Shaping China’s Future Food System: Jian Yi, Founder of the Good Food Fund

Jian Yi is the founder of The Good Food Fund, a Chinese NGO that takes a holistic approach to protecting the environment by examining food systems and climate change. In this interview, Sentient Media’s Executive Director, Ana Bradley, explores the history of food in China, the need for a global solution for our broken food systems, and Jian Yi’s thoughts on the future of food. 

Ana Bradley: Hello, and welcome to the Sentient Media podcast where we’re going to meet people who are changing the way we think about and interact with our world. It’s December 17, 2020. And today we’re going to take a critical look at our food system with Jian Yi, who’s in southwestern China. 

Jian Yi is an award-winning independent filmmaker. He’s also an artist and writer. He has a master’s degree in International Peace Studies, an MA in international journalism, and he’s founder of the Good Food Fund, which is how I first encountered his work. He recently took part in the Financial Times piece about how China is waking up to the need for a greener diet. 

Jian Yi ties together the need for policymakers to take a more holistic approach to protecting the environment, and looks at food sustainability as a whole with a critical analysis of our food system. And just now in November, the Good Food fund held its annual summit, I believe it was its third annual summit, where 30,000 online attendees could hear lectures on the relationship between food systems and climate change. And watch live stream footage from various organic farms in southwest China. 

So first of all, I want to say a massive Welcome to Jian Yi. And thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule, I really appreciate having you here. 

Jian Yi: Thank you, Ana, my pleasure to be here. 

Ana: Congratulations on your event. I wanted to ask you,, were you expecting such a large audience? Did it go how you were planning? 

Jian Yi: Not really actually, I would like to correct the number. Actually, we had about more than 320,000 people watching it, which is the largest crowd ever for our summit. And also for the topic. We had three editions before that. They were always onsite, offline. So we usually have about 300 people attending onsite. But this is the first time because of COVID, we can get a lot of large crowds together at the same place. So we decided to do it online, and surprisingly, it has a very good reception

Ana: Where were your attendees from? Was it largely a Chinese audience, or was it global, with the speakers from across the world? 

Jian Yi: We do. We did have some listeners from abroad. But the event was live-streamed on a Chinese platform, Baidu, which is Chinese Google. So we think most of our audience are based in China. 

Ana: That’s amazing. And was there any action? Did you kind of feel like you got the message you wanted to get across to this audience? Because they must have been a very, you know, a diverse group with so many people, there must have been so many differing opinions. 

Jian Yi: Yeah, right. Well, the good thing about live streams is that you can reach out to a really large number of people. The downside of it is that you don’t have much interaction, because it’s basically feeding, you know, to them.

So we did have questions in the chatbox. But we didn’t have much of an interaction. And then number is the added number for the two days. So for like, any given time, we didn’t have that many people, I think, at any given time, we had about somewhere between 20,000 to 90,000. 

Ana: That’s amazing. 

Jian Yi: Yeah, yeah, it’s China. But still, you know, for a topic like this, you don’t usually expect a lot of audience. 

Ana: Do you think that that’s got something to do with COVID? Do you think that people are kind of realizing we need to start looking more critically at the food system? 

Jian Yi: I would say yes, for two reasons. One is that, you know, definitely people’s awareness for health and for our risks, has increased significantly since the outbreak of COVID. You know, for myself, I’m in my mid-40s. I lived through these three decades of high speed of economic growth here in China. So you have this either consciously or subconsciously, optimism, about progress. Because, you know, for, tomorrow, you’re gonna get richer tomorrow, there’ll be more cars in the street corner, you know, more things to buy. So that optimism was there for quite a while. And, and this came. 

Ana: I’m curious about the representation in the media. So the way that the media is represented for different countries, you know, what we see reported in China is different from what you see reported in China, in the U.S. in the U.K. And one thing that I’ve seen reported from China is the rapid build of multi-story factory farms for pigs. And that was reported as being basically like an answer to things like COVID, and to what’s viewed as the unsanitary, you know, wet market setup, is that an accurate portrayal of how it’s being presented to the Chinese people?

Jian Yi: That’s partially true, because, you know, like any other countries in the world, many, many parts of the world today, there are different forces pushing for different directions in this country, you know, they are people who have much better awareness of what’s going on in our world and want to bring change to this world and to our own country. And definitely, that force is there, and it’s very obvious, so you can see that in many, many young people, many, many people like my age or older, but at the same time, you know, there are other forces that are pushing us further away. And, and this, unfortunately, you know, these forces are happening at the same time, and I believe that’s humanity, that’s our civilization, you always have these contending forces at any given time, you know, there’s no perfect, ideal world. 

So that’s true in that sense. And also, as we always say, in Chinese it takes a much longer time for a big ship to make a turn, than a smaller boat, for example. So factory farms were not built overnight here. It was also a very gradual process that people realized, oh, we have to eat more meat and what should we do? Okay, let’s build more farms, where we can put a lot of more animals and we can throw this animal there in the smallest possible space, and then, you know, whatever you can do, like machines, they can, you know, produce those meat for us. So that mentality has developed over the last few decades, you know, that was what happened. And that trend is still there. 

But we are quite optimistic about future changes, because, number one, you know, there’s no way we can sustain this way. I mean, this one, you know, this, there will be time when we feel like we’re hitting on the wall. And second, is that people’s awareness, about worse health, about the environment, and about our own consciousness, you know, as humanity.

Ana: Yeah. So you’re talking about the optimism there, I understand that you’re a government-backed organization, right?

Jian Yi: Yeah, we are an organization that carries the title “China,” in the name. So not all organizations can carry that word in there. The name of the organization, we are not a governmental organization, we are still an NGO, but we are a government accredited national organization.

Ana: Yeah. And Xi Jinping has decided now to announce the plan to reduce or to create carbon neutrality by 2060. Do you have any kind of inclination as to why he’s decided to make that announcement now?

Jian Yi: Yeah. Well, I mean, COVID, has changed a lot of things. As we said earlier, one of the things that targeted change is that, you know, China has been so heavily relying on globalization, right? We are one of the countries that really benefited from globalization, in the past few decades, and COVID has brought that to a different perspective. Number one is that, you know, China itself has stopped a lot of the, you know, the trading and also businesses. And that actually was a big blow on our exports and imports. And secondly, because of this tension between the states, because of COVID, and or trade, tension and trade disputes, and all the things that made the Chinese government realize that we have to be more self-reliant than before. And of course, food is a very, very important part of being self-reliant for our nation. So that’s why I think the government has, you know, repeatedly talked about self-reliance on food, so we can produce our own food so we will be able to live. We should be able to feed ourselves and not rely too heavily on imported foods. And talking about carbon neutrality, the President actually surprised all of us. We knew that, you know, we kind of expected China would take more leadership, especially during this very difficult year to really help further the multilateralism in the world because the, you know, what the U.S. have been doing, and Trump has been doing so China, we feel that China will do more to strengthen multilateralism. But we didn’t expect that level of commitment. So that actually really surprised us. And in a good way, that Chinese President Xi Jinping had made that commitment. So we try to connect to that commitment by contributing what we can do in the food space to help China achieve that goal.

Ana: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, because China, as you’re saying, is focussing on getting independence, in terms of control over your own food supply, it’s like China has really close connections and ownership over a lot of meat plants and production in the U.S. in Brazil. You know, the demand for pork is driving a lot of exports. I’ve heard you say, food sustainability is a global problem. What do you think? Like, how can we globally solve this problem? What do you think we need to do?

Jian Yi: Well, I think first countries have to take leadership, especially big countries, countries that have a big impact on the rest of the world, like China, U.S., and European countries and other big nations, big producers, and consumers. But that is not enough, leadership is not enough, we have to build a mechanism for countries to work together. Because it’s not enough for one or two countries to take that leadership, while the other countries are not doing anything, or not doing enough. So we have to have a global mechanism where all nation-states can contribute to what we usually say are game-changing solutions, or big solutions, where we can all work together. So we were happy to see the new election in the U.S., we might be able to see, we don’t know, you know, but we hope we will be able to see some policy changes in the U.S., which is, you know, very, very important.

Ana: Yeah, it’s good to see. And I am hopeful as well and have some optimism about this global solution. And actually, with COVID, it’s an opportunity, and everybody’s paying attention. I think for the first time, you know, at least in my life, it seems that the globe is aligning to realize what the real problems are with our food system. But I’m really curious about the history looking at China. So, you know, for a lot of people who follow the whole food plant-based diet, like, you know, The China Study by Colin Campbell is obviously, you know, a go-to book, they appreciate, you know, the representation of the peasant diet, the appreciation of rice and tofu. And you kindly sent me your paper, “Eating as an Act of Civility,” and in there you were talking about the 1910 approach, or the 1910s approach, where you had the elite in China leading a vegan vegetarian movement, compared to the 2010 approach, where you have more of like the people themselves leading this movement. I was wondering if you could shed some more light on the history of veganism and what role it plays in Chinese society.

Jian Yi: Yeah. I’m glad you have read the paper that I wrote, it’s long. But I think I made some important points there. That’s like the first paper ever to write about the 2010 movement here in China, which I call “the new Chinese vegetarian or vegan movement” because in Chinese we don’t have a word distinguishing vegetarian or vegan. So, I might use these two words interchangeably. 

So I call it the second wave in modern Chinese history because the first one happened in the 1910s, led by the revolutionaries like the founding father of the Chinese Republic, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, and as a part of their efforts to build a Chinese nation-state. China had just got out of the dynasties and was trying to build a republic. And so they thought vegetarianism could strengthen the Chinese nation because it’s pure and healthy. It’s amazing, you know, the readout is their understanding of bioterrorism more than 100 years ago, now. And on the other hand, simply because they believe that vegetarianism would build a stronger Chinese nation, then China would be able to win what was then a zero-sum game international contests, right, because back then it’s imperialism, or this world wars later on. 

This was a harsh time, you know, in terms of the international environment for the new nation-states like China. So, they believed that was a good way for us to win that competition. But 100 years later, we face a very different international kind of challenge. 

The challenge came less from things like imperialism or invasion from other nation-states, but more from problems that actually we all have to confront, as nation-states, like climate change, right, like, biodiversity loss, and public health, I know these issues, they are global. 

So we had to work together, it’s not a zero-sum game anymore, this is something that all of us have to be part of the solution. So both movements actually had their inspirations from overseas. The first one also came from evidence-based science from overseas back then in the 1910s. And the second one, as I analyzed in my paper, was inspired by environmental, vegetarianism. And also books, like “The China Study,” as you mentioned, and also Earthlings which came out in the 2000s. So, that was like the right time for many Chinese people to wake up to that issue. And secondly, because China’s economic development came after 1992. So in the 2000s, we had more than 15 years of really high speed, economic growth. And the good side of it is that it really elevated a lot of people out of poverty, but on the downside, we have seen really, really grave environmental degradation, and also a degradation of our health. So the many, many issues that actually came out, only after we have benefited from this high speed of economic growth. So that made me rethink, you know, what went wrong. And so vegetarianism in the 2010s was actually one of our responses to that question, What went wrong? And it proved that actually, by simply changing the way we relate to food, we can change a lot. And we can actually find answers to that question, What went wrong? So that’s interesting. 

And then second thing I would like to say, you know, you mentioned about traditions and the legacy of the Chinese culture from the past, actually, in Chinese history, as you read through different papers about vegetarianism in Chinese history, the layman was strongly influenced by Chinese Buddhism, which actually draws a very clear line between meat-based food and plant-based foods, but man fought for centuries among people who are outside that circle. 

For people who are not Buddhist monks, they didn’t naturally draw a very clear distinction between the two. So for us, we call it Su, which is the word that we use now for vegetarian or vegan, back then actually, for laypeople, it meant food that can make your body lighter, you know, that’s healthy and light. But that did not necessarily mean they were 100 percent plant-based. 

It’s only in the 1910s, during the first movement, and in the 2010, the second movement, the people who are outside the religious circle, started to draw that distinction. So that’s a very interesting thing that had been overlooked by many people who studied Chinese traditions and cultures about vegetarianism. So I think that’s a significant thing about both moments 100 years apart.

Ana: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Thanks for shedding some more light on that. This brings two things to mind. One is that obviously, the consumption of meat in China accounts for a third, or nearly a third of the whole global consumption of meat, right? How did we get to that point where, you know, whether it’s religion or health, or all these other aspects that were encouraging Chinese people to eat more plant-based and even, you know, my experience in China is that there are always plants, there’s always rice, there’s always tofu on the table, you know, and meat often forms like, you know, an additional little extra portion, at least in my experience, like how did we get to this point where we are now, do you think?

Jian Yi: That’s absolutely true. Meat was like a decoration on the plate, you know, plants were at the center of our plate for centuries. Although you know, in festivals, you would have tended to have more meat and more animal-based food as a celebration. And also, I would argue that you know, the reason that we have been predominantly plant-centric, we follow a dominantly plant-centric diet is that we have been an agricultural nation for centuries. So, as a nation, you know, that the Han Chinese, which is the dominant ethnic ethnicity in China, which accounts for I would say, probably 98 percent of the population, we have always been an agricultural nation for centuries. And as an agricultural nation, we were actually bound to our land. We knew that resources are finite, so that, in a very idea of finite resources, actually was very precious that we should have carried today. But back then, you know, we knew that resources are finite, we’re bound our land, our sons, our children and grandchildren will be using the same land, we will have to rely on the same land if there were no wars or other things that, that we had to leave that land, otherwise, we were, you know, rely on the land for generations. So we had that mentality of stewardship, actually, which is the center of why and how we formed our diet because we knew that the most efficient way to feed ourselves was to feed ourselves directly, instead of feeding animals and then have animals feed us, you know, that’s a very stupid way as you will have finite resources. 

Of course, there are other limitations that made us this way, but I think that thing in the center of our culture, the stewardship of land, unfortunately, we lost that, you know, so I think that’s the one reason that we’ve been eating so much, because we lost our connection with land, with our food. And then if you can’t see your land, if you can’t see your food, you don’t know where food comes from, you don’t have that boundary, you know, that boundary with your land, and you don’t form that stewardship, with the resources and the precious land that has been feeding us. And the second reason we started to eat more meat, as our economy started to take off in the 1990s. I would argue that hardly anyone started with an evil mind saying, Oh, I had to ruin the environment or hadn’t ruined my own health or I have to kill you know, all these millions of animals? I don’t think so. You know, because back then, what they had in mind is that we want a good life. And then what is a good life? All right, okay, prosperity. What is prosperity? dinner table. What would you do if we had no dinner table? Well, you know, what we want is to eat like festivals every day. And while it was not possible, now, it’s possible because they are so factory farms and they can produce this cheap meat. And they produce this, you know, stuff that is harmful for our body, but they’re cheap. They’re available. And we didn’t realize they were bad for us. We didn’t realize they were bad for the environment. And we didn’t see that they were bad for the animals. Because they were hiding somewhere and we never really see them. 

I don’t think that anyone really started with a bad intention. You know, I can blame anyone who wants to just have a good life and have prosperity. But then how we understand the good life, how we define what is a good life, and who defines a good life. I think that’s very important. Can we just let corporations define what is a good life? What is prosperity? We have to take back that ownership of the definition of what a good life is and what prosperity is. And I think that’s why people are changing now because we want to define our own lives. And we want to define what good like we should pursue

Ana: Very well said, I mean, you thrown out so many points there. You know, the idea of vulnerability, like we’re talking about, in the beginning, people realizing that our reliance on a global food system that we have no insight into, there’s no transparency about where we get our food from, there’s no stewardship or relationship to the land. I think it’s coming to the forefront of everybody’s mind now, which is great for people in our field of work, where we want to create transparency and create a better relationship to our food systems and to what’s on our plates. It also reminds me of some of the work in the USA, about transformations with farms. So there’s a lot of groups that are working with ranchers to help them transition from animal agriculture to say mushroom or hemp growing. Is there anything like that in China in the sense of helping people who are currently involved in large-scale factory farm production and helping them transition back to perhaps what they would have been doing in the 1910s, like creating, you know, rice or vegetables…?

Jian Yi: I would say that that kind of change you see more often in smaller farms.

I recall, poverty seems 10 years ago has been a new trend among young people living in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, they were fed up, they were fed up with the food they could get in the cities, and they were fed up the families, the fact that they couldn’t find healthy food that young children, they were like, in their late 20s or early 30s. They have young children to feed. And they’re really fed up about that, and they decided to go back to where they came from. Because they came from probably a smaller city or rural areas, and they came to the biggest cities for education, and they stayed, and they started ecological farming back in their home, hometown, or home village. And, that is actually a trend that’s been going on for a decade now. And these people make you feel very hopeful for the agricultural system because they prove that, you know, one, agriculture doesn’t have to be the way that, you know, we have changed in the last three decades, it can be a good way to show our stewardship to our land, you know, they prove that we can produce healthy food, and sustainable food for people in a way they can sustain. 

It’s not, as people say, inefficient, you can take and produce in an efficient way as well. And that’s one thing. And second thing is that they prove that if you know good agriculture and good production of food can be a lifestyle, it can actually lead to a life that is kind to yourself, to other people and to the earth and to other things. So I think that it’s important to prove that. You can argue that, but it’s another thing is one thing that you argue that, and it’s another thing if you can prove that. So I think that’s very important. 

For as far as the factory farm transformation, unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of that for many different reasons. Number one is that people’s awareness of factory farming is still not very high in the general public, for reasons I will talk about later. And second, is the governments. So government policy is still quite problematic in that sense because government policies still prioritize efficiency and productivity rather than health and system sustainability. So more short-term rather than long-term. So the bigger your farm is, your factory farm is for animals, the more subsidies you can get from the government. There’s no vegan in China because as vegans We actually pay in tax, and some of the tax is going to support these factory farms. Unfortunately, the bigger they are, the more support they get from the government. So that policy has to change and the government, I believe, will see that sooner or later that it’s actually against our interest. 

You know, as a nation, and for our future generations. The first reason that I said that would explain later is that after several years of advocacy, we realize that we had to find a middle path where we can meet the majority of people. As I explained earlier, in traditional Chinese culture, there was not such a big distinction between people who are 100 percent plant-based, and people who are not 100 percent plant-based. But during the 2010s movement, that distinction has become much, much clearer. And, that’s, that’s a good thing and it develops an identity that people can be proud of. For example, I’m proud of the fact that I’m not hurting other animals. I think that’s good, still at the personal level, but at the level of public advocacy, I would argue that will actually counteract all of the efforts that we are making because then it becomes very black and white, you know, it becomes binary. It’s either us or them; the rest of the world. And that creates tension, creates grief, creates distrust. And so the more you talk about these issues, the more people don’t trust you because they think you’re, you’re too radical. 

So for the last three years, I’ve been advocating for ripping off that label, that label of veganism. It’s like, you know, ripping off the label of what’s the word? Sorry, for my English. Feminism. So it’s like ripping off that label of feminism because gender equality concerns all of us. But when you apply label feminism, it seems like it’s only the problem of the women, you know, it has nothing to do with men, and then the man can get away from doing anything. 

Same thing with veganism, you know, people don’t want to talk or think about this issue. They just have simply applied that the label says, Oh, this is vegan propaganda. This is veganism, you know, I don’t want to be part of it. So they just get away from not really doing anything. So we have been trying to rip that label away and say, this is not a problem of the vegans. This is a problem for all of us, you know, look at what risks we’re taking, for public health, for the environment for, you know, for our own very ethics as humanity. So yeah, I think the reason that, you know, factory farming issues are not a very much talked amount, the general public around the mainstream, is that there’s been too much on the side of a too strong association with veganism. Which unfortunately backfires.

Ana: Yeah, I think it’s a really great point where you touched on so many awesome things there. But I wanted to ask you,  I could hear your child in the background. And I think I heard you say in one event that you don’t take your child to the supermarket.

Jian Yi: Yeah, he was born vegan. And my wife, she’s largely vegan. We don’t for example, vegan is not just about food, right? We don’t buy any animal products and you know, not just food but also footwear and other things. He actually, you know, we think he’s a Buddha. You know any child is a Buddha, is an angel, as you say probably the West. Well, I became vegan because of him. So, three months into her pregnancy. My wife was in the hospital, you know, the best private hospital in Beijing and, and we also went to the best public hospital in Beijing for that examination. And we were told by our doctor that our kid would have a very high probability to be a kid with Down syndrome. And that was like the end of the world for me, because it is our first child, I couldn’t remember how I walked out of the hospital that day. I mean, I started to practice Buddhism, three years after I became vegetarian. And I thought it was a good Buddhist, you know, um, then you know, and all this. But when something like this happens, you realize you’re not saying enough, because you feel like you were actually left to confront this reality that life offers you that nobody else can share with you. This is a reality that you have to face, you have to confront, you have to shoulder it properly for the rest of your life if this kid has Down syndrome. And I never had kids before, I didn’t know what that meant. But I knew I was serious stuff. So I went online and looked for information, I couldn’t find anything helpful on the Chinese language website. So I started looking at the English language website. And I found these forums there that, you know, parents, mothers who had the same problems, they were sharing their experiences, some of them are Christians, some of them didn’t have any religion. But they really moved me, you know, they were going through the same thing that really touched your heart, that they had the same problem, you know, and they share their journey, how they, how they deal with it. I think that’s, that’s like, more than I have learned, you know, in the three years of practicing Buddhism. And that very mind, you know, the very mindfulness that you start to carry with you every day, whatever life gives to you because you can choose, right, you can choose what life gives you, there’s always something for you, in the next minute that you would never anticipate properly.

Mindfulness is the most important gift we have as human beings. And, and I forgot that, you know, so that really helped me have that mindfulness. So I made a few resolutions after that. 

Number one is that, you know, whatever my child, I didn’t know, whether he was a boy or girl, whatever my child turned out to be, whether he’s a kid with Down syndrome, nothing, I knew it doesn’t matter and that’s the life I will have. And that’s one thing. And second thing is that I will be a better practitioner of Zen, I will practice my mindfulness. And number three, I will have a connection with children with Down syndrome, whatever my child would turn out to be. So for the rest of my life, I will help children with Down syndrome. And number four is that I will be a vegan. Because, you know, I was a vegetarian for many years, I read about cows, but it didn’t really register with me. You know, we didn’t kill them. Right? Of course, oh, they have a really miserable life, but still, they have a life. And they live to the end. And yeah, it didn’t register. But once you went through that, you saw how many risks it was for a female, to be pregnant, and how much women change, you know, both physically and mentally. You see life, you know, you see the birth of life. You see, you know how much it takes for life to be. 

Ana: Taking the blinkers off and accepting and acknowledging life, whether it’s human or non human. I think it’s really beautiful. I mean, that’s a wonderful story you just shared and I really appreciate it.

Jian Yi: Yeah. So there’s the last resolution I made, I will become vegan. I don’t think everybody will have that experience in their lifetime. So I understand. If somebody is not. And I fully respect people who are honest about their choice. But I think for myself, you know, that’s such a life changing moment,

Ana: You’ve shared some fantastic stories with us. And I just wanted to, like round this off.

I would love to be able to give an action for the people who are listening. Okay, so we need industry, we need policymakers, and we need individuals to come together. And we need these things to align in order for change to be made, right? But for the people who are listening as individuals, what do you think, you know, what could be like the single biggest thing that they can do today to help create a better food system?

Jian Yi: I think the most important thing any individual can do, if they want to bring change to any space is to form connections, connect with policymakers, connect with people who produce meat, connect with people who want to take time with you.

Connect with young people, that’s very important, because you can’t, you can’t change anything, if you push people off, you know, you have to pull them, you have to show them that you are doing this for good reasons, for reasons that are not just good for yourself. But it’s good for everybody. 

And, yeah, we just need to know that, you know, we are not living in a vacuum. You know, we’re not in a bubble, we are living with other people. And that’s the beauty of food, food connects all of us. And if you choose good food, and you stop connecting with other people, then what’s the point of choosing good food? And what do you want to change? 

So I think that’s the way in and also, you know, as I told you, you know, that the forums that I read when I heard that news from the doctor and they were suggesting to us to have an abortion, but we are Buddists so we would never choose abortion because our child could be handicapped. So, yeah, I think that connection was so beautiful and so powerful and so transformative. This is a topic that I feel very deep in my heart.