Note: Peggy Liu is based in China. Relations between China and much of the developed world are currently at all-time lows. Some might question why, in that context, and at this moment in history, we would interview and elevate the message of a leader from China. The answer is simple: There are 1.4 billion people in China. Whether we like it or not, the entire world’s soil, water supply, food, and climate will all be profoundly affected by the choices made by the Chinese people and government. And we think you’ll be heartened and inspired to learn about the work that Peggy and her team are doing. Indeed, there are beacons of hope popping up in every nation on Earth.
Below is the edited transcript of the video above:
Ocean Robbins: Welcome, welcome, welcome to this Food Revolution Conversation. I’m Ocean Robbins, your host. And we are going to look today at the global impact of food and lifestyle choices.
Every dollar we spend, every bite we take, is essentially a vote. We’re voting for the health we want, and we’re voting for the world we want. And those votes have profound implications. We are also impacted by the votes that other people cast — by the choices other people make. And so, we’re going to look at that. We’re going to look at how at a certain level, humanity is all interconnected. And our food systems are all interconnected — and how we can participate meaningfully in helping to shift those systems so that they affirm life, affirm health, affirm the dignity of future generations — and help to build a more prosperous, thriving, vibrant future for life on Earth.
Peggy Liu of JUUUCE
Ocean Robbins: And we are here with an extraordinary human being, Peggy Liu, Chairperson of JUCCCE, that’s Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy. She has been at the heart of the greening of China since 2007. Over the years, she has realized that in order to green China, the US, and the world, we have to look at lifestyle and food as well. So she’s also the founder of Food Heroes, which helps to engage children in healthy eating and promote healthy food choices amongst the next generation.
She’s dedicated her life to personal and planetary health. She’s been named the “Green Goddess of China” by the Chinese press. Peggy travels around the world, consulting with companies and governments on how we can catalyze societal scale change, how we can scale sustainable innovation, and how we can work together to build a healthy future for life on Earth.
Peggy keynotes about lessons learned from China on tackling pollution, urbanization, epidemics, drought, obesity, and diabetes. She’s a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. She was awarded the “Nobel of climate change,” and was honored by the Hillary Institute, which was launched in honor of the great mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary, “to recognise, reward and nurture great leaders who provide answers to such challenges as climate change, poverty, disease, peace and justice.” The Economist has called her one of the most innovative thinkers in Asia. She is a distinguished professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance and a lecturer at China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong and the National Academy of Mayors of China.
I could go on and on and on. But rather than do that, let’s introduce Peggy Liu.
Peggy Liu: Thank you so much, Ocean, for having me. [LAUGHS] Are you tired from reading all that?
Ocean Robbins: [LAUGHS] It’s quite an extraordinary life you’ve lived so far, and I know you’re just getting started.
Peggy Liu: It’s been fun. You have to keep eating healthy, so you have a long life.
Ocean Robbins: You do, don’t you? It’s amazing what you can do when you nourish your body with the right fuel, isn’t it?
Peggy Liu: Exactly. Exactly.
Food Waste and Climate Change
Ocean Robbins: So Peggy, right now, we’re speaking from 10,000 miles apart, opposite sides of the world really, and very different cultural contexts. But I think we’ve both stumbled upon some common realities like the fact that human beings eat. And what we eat is having this huge impact. How does it look from your standpoint? What are the trends you are seeing around food? What are the impacts of those trends, and what are you trying to do?
Peggy Liu: Well, you know, Chinese people love eating food. We’re known for loving to eat food, but unfortunately, that means a lot of food. And we have these huge banquets around these Lazy Susans. And they just keep shoveling you with dishes upon dishes upon dishes. So unfortunately, that means a lot of food waste.
And reducing food waste, according to Project Drawdown, is the number three biggest intervention against climate change. Luckily, China definitely understands this. And we’ve launched the second version of our Empty Plate campaign recently. If you have 1.34 billion people to feed, that’s a lot of potential food waste.
So I think the trend is just to be very conscientious about what is on your plate, and be very grateful for it. And make sure that you’re intentional about the way that you eat it.
Ocean Robbins: All right, I actually want to go a little deeper with that one. If there was some kind of an Olympics of food waste, I think the United States would win gold, pretty handily. We waste half of the food that we produce in this country. Literally half of it. And then, that’s not even counting the calories we waste by cycling them through livestock. It takes 12 pounds of grain or soy to produce one pound of feedlot beef in the United States today. Three or four pounds per pound of chicken or pork. It’s like a protein factory in reverse.
Because we’re not just getting flesh for those calories, we’re producing hoof and hide and bones and manure and urine. And, of course, the energy the animals use to move around. And all of this has significant environmental impact. Now, we could feel guilty and ashamed, or we could say, “Oh wow, there’s a tremendous opportunity here, isn’t there?”
Sharing Food and Sharing Love
Peggy Liu: We put food in our mouth, but we don’t really even think about it. Is it alive or dead? Does it have positive energy or dead — weighing down energy? Is it full of pollutants, or is it beautiful, fresh, and picked right off of the bush? And that’s really struck me as the fundamental problem of food, is that we don’t realize that this is a really intimate act.
And in fact, we have banquets in China or in Italy. Around a vineyard is what I’m imagining. And fresh food along a picnic table. What you’re doing is you’re sharing food and sharing love, right?
Ocean Robbins: Yes. Yes.
Peggy Liu: And actually when you cook, you’re making food, and you’re making love.
Now, if you think along those lines, I think it would really, really make a difference to the entire supply chain, but also our own health. And I’m not just talking about physical health, but also about spiritual and energetic health. Imagine if you looked at every single piece of processed food like mummies wrapped in coffins. Would you really want to eat a mummy wrapped in a coffin?
Ocean Robbins: I don’t think I’m going to be able to forget that metaphor. So the coffin is actually the plastic, isn’t it?
Peggy Liu: Yeah. I mean, think about it, right? If you’re picking off a rainbow of food from trees and from the ground — that is living soil. That’s living, breathing cells that you’re putting into your body, which then nourishes you. And then you, in turn, compost the food waste and that nourishes the soil, which then nourishes you all over again. So that’s really what we need to get into to change the entire food system to have a food revolution.
Recognizing Food Is a Part of Us
Ocean Robbins: Well, you’re a busy person, to say the least. I know you work very, very long hours. And so do you have any kind of ritual, or process, for remembering your relationship with food? So it doesn’t just kind of get shoved down the hatch? So it isn’t just lost in the busyness and the stress of everything else? How do you bring the sacred into your relationship with food, even in the middle of a busy day?
Peggy Liu: I think that whenever you have food in front of you, you need to remember that this is a living being, really. In whatever format it is, it can speak to you. It’s giving you its nourishment, its love. And so you need to be grateful and receive that love in an intentional way.
Ocean Robbins: Yeah
Peggy Liu: And so, rather than just sort of shoving down food, I mean really take a moment to smell it, to enjoy the visuals of it, and to taste it fully before it goes down.
Now, of course, the side benefit is you eat less because it takes a little bit longer. [LAUGHS] And then you realize… I mean, for me, my spirituality is very East Asian, right? And I view everything as one. Everything is one energy field.
Global Changes in Eating Patterns
Peggy Liu: The problem with China right now, I have to tell you… I was born and raised in the US a long time ago; I’m not going to say when. But I moved here in 2004, and I’ve been seeing a sharp decline over the last generation. Today one in two people in China are diabetic or prediabetic. That’s pretty bad.
Ocean Robbins: And it wasn’t like that a generation ago.
Peggy Liu: I mean, honestly, a generation or two ago, they didn’t even have food to eat. So, that’s an anomaly, kind of. But the way that Chinese people eat is very, very different.
So, first of all, there’s a lot of fresh vegetables. You stir-fry with garlic or sauces or spices. And our vegetables taste beautiful and fresh and a little bit crispy. They’re not mushy. I mean, it’s very, very flavorful and very colorful. And then, our food has little tiny condiments of meat — ground up meat or usually pork. It’s really for flavor, versus a whole steak.
Traditional Foods vs. the Standard American Diet
Peggy Liu: So now, a generation and a half later, KFC is the number one franchise, with McDonald’s not that far behind.
Starbucks introduced, and other coffee stores, really, introduced milk into the diet — where there was no milk when I was growing up. I mean, milk was really unusual and actually foul-tasting. It just tasted totally different. And most of us are lactose intolerant. So milk is a strange thing to put into our drinks anyway. But now, there’s sugar, refined sugar, and milk in coffee, which, of course, we didn’t drink coffee either a generation and a half ago. It was all tea.
And now there are steaks, too. A lot of us are trying to emulate the TV shows or the advertisements of steak houses in the US because now we’re entering the middle class. So what does the middle class do? Well, they eat steaks. But that’s not really how Chinese people eat. We eat slivers of meat or little ground up pieces of meat, again, mainly for flavor.
And the cakes… We didn’t really have cakes growing up. Growing up, I only had fruit, cut up fruit, as dessert. But now, you have all these very fluffy dessert bakeries. So this type of food is, number one, a lot of refined sugars. And all of that turns into fat.
There’s a lot of bad stuff happening in China, and hopefully, we’ll be able to reverse it with Food Heroes. Teaching people to eat a rainbow every day, to drink lots of water, to grow their own food. This is something that I’ve realized this generation has got to learn how to do: to grow herbs, to grow their own tomatoes, to grow their own peppers. Fruits that you can pick off the tree.
Chinese Food Innovation
Ocean Robbins: We’ll talk more about solutions soon. But first, I want to understand the impact of what’s happening. So with one-fifth of the world’s population gravitating in this direction, there are profound implications for all of us on Planet Earth. And one of those relates to food supply. China used to produce more than enough food for its own population, but that’s not true anymore, is it?
Peggy Liu: No, it’s not. China is the largest importer of everything. I mean, you name it. It’s the only country with a pork reserve. [LAUGHS] The US has an oil reserve; we have a pork reserve. And unfortunately, that causes countries that want to trade with China to deforest and just do industrial-scale farming so that they can bring these food commodities to China.
But the good news is that China is doing some very innovative things. For example, in some places, 70-80% of drinking water is used by agriculture. And we’re running out of water, and we just keep hosing our food. So we need smarter ways of using water to grow our own food.
Rice production uses a lot of water, and it is also one of the largest sources of methane because it sits there and rots in the standing water.
But China has developed varieties of rice that can grow in salty water. And salty water rice doesn’t require a lot of irrigation. Just a year and half ago, they got it to a point where they’re really growing it at scale. And they’ve given this technology to other countries like Dubai and parts of Africa, too.
The Impact of Food from Farm to Fork
Ocean Robbins: There was a study published in the journal Science a couple of years ago. They created a dataset after they reviewed 40,000 farms in 119 countries. They were analyzing 40 different food products that represent 90% of all calories consumed on Planet Earth. And they looked at the impact of these foods from farm to fork, on land use and climate change emissions, and freshwater use, and water pollution, and all sorts of other factors. They wound up concluding that meat and dairy provide 18% of the world’s calories for humans — 37% of the protein. They use 83% of all farmlands on Earth, and they produce 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
They ended up concluding that if just, theoretically, the entire world went vegan tomorrow, which, of course, is not going to happen — but let’s just play this out for a second — we would free up an area of land equal to all of the United States, China, the European Union, and Australia combined. That’s how much land would be instantly saved, which could be used for carbon farming. It could be used to go back to forest. It could be used for wildlife habitat. It could be used for future cities. It could be used to grow more food for future populations of humans. It could be used to grow more organic food. Because we could take the stress off of trying to produce maximum yield per acre under highly stressed conditions, so we can be more sustainable so that future generations would have topsoil, water, and a healthier world to live in.
And so, I kind of want to ground our conversation a little bit, so to speak, in this larger picture — and to acknowledge that every step we take to shift that, to help shift the impact of animal agriculture, specifically, on our planet, is really making it a little bit easier on our planet. Isn’t it?
Peggy Liu: Well, a lot easier, I would say, not just a little bit easier. So I mentioned Project Drawdown — which I’m on the board of — earlier. And I said that the number three intervention to reduce climate change is to cut down on our food waste. Guess what number four is? A plant-rich diet. So the number three and number four solutions to reduce, or completely reverse, climate change are in our hands.
Financial Transparency with Commodity Crops
Ocean Robbins: Yes. So as we seek to create change, one of the obstacles we run up against in our country is entrenched interests that are profiting from the status quo. And we have government policies that further that. In the United States, we have a Farm Bill where taxpayer money goes to subsidize and support farmers.
Now, I support farmers. They work really hard. They should have every possible support. We should back them, absolutely. However, the farmers we’re backing are primarily the growers of so-called commodities crops. So in net effect, taxpayers are spending tens of billions of dollars every year, in my country, bringing down the price of high fructose corn syrup, white flour, and factory-farmed meat. Twinkies have 14 subsidized ingredients.
Meanwhile, we are creating a competitive disadvantage for broccoli and other healthy foods that we know we should be eating more of. And is it similar there? Do you have price supports and distortions in the marketplace? Or how does that work?
Peggy Liu: I think in the US, what I realized — because I’m now working heavily in commodities myself — is that there are super entrenched financial interests that will be very, very, very difficult to break unless you work with somebody who understands commodities, and to try and expose who is making money out of the commodities to the normal person. So right now, it’s a very ambiguous, amorphous field where people are making a lot of money, egregious amounts of money, on things that are unhealthy for the rest of us. So it’s really not about food production. It’s about money production. So one is we need transparency. We need to know who is making this money, and where is that money going. And it needs to be broadcast.
I think a lot of the farmers, honestly, are old ladies who might want to really transition to healthier farming and to encourage their grandchildren to take over the farms. But they don’t have enough capital to transition for five years, from industrial agriculture to beautiful, diverse, rainbow, lush permaculture. And so, if there was some way that all that money that was being made in commodities could be diverted to the transition to community-supported agriculture, and just to show people how beautiful it is, what a painting that is compared to the sort of rows and rows and rows and rows of one single crop: corn, corn, corn, soybean, soybean, soybean. I mean, it’s a completely different world.
So I think transparency, better transparency, of who is actually making money in commodities.
Peggy Liu: The other thing is I don’t want to just complain about what’s wrong. I want to give people a formula, which is why we do Food Heroes. The formula for changing the world, changing the way that we eat, is just using our imagination and showing people how beautiful a life you can live if you were to fully embrace beautiful rainbow foods, whole foods, living foods.
Ocean Robbins: Yeah.
Peggy Liu: So I think that Food Heroes really started with little tiny food heroes that look like diverse kids, mixed-race kids around the world, and learning from their own issues. Maybe their parents or relatives have diabetes, and it affects their entire family, right? Maybe they’ve moved to a different country, and they’re totally in shock with the different types of food in their new hometown. And they don’t know quite how to cook it? Maybe they’re lonely. And they learned how to make their own pizzas, and all of a sudden they’re really popular?
So use the stories and the struggles of the food heroes, the hero’s journeys, to build this avatar world, so to speak, just like James Cameron did, where it’s so beautiful and so lush and so delicious that you just want to jump in there, and you never want to leave that food world.
Ocean Robbins: Yeah.
Peggy Liu: I think that that is the thing that’s really missing for all of us to transition to healthier eating.
So my challenge to the Food Revolution viewers is to really think about, okay, if everybody lived the way that you want them to and had the relationship with food that we all want to, if we had all the beautiful food — and it was affordable in a way that we could just go and grab it in our corner store — well, how does that change your relationship with your friends and your family?
An Intimate Relationship with Food
Ocean Robbins: There’s so much I want to respond to in what you’re saying. But essential, right now, is that we need a vision of where we’re going. And in a toxic food culture, pain pushes sometimes, and vision pulls sometimes. In a toxic food culture, a lot of us are mobilized by not wanting to get sick, by fear for our future, by fear for our climate, by not wanting things to continue the way they’re going. But at the same time, that’s not enough. We have to say “yes” to something. And the beautiful thing about food is that you don’t just get to say “no” to junk. You get to say “yes” to health. You get to say “yes” to the life you want. And there’s a positive feedback loop that sets in.
Peggy Liu: That’s right.
Ocean Robbins: When you bring your food choices into alignment with your values, with your integrity, with your dreams for your life, then suddenly, there’s a congruency; there’s a potency; there’s a presence that sets in, in your body. Most people I know feel a profound sense of disconnection — like we’ve lost some sense of belonging. There’s loneliness. There’s isolation so epidemic in the modern world. I don’t think it’s just here. I think it’s probably all around the world.
Peggy Liu: Everywhere.
Ocean Robbins: Food is one place where we can start to weave ourselves back into the web of life. We can start to feel ourselves as participants in an ecosystem, and that gives a sense of grounding, literally, a sense of place, a sense of belonging to our world. And so, that relationship sort of changes everything, doesn’t it?
Imagining a Healthier Food World
Peggy Liu: Yes, absolutely. So, I’ll tell you a little secret. One of the things that I have been really interested in is something called quantum manifestation. What that means is we can all change reality. We can choose the world that we want to live in. We actually have the power. Where what you do is you imagine the world that you want, and you express it with so much joy that people are magnetized to that joy — that energy in motion.
It’s like, I mean, this is a bad example, but it’s like the kids who wanted the golden ticket to the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. Well, what is your version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory if it was living, beautiful permaculture — vibrant, rainbow foods? What would that look like if you had, instead of the Oompa Loompas, you had the Food Heroes?
Ocean Robbins: Right. Well, I have twins, and when they watched Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory when they were little, we made up an imaginary world in which everything was healthy. And it was a Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory kind of a world.
Peggy Liu: There you go.
Ocean Robbins: And we were jumping into the kale juice and everything was delicious and edible and nourishing.
Peggy Liu: Exactly. So imagine if you did that around the schools and neighborhoods. And you made it a game. With Food Heroes — we created over 30 classes, six games, and six card decks of beautiful, beautiful food. And we taught this in different cities, in different schools, for very young children before their dietary habits have been set — when their imagination can still run wild.
Ocean Robbins: It’s a beautiful vision. Now, you are, among other things, a preeminent marketer. Obviously, you’re using your skills in marketing to try to market health and vision and possibility and peace and cooperation on Planet Earth. And I thank you for that.
What you’re sharing, the sense of enjoyment and peace and ease and deliciousness, there’s a kind of a deliciousness to bring all of our sensations into our relationship with our food lives. It feels quite compelling, actually, because a lot of times, the foods we choose to eat are not just because they fit with our self-identity. They’re actually things that we are pulled to subconsciously. And that, I think, is one of the challenges for a lot of aspiring healthy eaters is that we are actually addicted to unhealthy foods.
Healthier Comfort Foods
Ocean Robbins: And so, for anybody who has ever found themselves on the wrong end of an empty bag of cookies or potato chips; who’s ever felt themselves obsessing over unhealthy foods; preoccupied, kind of stuck in this unhealthy addictive relationship to food; obsessed with foods that don’t love us back, do you have any advice for how to break that pattern?
Peggy Liu: Well, you actually named it. Think back to your earliest childhood memory, where you felt a sense of joy. You were so happy. There is one psychologist that I met, and his theory is that that one moment, you actually are trying to recreate your entire life. It shapes all of what you do — to try and recreate that moment.
Now, a lot of those moments around food. Imagine if when you’re younger, you go to parties or you’re watching TV, a football game, and it’s fun because you’re with your family, and you’re eating potato chips and hot dogs, et cetera. You’re going to gravitate to those same foods. The trick I think for marketers is to try and emulate those comfort foods. What are those comfort foods, like apple pie… I don’t know, what’s something that you’ve heard other people gravitate towards, like nachos?
Ocean Robbins: Ice cream’s a big one for a lot of people. My grandpa founded Baskin-Robbins, as I think you know. And so, we know a bit about ice cream in our family, and the damage it can do, to be honest with you. I’m not involved in the company at all. Neither is my dad in any way, shape, or form. But we have some histories, maybe some karma still.
I saw a comic recently. He was talking about how he wanted to be environmentally responsible, so he ate the whole carton because he didn’t want to use up freezer energy by putting leftover ice cream back in there.
Peggy Liu: That’s hilarious. That’s hilarious. Well, so again, think about the ice cream. I remember growing up in California. And in the heat of the summer swimming. And then the ice cream truck would come by. And it would play the sound. And we would all run to the front and try and buy those awful popsicles with red, white, and blue, or the ones that I liked were the chocolate ones that had sprinkles or cake on them or something.
Now, if you were to be able to recreate those with other types of healthier versions, you get the same sentimental value. You feel loved. That’s really what we all want. We want to feel loved. I would say let’s reinvent those comfort foods and reinvent those moments. All you need to do is use a little bit of advertising techniques to reshape people’s memories — to substitute that particular comfort food with your new healthy comfort food.
Ocean Robbins: Yeah. And just a tip for anyone who’s on the ice cream track here. We make the most amazing homemade frozen desserts. We always have bananas in the freezer. And so we’ll blend up, in the Vitamix, some bananas —
Peggy Liu: Absolutely, yes.
Ocean Robbins: — a little bit of soy or nut milk of some kind to make it creamy and help it blend more easily. And then some fruits, and some vanilla, maybe some nutmeg. Fruits could be berries. Mangoes are really sweet. Mango’s amazing, but you can also do strawberry. And vanilla is really helpful, and maybe a little nutmeg, just to add some depth to the flavor profile. And it’s so good. You make it nice and thick. You can put it in cones, soft-serve style. And we have those often. And you don’t have to feel guilty about it because bananas and berries are good for you.
Peggy Liu: Well, it’s interesting. In China, we have red dragon fruit. It’s a superfood actually — with a high, high content of vitamin C. So I can imagine a beautiful sorbet of beautiful, bright, magenta-like dragon fruit. There are a lot of ways that we can explore. And kids love exploring. Let their imagination run wild when they’re young.
A Web of Mutuality
Ocean Robbins: Peggy, I want to thank you so much. We live in a world where nations have been pitted against each other and cultures and religions and people — there are so many divisions. And certainly, I want to acknowledge that the United States and China are not on the best of terms right now in some respects. But we affect each other in profound ways. We affect each other’s climate. We affect each other’s water supplies.
And as a human who wants my kids to have a world with a stable climate, who wants my kids to grow up in a world where there is enough food to eat for humanity, who wants to live in a world with peace and prosperity and wellness on Earth, I realize the stake I have in the work you’re doing. I realize the impact that you are having on my children’s future. And I recognize that at an ultimate level, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said. “We’re bound in an inescapable web of mutuality.” That what one does affects all.
And so, I thank you for sharing your wisdom, your brilliance, your creativity, and your leadership. And I want you to know that I, and all of us over here on this continent, are benefiting from it. Not just from your tangible actions and their impact on our planet, but also from your wisdom and what we can glean from it that can help us do our work better here.
Sharing Our Cultures, Sharing Our Food
Peggy Liu: Wow. Thank you so much, Ocean. I’m really grateful for your comments. China has 1.34 billion people, probably more now. It isn’t just another part of the world. It is a large part of the world. And China isn’t just a government. China is people. It’s food. It’s culture. It’s energy. It’s ancient wisdom. And all of that is something that I really hope to share with people in America, people in Europe, people in Africa, people in Latin America, everywhere.
Because what the ancient Eastern Chinese wisdom or Asian wisdom really says is that there is no you and me; there’s no left and right; there’s no here and there. It’s really just transformation — like composting. Food goes into compost, into soil, back into rain, back into sun, back into trees, and back into us, back into our cells. Every part of nature can be reborn. That’s what food is teaching us. And it’s also teaching us that sharing food is sharing love.
With that, thank you so much for having me, Ocean. I hope to host you here in China soon.
Ocean Robbins: I hope so. And I hope to host you here on our little permaculture farm here in California someday, too.
Peggy Liu: I would love that.
Ocean Robbins: Sharing food, sharing love, and sharing wisdom. It’s been a privilege to share this time with you. I thank you so much. Have a beautiful day.
Peggy Liu: Thank you. Thank you, Ocean.
Tell us in the comments
- Do you feel a connection to the food you eat? How can you improve that connection?
- What does a healthier food world look like to you?