11 - 00:20:17:05
Do we have similar barriers at play here? But one of the really interesting things that I saw as I've been working with China over the last few past many years is that food waste was not a big issue in China for for, you know, a thousand years. They were had a very circular economy. The you know, any wick food that was quote wasted was either diverted to animal feed or became fertilizer.
00:20:17:08 - 00:20:53:12
And so so China was actually quite aware of how important keeping food from being wasted was, is that it was, you know, an important part of animal feed and also also important fertilizer. During the Green Revolution in the 1980s and the introduction of of high yielding plants and fertilizers, all of a sudden, the need to collect and apply organic fertilizer started to diminish and more and more food was starting to get wasted.
00:20:53:14 - 00:21:27:17
But the big change came a few years ago when a big disease problem hit China. African Swine fever. Swept through China and we published a blog on this. And at more than a quarter of the pigs in China died and of African swine fever. And China is the number one pork producer in the world. So that was a very, very serious problem in terms of food security and food loss.
00:21:27:20 - 00:21:59:04
But when they were looking for why, why did this disease spread, they found that food waste could contain the virus. So they changed their policies and outlawed feeding food waste to animals. So overnight, what was not a food waste problem suddenly became a food waste problem. They all this, all the restaurant waste and all the the the food in the villages that were all collected and fed to animals suddenly was being wasted.
00:21:59:07 - 00:22:20:19
And so, you know, the unintended consequences of a, you know, a government policy, we kind of see this all the time. So they thought they were solving one problem and then they created a different problem. Now, that doesn't mean that we can't treat the food ways to make sure that it doesn't spread disease. And we can we do that type of research in the United States, and they're starting to do that type of research in China.
00:22:20:21 - 00:22:46:29
And why it's so important for the intellectual capacity of these two food superpowers to work together to try to solve some of these really important climate problems. Jennifer, I've known you long enough to know that you are an optimist and a positive person by nature, but any discussion of climate, there's a ticking clock in the background, right? Are we moving quickly enough to mitigate the worst outcomes?
00:22:47:02 - 00:23:06:26
And I wonder, even though this is a growth industry that you're talking about, a focus on food as it relates to climb, but are we scaling up, Are we moving quickly enough? Are things happening in a way where we can be optimistic? I mean, it is really encouraging, like what we've been seeing in the U.S. I mentioned the the investments into climate smart agriculture.
00:23:06:26 - 00:23:26:26
But even more important is looking at the trends of the states, not just California, but even in the Midwest, where there are examples where, you know, you know, farmers are no dummies, right? You know, they see that, you know, the need to protect their soil is important. And that's why we have a fairly high rate of no till and and a little bit more openness to these practices.
00:23:27:01 - 00:23:50:12
But again, they're not always billed as being climate smart agriculture because it kind of makes whatever everyone else is doing, this climate don't know. But but the idea that protecting the soil, protecting your yields that those you know, that kind of language. So it's also about how you're going to approach the farmers. And I think that thing you know, I think, you know, the people that are focusing on encouraging that kind of policies, I think are getting a little bit smarter.
00:23:50:12 - 00:24:10:06
Hopefully they're talking to people like Karen so that people know how to make policies and talk to farmers. I want to say one thing that, you know, in terms of sensitivities. Yes. One thing that when we were talking with our Chinese partners, they told us that one area that sensitive is that Chinese people don't like the idea. If foreigners are coming in to tell them that they shouldn't eat meat.
00:24:10:08 - 00:24:41:22
I would say that's even true in the U.S. People are very protective. You know, I want my beef or whatever. But and so that's why we you know, we're you know, we're very careful. We're not here pointing fingers at individual consumers about their choices. But but there is something different in China, too, as I can say. Now, if I can jump over to the food waste issue, when I was in China in 1980s, as the reforms are taking off and it was a real status symbol that you would order too many food, too much food at a restaurant, and you'd leave food on the plates and it would kill me.
00:24:41:28 - 00:25:10:27
I would bring Tupperware and put it in there like, What are you doing? Like, it's called a doggy bag. Now, people now people, they they box set things up because people are realizing, well, why was I wasting money? And and even under the new policies, both the campaign and the new law that both at national and sometimes at provincial levels, people there's also kind of like a food waste little fee that you get paid and and that restaurants sometimes won't allow you to order more than one dish for the number of people that are at the table.
00:25:10:27 - 00:25:32:09
I mean, it's really it's kind of like, you know, mama Beijing telling you what to do. But at the same time, it does educate the population. Yeah. Know, if they had met my grandmother ahead of her time, just leaving food on my plate was like a capital offense, which explains a lot. Anyway, thank you, both of you. This has been a fascinating conversation before we close.
00:25:32:12 - 00:25:48:29
I'm smart enough to know what I don't know. And so we've talked about a lot, but are there important things we haven't touched on that you think are important to mention before we we close out? And maybe one of those things would be a bit of a plug. Tell us about what you have coming up and what resources are available on your website.
00:25:49:05 - 00:26:17:02
Well, actually, I mean, this video will be out by then. But but tonight, I'm having a conversation with two American and two Chinese food waste experts. We're having an evening webinar. It will be on our website talking about, you know, putting food on the climate action table in the U.S. and China. But also, if you want to if you if you don't want to go looking around our website, just type in cool Agriculture Wilson Center and you'll get to a whole collection page of a lot of our blogs.
00:26:17:06 - 00:26:41:05
Karen's written lots of them. She's very prolific blogs, webinars, podcasts. Our report were, and we're constantly going to be adding to this, and we're hoping now we're going to expand more into looking at like transport of food, you know, you know, EV tractors, you know, cold chain, subnational cooperation. It's like the field is huge, John, for areas that we could work on in this.
00:26:41:05 - 00:27:07:18
And, you know, at the Wilson Center, we pride ourselves in trying to fight, you know, mind the gaps. Where are there opportunities connecting the dots, connecting the good stuff that we've done that. Terrific. Thanks, Jennifer. Karen, I will give you a final word. What do you know? The Ohio State University gets the final word today. Well, I guess one of the things that I want I also want to say is that when you go to our resources, you'll find many of them are not there in English, but they're also in Chinese.
00:27:07:20 - 00:27:43:09
We produced a series of podcasts and they're both in English and they're in Chinese, and they're not just translated, they're they're original podcasts in Chinese and in English. Our roadmap is right now being put out in Chinese is not, I don't think, posted yet, but it will be. And many of our blogs are also in Chinese. So, you know, we're not just limiting our communication to English language speakers, but we are reaching out to the wider group that are interested in China environment.
00:27:43:11 - 00:28:00:05
Well, sincere thanks to both of you for today, but also for your ongoing work. You know, you're this is really what you're doing. The Wilson Center at its best, right? It's not always chasing headlines, but it's identifying trend lines and really coming up with some stuff that can change our lives for the better in the long run. Thank you very much, Karen Mansell.
00:28:00:07 - 00:28:13:15
Jennifer Turner. To our viewers, we hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll take advantage of those materials on the China Environment Forum website. Until then, for all of us at the Wilson Center, I'm John Molesky. Thank you for your time and interest.
China Environment Forum
Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge U.S.-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues. Read more