'Only 10 percent of energy is transferred through the tiers of the food system, so it’s actually very inefficient for humans to consume animals,' James Li tells me. The recent high school grad’s interest was piqued during his senior year environmental studies course at Shanghai American School Pudong when he learned about the huge amount of resources that go into animal farming. ‘We’re a lot better off consuming plants instead.’
Li isn’t a vegetarian – he’s quick to state – but he’s consciously engaged in eating less meat and spreading the good word. Since the summer he’s been interning with Z-Rou, a Shanghai-founded plant-based meat company, helping with its education programming in schools and around the city. The company’s education programmes are run by Shiyin Wang. Born in Shanghai but raised in the States, Wang’s background is in environment and education but he transitioned into food on his return to Shanghai a few years ago. He started Kaixin Cooking to develop healthier Chinese foods and is part of the consulting team behind the recently opened, much-buzzed-about plant-based restaurant DuLi
on Donghu Lu.
Photograph: courtesy DuLi
'The traditional Chinese diet is actually pretty healthy without necessarily thinking too explicitly about tracking nutrition. People eat a lot of vegetables and have a wide variety of choices in ingredients,’ reflects Wang. ‘But modern food in China is quite unhealthy because people eat a lot of meat now, the dishes are very oily, there’s a lot of processed ingredients. People don’t really focus on developing flavours out of a wide variety of vegetables and spices like they used to. It’s more just sauce out of a packet.‘My end mission is to improve the way that kids in China eat,’ he continues. ‘I think we can reduce our dependence on meat. I want to help kids to be more aware of their eating and find enjoyment from healthier foods that also taste good. Obviously, that’s going to take work to develop better tasty, healthy foods.’ It was this goal that spurred him to start working with Z-Rou on an education programme.
Right now, the team is working with Shanghai American School, YK Pao, Shanghai French School and German School Shanghai, all of which were partnerships launched at the request of students and parents looking for non-meat options. They’ve also recently linked up with Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong. The College’s front of house supervisor Bosco Velho, who coordinates the school's dining programme, says the move towards more meat alternative options is about both choice and sustainability more than anything. ‘For us, it’s not about becoming vegetarian or following a trend,’ he explains, referencing the Dulwich network’s key focus on sustainability as a part of its mission across its schools in Asia. The upcoming plan for the college’s dining programme this year is about ‘finding links and bridges to how food permeates into the UN’s Sustainable Development goals, into different aspects of our lives and the impacts that the food we eat has on these different aspects of our lives and the world.
Photograph: courtesy Z-Rou
’While it’s all in the initial stages, plant-based meat like Z-Rou is a component of what Dulwich has in the works. Beyond this meat-alternative ‘enhanced option’ as Velho calls it, the school is looking into more locally sourced and grown ingredients and encouraging student participation in owning their dining experience through recipe competitions and the like. I ask why these changes are coming now – is this year any different than others? ‘I don’t think it was necessarily because this was the right time to do it – it just needs to be done, we need to start somewhere and each one of us needs to take ownership in making change, instead of waiting for someone else or some other time,’ muses Velho. It’s certainly a sentiment that others in Shanghai seem to be picking up on, too.