Friday, November 21, 2014
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The High Cost of Cheap Meat

BERLIN – Factory-style livestock production is a critical driver of agricultural industrialization. Its remorseless expansion is contributing to climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and human-rights violations – all to satisfy Western societies’ unhealthy appetite for cheap meat.

Europe and the United States were the largest meat consumers in the twentieth century, with the average person eating 60-90 kilograms (132-198 pounds) annually – far more than is required to meet humans’ nutritional needs. Though Western consumption rates are now stagnating and even declining in some regions, they remain far higher than in most other regions in the world.

Meanwhile, in emerging economies – especially the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) – members of the burgeoning middle class are changing their diets to resemble those of their rich-country counterparts. In the coming decades, as incomes continue to rise, so will demand for meat and dairy products.

To meet this demand, the world’s agribusiness firms will attempt to boost their annual meat output from 300 million tons today to 480 million tons by 2050, generating serious social challenges and ecological pressures at virtually every stage of the value chain (feed supply, production, processing, and retail).

One major problem with factory-style livestock production is that it leads to considerable greenhouse-gas emissions – and not just because the digestive processes of ruminant animals produce methane. The waste from the animals, together with the fertilizers and pesticides used to produce feed, generate large quantities of nitrogen oxides.

Indeed, the factory model implies significant land-use change and deforestation, beginning with the production of feed. As it stands, about one-third of existing agricultural land is used for feed production, with the total share used for livestock production, including grazing, amounting to about 70%.

With expanded meat consumption, soybean production alone would nearly double, implying a proportional increase in the use of inputs like land, fertilizer, pesticides, and water. Increased crop diversion to feed livestock will put upward pressure on food and land prices, making it increasingly difficult for the world’s poor to meet their basic nutritional needs.

Making matters worse, the shift from mixed-use or indigenous systems of raising livestock to large-scale operations jeopardizes rural livelihoods, particularly in developing countries. Pastoralists, small producers, and independent farmers simply cannot compete with low retail prices that fail to account for the industry’s true environmental and health costs. And the industrial livestock system, with its low wages and poor health and safety standards, does not provide a good alternative for employment. 

Finally, there is the public-health impact of industrial livestock production. For starters, excessively high levels of meat and dairy consumption are contributing to nutrition-related health problems like obesity and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, keeping large concentrations of animals in confined spaces facilitates the proliferation of infectious diseases that can spread to humans, such as avian flu. And measures used to mitigate that risk, such as the administration of low doses of antibiotics to prevent disease (and promote growth), are creating a public-health crisis by strengthening resistance to antimicrobial drugs.

Add to this the horrific conditions suffered by the animals themselves, owing to the industry’s resistance to applying reasonable animal-welfare standards, and one might wonder how the industry could have been allowed to grow so large. The answer lies in its oligopolistic power, which enables industrial livestock producers to externalize their true social and environmental costs, which must then be covered by workers and taxpayers.

The reality is that there are other ways to meet the world’s need for meat and dairy. In the European Union, only two key elements of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would have to be changed to reduce drastically the distortions in the production system. Implementing these changes would send a clear signal that European policymakers take consumers’ wishes seriously.

The first change would be to prohibit imports of genetically modified feed, and require that farmers produce at least half of their animal feed on their own farms. A clear set of rules on feed procurement would eliminate international imbalances in nutrients, and diminish the power of multinational agricultural biotechnology corporations like Monsanto. Moreover, slurry and manure would no longer be transported long distances, and could be used to fertilize farmers’ own land to produce feed.

Second, the unnecessary administration of antibiotics in feed and watering systems should be prohibited. This would force farmers to treat animals individually for illnesses, based on veterinary diagnosis.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration could ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. And the US Department of Agriculture’s farm bill programs could provide increased support for free-range livestock operations, in order to encourage more sustainable approaches to meat production.

Of course, these actions would be only important first steps. As emerging-economy middle classes grow, it is vital to recognize that existing Western models of meat production and consumption do not provide a sound blueprint for the future. It is time to create a system that adheres to our ecological, social, and ethical boundaries.

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    1. CommentedDirk Ouellette

      Looks like Weaver and Ryan are lackeys of agribusiness. Their arguments carry as little weight as the advertisements by Cargille, ADM, Monsanto, and the like.
      The truth is always hard come by from a media owned by the same people who inhabit all of the world's boardrooms.

    2. CommentedDallas Weaver, Ph.D.

      Strong claims like: "is contributing to climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and human-rights violations" need equally strong support and documentation. No such support comes forth in this article and one must conclude that it is just eNGO (environmental NGO's) propaganda article, a little truth with lots of political spin and utter nonsense.

      As an example of pure nonsense and a total lack of fundamental understand of our food and meat system would be "require that farmers produce at least half of their animal feed on their own farms". As it is much less energy intensive to ship grain (less CO2 -- rail, barge and ship) than live, fresh or even frozen chicken (for example), it makes environmental and economic sense to ship grain (corn and soy) to California and grow chickens for local consumption (35 million people). It takes about 2 to 2.5 kg of chicken feed to produce 1 kg of chicken so you can do the math. On top of that the production units would be too small for any processing and distribution economies of scale (if you can produce a full truck load of > 20 tons/day, you produce more CO2/ton delivered product and can't capture value in the byproducts -- frozen chicken feet, etc.).

      The only advantage of on-farm production is lower manure distribution cost, but the manure production (dry wt) for chickens is about equal to the chicken live weight, but again shipping manure is cheaper in terms of life cycle analysis (LCA) for every parameter from capital cost to CO2 and nutrients that shipping live chickens.

      Letting naive people like these authors impact common agricultural policy (CAP) is a recipe for stupid decisions. Of course, they could be very knowledgeable about the subject, but have another agenda such as organization funding and self interest, or they could be like the religious nuts that claim the earth is a few thousand years old and evolution is a lie and are just immune to knowledge, science and reality.

      I have no idea why they bothered writing such a piece of garbage.

    3. Commentedrobot 5x

      "excessively high levels of meat and dairy consumption are contributing to nutrition-related health problems like obesity and cardiovascular disease"

      citation needed!

    4. CommentedDarcy James

      The article is great, though I have a couple considerations to be made. It largely focusses on issues pertaining to feedlot-based organisations - widely known for having such issues as discussed in the article. Pastoral companies (of which is more common in poorer countries and most of the world outside of Canada and the U.S.) is another story altogether. It's more acceptable from a moral point of view (animal rights) and disease is less likely as a result of the nature of the operation. In terms of feeding the worlds population and addressing greenhouse gases, I believe that we need to be smarter about the way we transport food - because food miles is the greatest impediment to sustainable farming, not technology.

    5. CommentedSergey Zavyalov

      Terry Ryan - I agree that this article lacks citations or analytical proof to argue this very controversial topic, but outright discrediting this as you have done without any citations or analytical proof on your behalf also shows a great ideological stand on your part.

      I believe that the author is just trying to raising awareness to this critical global issue as the status quo in this industry is definitely not working. This is evidenced by the global consumer discontent with GMO’s, growing health problems for which doctors usually proscribe diets and reduction in meat consumption, runway and industrial use of antibodies creating supper germs, and rising food costs.

    6. CommentedAndrew Zimin

      "Есть вредно, пить вредно... А не есть, не пить -- ещё вреднее". (C)

      Beef - it's bad, drinking - it's bad ... But do not eat or drink - even more harmful. (С)

    7. CommentedTerry Ryan

      I am extremely disappointed that this website is prepared to publish an article like this which is so ideological in its foundations and based upon so little factual analysis. The policy prescriptions are completely unrealistic and will not deliver the most efficient means of providing high-quality animal protein at the lowest cost to the environment and to consumers.

      Most agricultural production, indeed the great bulk of it, is undertaken by family farms – large-scale in developed economies and peasant farms in less developed economies. They are not factory operations. Yes in some industries, especially pigs and poultry, and to a lesser extent beef cattle finishing there are factory farms but they are still a small component of total world agricultural production. Yes significant areas of world agricultural land are for livestock production but they tend to be grazing lands unsuitable for crop production.

      I would like to see the proof of the assertion that in developing countries that there has been a move of extremely significant proportions to factory farming. Where is the proof also that modernised intensive agriculture has lower environmental and health standards. My knowledge of the worldwide situation is that it is improved as failures in these aspects are penalised in the market, as we are seeing in China right now.

      Modern intensive agriculture tries to minimise biosecurity risks of infectious diseases because they are a cost to the producers.

      If there are human health problems from consumption patterns, the logical policy position is to target that rather than the indirect target of changing by government regulation the production system.

      The unfounded assertion on animal welfare fails to recognise that it is in the producers interest to minimise all costs in production so that their animals are content, not stressed and therefore of lower value. From my knowledge, the agricultural supply chain on a worldwide basis is highly competitive and I would like to find an oligopoly that I could invest in.

      Where is the evidence against GMOs, apart from the European push against that which is I suspect primarily to defend the outrageous attributes of the Common Agricultural Policy. Demanding that farmers not be able to specialise in their areas but adhere to production systems imposed from above could have come straight from the Soviet Union rather than a Western liberal market economy.

      If there are problems with usage of antibiotics, the best policy option is to target that usage. Showing the lack of understanding of agricultural production systems, free range operations for livestock impose greater biosecurity risks in many cases than intensive closed operations as China is showing in its poultry production.

      Unfortunately this article reflects the unrealistic views and analyses that have been coming from Europe for decades now. No wonder the European Union is going backwards as an economic and intellectual powerhouse.

        CommentedNum Sabo

        In Brazil the Amazon rainforest has been devastated for agribusiness and it's no secret to any of us. It's out of control and the authorities (Ibama) are impotent faced with so many injustices - killing of peasant farmers and ranchers, enviro. activists, all for illegal deforestation for grazing... It's been a lawless land of gold rush, thugs and crimes.
        Cargill is the multinational reaping much of the 'profit':
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/24/AR2007032401357.html
        Brazil has enough deforestation to feed its own people and even the neighboring countries, but if it has to supply grains to feed meat to the Chinese population, then... Adeus Amazônia.

        CommentedSergey Zavyalov

        Terry Ryan - I agree that this article lacks citations or analytic proof to argue this very controversial topic, but outright discrediting this as you have done without any citations or analytic proof on your behalf also shows a great ideological stand on your part.

        I believe that the author is just trying to raising awareness to this critical global issue as the status quo in this industry is definitely not working. This is evidenced by the global consumer discontent with GMO’s, growing health problems for which doctors usually proscribe diets and reduction in meat consumption, runway and industrial use of antibodies creating supper germs, and rising food costs.

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