Meat of the Matter

With increasing demand for protein from those parts of the world where a vegetable-based diet has been the historical norm, questions are being raised as to the environmental impact of the burgeoning livestock industry.


You name it, whether we are contemplating water pollution, biodiversity collapse, climate change and land degradation, livestock production contributes a great deal to global environmental problems.


Fuelled by globalisation and trade, an expanding global population (1.8 million a week) with an expanding appetite can now afford meat and is causing a dramatic change in food preferences, in particular there is an increased demand for meat, eggs and milk.


Worldwide per capita meat consumption has more than doubled since the sixties and is expected to double again by 2050. A new approach is needed.


Production inefficiencies are astonishing, and despite 1 billion malnourished people in the world, the majority of corn and soy is grown for animal feed. A few stats for you; 1 litre of milk requires 990 litres of water; it takes 7lbs of grain to produce 1lb of beef; 1kg of CO2 is emitted to produce one fast food beefburger; one cow emits 100kg of methane in its lifetime, the equivalent CO2 of driving 7,800 miles And, at 18per cent, animal production generates more global CO2 than transport.


Despite a swing away from extensive farming methods for cattle, sheep and goats towards intensive ‘battery’ production of pigs and poultry (meat ‘factories’ that generate high nitrogen, phosphorous, ammonia and other toxic materials, require vast amounts of soy and corn and churn through energy, as well as causing well-documented levels of unnecessary suffering and mistreatment) the pressure on land, water and other resources is enormous; a quarter of the earth’s surface is used for grazing and a third of all arable land is used to grow feed crops.


The livestock commodity chain – the process from feed production (which includes chemical fertilizer production, deforestation for pasture and feed crops, and pasture degradation), through animal production to the carbon dioxide emitted during processing and transportation of animal products – accounts for 9per cent of manmade CO2 emissions and enormous deforestation (70 per cent of deforested land in the Amazon is used for grazing, with feed crops covering most of the rest).


And boy are these ruminants flatulent! 37per cent of anthropogenic methane comes from the delicately-termed ‘enteric fermentation’, as well as 65 per cent of ‘our’ nitrous oxide from their manure.


This deforestation and land deterioration destroys, amongst other things, global biodiversity; where there was once an abundance of wildlife, livestock now account for 20 per cent of terrestrial biomass.


Irrigation sucks up 8 per cent of global human water usage, and livestock production is the greatest single contributor to water pollution in the form of growth hormones, antibiotics, animal waste, pesticides and fertilizers.


Simply – and worryingly – the planet does not possess the resources to sustain the demand. It is futile to worry without assessing the solutions…so what can be done?


In its benchmark 2006 report, Livestock’s lengthening shadow, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation recommends a balance of two factors; the demand for meat products and the demand for environmental services (i.e. the expansion of the sector with reduced environmental impact).


The former can be achieved through better resource management, crop and animal production and less wastage between field and table, and although technical solutions exist to achieve this while prices for water, land and feed fail to reflect increasing scarcity, there is often little incentive to adopt them. Water in particular is often chronically under-priced, evaporating any meaningful attempts to conserve it.


The report recommends using both carrot and stick; for example, reducing subsidies not only helps to level a bumpy international playing field but quickly encourages environmental efficiency, as do incentives to reward sustainable land use whether in the form of services and compensation schemes or (worst case scenario) hefty financial penalties for polluters.


All well and good, but unlikely without politico-economic inclination. It is we, the humble consumer upon whose shoulders the second part of the equation principally falls; the demand for environmental services. It is our responsibility to rectify our errors.


Never underestimate consumer power, especially where, as in the case of meat, demand appears insatiable. Demand is huge and growing (71 million tons in 1961 to an estimated 284 million tons in 2007 in the UK alone) despite increasingly persuasive lobbying from an increasingly exasperated vegetarian movement, who say reducing our meat intake will resolve the world’s CO2 emission crisis, reduce hunger (since corn could be then be grown for starving humans), slow deforestation and slow acidification of the seas (in the form of ammonia runoff) and resultant coral reef collapse.


This is having profound impact on foodservice trends. Often effective when political will is hampered and constrained by economic concerns, the increasing clout of market demands is a force to be reckoned with; consumers want to know where what they’re buying came from, how it was ‘raised’ and how far it has been transported, as most clearly evidenced by the egg industry.


Right through the commodity chain, from sustainable agricultural practice to food miles, Fairtrade to packaging and waste disposal, people care about what they eat. And despite a wariness of green credentials and higher prices, research shows a direct relationship between education and buying profiles. The fact that MacDonald’s now provide organic milk, have ‘greenified’ their livery and set up 25 pilot ‘waste zero’ outlets in London is quite telling indeed.


Perhaps though, if anything will create the vital shift needed, individual health concerns will apply the brakes; the concentrations of antibiotics necessary to keep animals alive in the shocking densities they are often confined to is causing a rise in antibiotic-resistance bacteria. Heart disease and cancer have long been provably linked to meat consumption, and outbreaks of Foot and Mouth, BSE and Scrapie (all linked to bad farming practice) continue to give us food for thought.


Hopefully, in conjunction with clever economic incentives and more environmentally efficient means of production, we’ll also appreciate that greed is no longer good, that our personal health is attuned to that of the planet, that the solution exists when we express will to use it, and moderate our eating habits accordingly. Gandhi summed it up: “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed”.