Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat (1)

A report published by Compassion in World Farming
5a Charles Street, Petersfield, Hampshire, GU32 3EH. UK.


by Jonathon Porritt

There's no real logic in the way we address critical resource issues these days. Particular causes rise suddenly up the agenda, and then fall back again into obscurity, as happened with the phenomenon of acid rain through the 1980s, and the plight of the rain forests in the 1990s. Understandably, campaigners tried to pick off "winnable issues", which are usually the ones the media are most likely to get behind - regardless of whether or not they are the most significant issues in ecological or health terms. Policy-makers scurry around dealing with one damaging environmental symptom after another, with barely a moment for reflecting on what the causes of these endless symptoms might actually be. Meanwhile, the world continues to fall gradually to pieces around us as some of the gravest threats to the long-term sustainability of humankind remain all but ignored.

I would put the excessive consumption of meat right up there in that category. And though I understand only too well why it is that politicians continue to ignore this particular aspect of food and farming today, I despair at their selective blindness. And once you've read this report, I would be astonished if you didn't feel something of that same despair, having been exposed to the full gamut of consequences of the seemingly unstoppable growth in meat consumption.

I write these words as a meat-eater. I've never been a vegetarian, and as a prominent exponent of all things sustainable, have often been attacked by vegetarians for what they see as inconsistency at best and outright hypocrisy at worst. I don't see it that way, though I'm aware that my own personal response to this dilemma (which is to try and eat a lot less meat and buy almost all the meat we consume as a family from organic suppliers) is not available to most people for reasons of price, availability and so on. I am therefore, by definition, "compromised" in this debate, stuck in that tricky grey area between the moral elegance of vegetarianism on the one hand and the outright indifference of hamburger-guzzling carnivores on the other.

And that may explain why I intend to focus my comments in this Foreword on the resource issues behind meat consumption, rather than on the welfare issues. Whilst I will always continue to campaign actively to improve the welfare of farm animals, and to eliminate all forms of cruelty from the food chain, I'm reconciled - with those caveats - to the moral acceptability of the human species using other animal species for their own benefit.

By contrast, I'm far from reconciled to the grotesque misuse of the earth's resources that our current pattern of meat-eating demands. There's only one realistic framework within which to try and make sense of these issues, and that's to assess what needs to be done today to secure sustainable, dignified livelihoods for the nine billion or so people with whom we will be sharing this planet by the middle of this century. Right now, it's not looking good. All the earth's major life-support systems are increasingly stressed by the ever-heavier "footprint" of humankind, and whilst local environmental conditions in most OECD countries have indeed improved over the last couple of decades, the big global resource problems just go on getting worse.

Yet "business-as-usual" mindsets are still in the ascendancy. Our continuing failure, for instance, to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (the sole international measure available to us to start cutting back seriously on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) demonstrates conclusively the lengths to which we will go to deny today's planetary reality. Do the sums, objectively, and only one conclusion emerges: if all six billion of us were to live at the same level of material well being as the world's richest one billion currently enjoy, then we'd need at least another three planet earths to provide the resources and absorb the pollution and waste. Faced with such a surreal projection, it's surely time for the concept of "One Planet Living" to become the foundation stone of literally every new policy in every area of human endeavour.

As far as food is concerned, the key determinant of sustainability is the overall efficiency with which we use our natural capital (soil, water, energy and so on) to produce the food that we need. As is now well understood, the more meat we eat, the less efficient that ratio becomes. Although there's some controversy about the different ways in which the calculations are done, the basic rule of thumb is that it takes two kilograms of feed to produce every kilogram of chicken, four for pork, and at least seven for beef. The more meat we eat, the more grain, soya and other feedstuffs we need. So when we hear that total global meat demand is expected to grow from 209 million tons in 1997 to around 327 million tons in 2020, what we have to hold in our mind is all the extra hectares of land required, all the extra water consumed, the extra energy burned and the extra chemicals applied, to grow the requisite amount of feed to produce 327 million tonnes of meat.

Very few people in farming today (let alone amongst agricultural policy makers) are thinking this through in terms of total resource flows - what goes into the production process and what comes out. If we did any kind of serious "mass balance analysis" of these resource flows, we'd begin to see far more clearly just how unsustainable contemporary agriculture really is. At the moment, the full balance sheet is closed to us, and we can't begin to distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable livestock systems. As Colin Tudge points out in his powerful newbook, So Shall We Reap (Penguin, 2004):

`When livestock are raised according to the tenets of good husbandry (the ruminants to eat the grass on the hillsand wet meadows, the pigs and poultry to clear up the leftovers) they hugely increase the overall economy of farming. Agriculture that includes the appropriate number of animals judiciously deployed is more efficient, not less, than an all-plant agriculture. But when livestock is produced in vast (and ever increasing) numbers, needing correspondingly vast inputs of cereal, they compete with the human species. If present trends of meat-eating continue, then by 2050 the world's livestock will be consuming as much as four billion people do: an increase equivalent to the total world population of around 1970, when many were doubting whether such human numbers could be fed at all.

'Much of that growth will come in China, where a burgeoning middle class is rapidly "moving up the food chain" in terms of increasing per capita levels of meat consumption of every kind. As Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has been arguing for more than a decade, this is going to have huge implications for global food markets. China's own grain production fell from 392 million tons in 1999 to 340 million tons in 2003. The higher the proportion of that declining harvest that is required for livestock production, the more China will have to start trading on the global markets, which must inevitably lead to substantial price increases all around the world.

In fact (as you'll see in Part two), it is the impact on China's desperately overstretched water supplies that is likely to pose an even greater problem. Water tables are now declining steeply throughout the northern half of China, and with lakes disappearing and springs and rivers drying up, some now argue that Northern China is literally drying out. And that's where much of China's grain harvest comes from.

These resource constraints remain invisible to the vast majority of consumers, whatever part of the world we're talking about. We're only just waking up to the fact that climate change is going to have a serious impact on all our lives, and we still don't factor this into our individual purchasing decisions. We've absolutely no idea about how much energy is needed to put any particular piece of meat on our plate, or how much water, or how much feed. The "embedded energy" and "embedded water" are just abstractions to most people. Yet if easy access to fossil fuels or ready supplies of water were taken out of the equation, then the whole "business model" that lies behind today's intensive meat production systems would collapse.

And that day is not so far away. There is now a growing consensus that global oil extraction (in absolute terms) will peak at some stage over the next decade - it peaked more than twenty years ago in terms of the amount of oil extracted per person on Planet Earth! From that point on, the laws of supply and demand will assuredly kick in, with the gap between the two growing every year, putting an end to the utterly unsustainable fiction of "cheap meat".

And this is where the reality behind the huge growth in meat consumption begins to kick in. Up until this point in the argument, few politicians would dissent from the underlying analysis, though they would probably harbour some sad residual belief that technological progress will get it all sorted out somehow sometime in the future. But to suggest that the sacred cow of cheap meat (which has been a fifty-year, cross-party policy priority) should be not just reappraised, but humanely put down, would have them all spinning in mock populist alarm.

But put down it must be. Hardly any of the meat we eat today is as "cheap" as the price on the pack might lead us to believe. It's just that its true costs are hidden, both in terms of the unsustainable drawing down of our natural capital and of the intolerable levels of cruelty to which so many of the 22 billion farmed animals in the world today are subjected. Factor in all the health and food safety impacts of excessive meat consumption, and the notion of cheap meat is revealed as the sick joke that it really is. The truth of it is that we should all be eating a lot less meat and we should all be paying a lot more for it.

So why are our politicians so obstinately attached to the concept of cheap meat? They would of course be reluctant to find themselves accused of the kind of "elitism" which I will assuredly be accused of for writing the paragraph above, but there has to be more to it than that.

Nutritionally speaking, after all, it's clear that people actually need far less meat than they consume today. Most adults get all the protein they need from cereals and pulses, with meat adding a little bit of extra "high quality"protein, some special fats (not the saturated fats that cause such serious health problems), and other trace vitamins and minerals. Fine, but it's self-evident that one actually needs very little meat to provide those benefits.

So most of the meat we eat provides very little nutritional benefit - and massive nutritional impacts, as Mark Gold explains in Part one. So is our putative "need for meat" based more on taste than nutrition? After all, people wouldn't be eating all those hamburgers and bacon butties if they didn't taste good. True enough, but most people find they have a "saturation point" beyond which the thought of any more meat becomes unpleasant - and in different circumstances, with different incentives and different media messages, there's little reason to suppose that peoples' saturation point couldn't be set a great deal lower.

Which leaves us with the tricky issue of status. Because meat was so expensive (and relatively unattainable) for most people since the start of the Industrial Revolution, it became a powerful status symbol testimony to a person or family "getting on" in life, a convenient proxy for social and economic success. The novels of both Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, for instance, dwell with unconcealed delight on the privilege of easy access to every conceivable kind of meat, providing a sensory feast from which the poor were almost entirely excluded.

But things have changed. Most meat now is really very cheap indeed in terms of the actual price we pay, excluding very few in our much more affluent (though still hardly equal) society. Yet the "cachet" attached to meat eating seems to linger on. Again, it's hard to imagine that this somewhat spurious social and cultural proxy value would persist in an environment where meat eating was exposed for what it really is: fine in much more limited moderation, but otherwise a moral outrage and a threat to ourselves, our planet's life support systems, and to future generations.

Can you imagine a world in which meat was discussed in such terms? Where every pack of meat carried either the same kind of warning as now appears on cigarette packets, or the equivalent of the emerging marketing motif ("enjoy responsibly") of those alcohol companies that are beginning to accept the horrific health and social externalities caused by the excessive consumption of their products?

Inconceivable? Today, for sure, but for how much longer? In So Shall We Reap, Colin Tudge develops an eloquent argument demonstrating that contemporary food and farming policy has very little to do with meeting human needs, guaranteeing food security, providing high and consistent levels of nutrition and food safety, underpinning rural economies, or supporting farmers' livelihoods (as we are constantly told), let alone minimising cruelty to animals or optimising resources efficiently. Much more simply, it's all about profit: squeezing the maximum financial yield out of every link in the food chain to benefit a tiny number of an already inconceivably rich minority of citizens in the world's richest countries. He qualifies this blazing critique with some wise reflections:

`I do not suggest that the rise in meat-eating these past few decades has been a conspiracy, or a simple confidence trick. The farmers who have striven to raise their output of meat have in the main responded, as farmers in every age must always do, to the economic pressures of their day. The nutritionists who urged greater intake were sincere. Politicians concluded that the increase in livestock was good for people, and was in line with people's desires, and was also good for farmers and hence for the economy as a whole - and what else are politicians supposed to do? Yet the whole enterprise has been at least as damaging in the long term, as, say, the arms industry.'

Such an analogy will of course outrage most people involved in food and farming today. Let alone the politicians that preside so inadequately over their economic well being. Yet their denial of the cumulative impacts of excessive meat consumption is a major part of the problem. So too is the reluctance of most environmental or conservation organisations to take up some of the issues so powerfully presented in this report, on the grounds (I presume) that they are either not "winnable" or are likely to cause great offence to their own donors and supporters.

Be you a vegetarian or a conflicted carnivore (such as myself), the very least we can all do is to challenge that denial, both as consumers (through our purchasing power) and as citizens. Without such a transformation in our attitudes and behaviour, any prospect of a sustainable, secure and compassionate future for humankind is pure moonshine.

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home