World Bank & Beef
NEW YORK TIMES - December 28, 1999

The World Bank has proved again that the pen is mightier than the sword.

The sword -- in this case a scythe harvesting the grains that have kept the Chinese free of the diet-related health problems plaguing Westerners -- was defeated last week when, with the stroke of a pen, the World Bank signed off on a $93.5 million loan to build 130 feedlots and five processing centers for China's nascent beef industry.

The World Health Organization would have had it differently. Its figures show that the traditional Chinese diet, rich in rice and vegetables, with little meat and virtually no dairy products, has kept heart disease and myriad other Western health problems at arm's length. An improved food distribution network has eliminated the shortages suffered by some other Asian countries. Today, per capita food intake is actually higher in China than in the United States. Unfortunately, steak, fast food and cheese have started to replace traditional rice and noodle dishes in some regions even without the World Bank's help. Those areas have shown the highest incidence of Western-style medical problems.

While smart Americans recognize the need to "Easternize" their own diets with rice, soy products and more vegetarian options, World Bank bureaucrats decided to promote a Westernization of China's diet. Instead of supporting the use of grain as a cholesterol-free dietary staple for people, the grain will be fed to cattle to produce meat.

This practice promotes not just poor health, but also the inefficient use of food. Kilo after kilo of grain proteins fed to cattle yield only one-tenth this amount of protein in meat.

Of course, the World Bank's efforts to promote cattle farming in China are concerned less with good health than with economic investment. No doubt some cattle ranchers will profit, as they edge out vegetable and rice acreage. But why is the World Bank, so roundly criticized over for years for its self-defeating economic development schemes, falling into the same old trap?

Neal D. Barnard is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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