Food consumption: Supper sized

Who ate all the pies?

Artists never know what they’re depicting. Or rather, they may be depicting a lot more than they realise, and what seemed banal at the time becomes interesting later. Watch an old movie where the characters go to the cinema, and you’ll probably be struck more by the fact that half the people are smoking than by whatever action is supposed to grab your attention.

Historians try to glean hints of what everyday life was like in the past by examining incidental details in pictures and written accounts. In Vermeer’s Hat, for instance, Timothy Brook uses the objects and scenes in Dutch artwork to explore the development of international trade in the 17th century, examing where the fur for the hat came from for example.

Brian Wansink, of the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell, and his brother Craig, from the Religious Studies Department, Virginia Wesleyan College applied this approach to one of the most painted religious scenes in the history of art: The Last Supper, when Jesus and his followers shared a meal together for the last time (prompting French poet Paul Verlaine to remark that “You can’t judge a man by the company he keeps – Judas’s friends were very nice”).

The Wansinks wanted to see if the paintings revealed anything about how the average amount of food consumed over the ages has changed. Their results, published in the International Journal of Obesity, show that over the past thousand years, the size of the entrées in the paintings has grown by 69%, plate size has increased 66% and the size of the loaves of bread by 23%.

The study also shows how artists have unconsciously reflected increases in food production and affordability over the centuries. Another thing the paintings reflect is the fact that this change was extremely gradual until recently. According to records going back to the tenth century, it took a thousand years to increase wheat yields in England from around half a tonne a hectare to 2 tonnes. To increase from 2 tonnes to 6 tonnes took 40 years in the 20th century.

Portion sizes have also increased dramatically over the few decades. The average size of an American hamburger in the 1950s was just 1.5 ounces (42.5 g), compared with 8 ounces or more today (226 g), and when McDonald’s first opened in 1955, a serving of fries was 2.4 ounces and contained 210 calories, against today’s 7 ounces and 610 calories.

The impacts can be seen on any street, with obesity now a worry in all the developed countries and an increasing number of developing ones too, where the two extremes of malnourishment – obesity and hunger – may exist simulataneously.

Useful links

Linda Fulponi of the OECD’s Trade and Agriculture Directorate discusses “over nutrition” in the latest issue of the OECD Observer

Franco Sassi and colleagues from the OECD’s Health Division discuss strategies to prevent obesity in a working paper, and will be discussing the issues in depth a new book to be published later in the year.

The photo of what would happen to Michelangelo’s David if he adopted a modern diet and lifestyle is from an ad campaign for the German Olympic Sport Committee, “If you don’t move, you get fat”, by Scholz and Friends

Chinese demography: One child, many consequences

Photo courtesy of Jacques Bron

Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights blog is focusing on China this week

How many wedding dresses does it take to change the world economy? That’s right, lots. And how? High saving rates in certain countries, notably China, contributed to housing price bubbles and the global financial crisis. Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia Business School and Xiaobo Zhang of IFPRI have an intriguing explanation as to why China’s saving rate is so high (around 50% of GDP in 2007 just before the crisis started): blame it on the brides.

Or rather, blame it on “competitive saving”, one of the unintended consequences of the one-child policy, introduced in 1978 to slow population growth. The government claims that thanks to the policy, the population is three to four hundred million fewer than it would have been, but since families prefer boys, many of the missing millions are girls, including victims of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

The normal ratio of boys to girls is around 106:100, an evolutionary corrective for the fact that male babies are more likely to die. In China, however, the ratio is much higher. The exact figure is not known, but estimates range from 119:100 to over 130.

What is known though, is that there are now tens of millions more young men of marriageable age than women. So to improve their son’s chances, a family saves to be able to buy a nicer, better furnished house than rivals and give the young newly-weds a good start in life. According to Wei and Zhang, even families who don’t have a son to marry off have save as much, since prices are driven up. Families with sons save more than those with daughters, and savings rates are higher in regions with higher gender imbalances.

Another unintended consequence is the rapid ageing of the population. In 1975, just before the one-child policy started, there were six children for every person aged over 60. By 2035, there will be two over-60s for every child. Population ageing is happening all over the world, but it is happening much earlier in China’s economic development than in OECD countries.

As Richard Jackson and his colleagues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies point out, when the elderly share of the population was the same in the US as it is China today, per capita income was four times what China’s is at present. Some Chinese express the fear that the country will grow old before it grows rich.

China’s growth has depended on what some media like to call limitless supplies of cheap labour. But the working-age population will peak in 2015, and will shrink by almost a quarter by 2050, with an even sharper decline for people in their 20s and 30s. Total population will still grow, because people will live longer, and China will have an older population than the US in 2050.

Given that this elderly population will not be able to count on large numbers of children to support them, how will they live? The government’s goal is universal coverage for the basic pension system by 2020 and it has also taken a number of steps to encourage schemes to complement this.

Yet public pension coverage remains far from universal, and has large unfunded liabilities for early retirees from the state-owned sector. Moreover, benefits are not fully portable, so workers often have to choose between job mobility and retirement security, and the rate of return on personal pension plans is too low to replace a salary.

At the same time, the decline in the working-age population may allow employees to negotiate better pensions as part of their pay packages. Labour shortages have already been reported in some regions, partly because rural migrants who went home during the worst of the recession don’t want to come back. Last week, the Guangzhou Daily reported that the local authorities had raised the minimum wage from 860 yuan to 1030, a higher rate than Beijing even.

All this is leading to calls to abandon the one-child policy. Especially since China is now suffering from a phenomenon that has cursed every country that ever existed at every epoch in world history – kids today are not as nice as us. Or, as the People’s Daily complained last month: the one-child policy is breeding brats.

Useful links

China in the 2010s: Rebalancing growth and strengtheneing social safety nets

2010 年代的中国:经济增长再平衡和强化社会安全网 (Chinese version)

OECD work on China

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文)

China at the OECD Development Centre

Photos by Jacques Bron

China: Back to the future


Photo courtesy of Jacques Bron

Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights blog is focusing on China this week

Amid all the talk of China’s economic resurgence, it’s easy to forget that the country once accounted for a much larger slice of global GDP than it does today. According to research by renowned economic historian Angus Maddison, China accounted for close to a third of global GDP in the 1820s. Estimates vary on its current share of global GDP, but based on the most recent World Bank estimates, it’s around 12%.

To find out more and to see the numbers, go to the OECD Factblog.


Useful links

OECD work on China

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文)

The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, by Angus Maddison

The World Economy: Historical Statistics, by Angus Maddison

China at the OECD Development Centre

Photos by Jacques Bron

China: back to the future

Napoleon Bonaparte never visited China, but his reflections on its future role on the global stage have stood the test of time. “Let China sleep,” he wrote about 200 years ago, “for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Ironically, back in Napoleon’s day China’s share of the global economy was far larger than it is today, according to the economic historian Angus Maddison. The chart is based on data from his monumental economic study of the second millennium, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, which was published by the OECD in 2001. In the early 19th century, China’s share of the economy stood at just under 33%, according to Maddison, but fell to 4-5% in the 1960s and 1970s before recovering to reach about 12% in 2000, the latest year this study provides. China’s global share has continued to rise since then, as more recent, albeit differently based, World Bank estimates indicate. But why the earlier long decline? Maddison splits the millennium into two parts – before 1820 and after… (more…)

China: Black turning green?

Photo courtesy of Jacques Bron


Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights blog is focusing on China this week 

Viewed from the hilltops of Hong Kong island, the city’s harbour can look as stunning as this. All too often, it looks more like this. Sandstorms in northern China are partly to blame for this week’s record-breaking smog. But smoke and fumes belched out by factories on the Chinese mainland haven’t helped. 

Indeed, across China, sooty skies are a daily and dangerous reminder of the price of economic progress. Four years ago, the World Bank estimated that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in China. 

But a strange paradox: Just as China’s skies are turning blacker, its energy production is becoming greener. The country has set itself a target of producing 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and that goal has unleashed massive investment in green energy, turning China into the world’s biggest market for renewables. The result, as journalist Christina Larson notes, is that “China may soon be simultaneously the greenest and the blackest place on earth.” 

China’s great green push is showing up in several areas of the economy, including the development of a high-speed rail network and huge construction of wind farms – according to some estimates, the country’s wind capacity has doubled every year for the past four years. Investors outside China have taken note: U.S. billionaire Warren Buffet has bought 10% of battery and carmaker BYD, while Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing is taking a stake in another battery maker, Jia Sheng. 

Away from such high-profile names, green power is taking root in other ways. China produces about 10 million electric bicycles and scooters every year. Bus rapid transport, or BRT, a cross between a bus and a metro system, is making inroads in dozens of Chinese cities. And, less officially, shanzhai (“homemade” or “knockoff”) electric cars are becoming a familiar site on the streets of China’s numerous smaller cities. Cheap and cheerful, the cars cost between $2000 and $3000 and can be charged from a regular household socket. 

Inevitably, China’s headlong rush into renewable means mistakes have been made. “When you go to being the No. 1 market in just five years, you can expect a few growing pains,” comments Dr Jiang Lin of the China Sustainable Energy Program in San Francisco. According to some estimates, around 30% of wind turbines are not properly connected to the grid. There have also been problems in choosing the right sites for wind farms, says Dr. Lin, and the entry of so many new operators means too little thought has been given to creating standards. 

“Chinese entrepreneurs are very energetic, but they don’t always think through every detail before acting,” says Dr. Lin. “They’re juggling so many balls in the air that one or two may get dropped.” Nevertheless, he’s confident that the race to go green will allow China to meet its targets and help it become a world leader in renewable energy technologies. “People view this as a brand new market with great potential,” he says, “and the possibility to create intellectual property that can be sold.” 

Useful links 

OECD work on China, including a report on eco-innovation

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文) 

OECD Insights: Sustainable Development 

OECD work on climate change and green growth

IEA work on climate change and transport

China Sustainable Energy Program factsheet 

Photos by Jacques Bron

China: Shock-absorber for the developing world?

Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights blog is focusing on China this week. In this posting, Andrew Mold of the OECD Development Centre looks at how China’s booming economy has eased the impact of the global recession on developing countries.

Number One, actually. Photo courtesy of Jacques Bron

Over the past decade China has attracted an enormous amount of attention principally because of the sheer resilience of its economic ascent. This has come to the fore during the financial crisis, as Chinese growth has continued to soar (at around 8%) while OECD countries have languished in the most serious economic recession since the 1930s. Harvard professor Niall Ferguson talks about the symbiosis of Chimerica, alluding to the deep mutual economic dependence that has evolved between the United States and China over the last decade. Put simply, to a large extent the macroeconomic stability of the global economy hinges on the way in which the imbalances between these two economic giants play out.

As fascinating and crucial these as issues are, they hide the truly remarkable impact of China on the developing world. By its economic resilience, China is having a tremendously positive effect, cushioning many developing countries from the worst of the fallout from the financial crisis. And its growth engine has become exceedingly important for many low-income countries through its trade and investment links. Calculations by the OECD Development Centre suggest that every percentage point of growth in China helps lift 16 million people in the developing world out of poverty.

The trading links are revealing. In early 2010, China bypassed Germany as the world’s No. 1 trading nation. What was less commented upon was the fact that over the last year China has also become the No. 1 trading partner of India, South Africa and Brazil. A full 56% of China’s exports now go not to United States but rather other developing countries.

To be sure, some of these exports put industries in other developing countries under severe competitive pressures. Textiles is a case in point: Competition from low-cost Chinese operators has led to job losses in a number of African and Asian countries. But this is not the whole story. With its enormous productive capacity, China has been driving down the prices of consumer goods, which benefits many poor people in developing countries who would not otherwise be able to afford even simple items like radios and televisions. Also – and this is less widely acknowledged – China has been driving down the cost of capital goods, which allows low-income countries to benefit through cheaper infrastructure and equipment for their productive sectors.

At the same time, China draws in raw materials and intermediate inputs from developing (and other high income countries) countries and transforms these into finished goods for the United States and other OECD markets. In effect China has become a funnel for inputs from other Asian countries, including low-income ones like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

But it is not just developing countries in Asia that are benefiting. For instance, Chinese imports of oil, soy beans and copper were about 30 times higher in 2008 than they were in 1995. As a consequence, Latin American commodity exporters have been riding China’s coat-tails to unprecedented trade surpluses. Africa, too, has reaped benefits. For example, while many Western companies suspended or delayed investments due to the uncertainty created by the financial crisis Chinese investments continued to surge ahead.

There is, of course, a million dollar question: Is all this is sustainable? Only time will tell, but for now one thing is certain: As long as the Chinese growth “engine” does not stall, the prospects for the rest of the developing world will be rosier than might otherwise have been the case.

Useful links

China at the OECD Development Centre

OECD work on China

OECD Insights: From Crisis to Recovery

网站(中文) The OECD’s Chinese-language site

Jacques Bron’s photos

Education Reform in China: What the educators think

Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights Blog is focusing on China for the next week. In this first posting, Chinese educators Wang Zheng and Jiang Xueqin discuss the challenge of bringing education into the 21st century.

A sound mind in a sound body at Shenzhen Middle School

Earlier this month, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled a draft 10-year education reform blueprint, and welcomed public comments. Tens of thousands of e-mails flooded in, recognition of the importance of education to China’s technological advancement, economic progress and global engagement.

When China’s Communist Party came to power in 1949, it transformed education from the privilege of the elite to the right of the people. Basic schooling and universal literacy became proud traditions. To Western eyes, the relentless use of examinations to determine who wins a coveted slot in higher education may seen harsh. But, in a time of widening inequality, the Chinese believe this merit-based system guarantees fairness. It is this belief that encourages poor boys in remote hills to study by candlelight and dream of testing into Peking University, China’s best university.

But a system designed 60 years ago to train technocrats for a command economy will invariably need to change as China learns to engage with modernity, technology, and the world. (more…)