Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat (2)

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

Executive Summary

In the second half of the 20th Century, worldwide meat production increased roughly fivefold; per capita consumption more than doubled. Even though the industrialisation of farming has allowed vast numbers of animals to be reared inrelatively small areas, those kept in factory farms cannot forage for their own food or live on scraps or waste products - as was traditionally largely the case. Consequently, massive areas of land are given over to growing crops to feed them. Livestock production has become the world's largest user of agricultural land.

The farm animal population has expanded dramatically to meet demand. Today, the growing human population - already in excess of six billion - shares the planet and its resources at any one time with nearly one billion pigs, 1.3 billion cows, 1.8 billion sheep and goats and 15.4 billion chickens. As the intensive poultry industry (in particular) spreads to and within many areas of the world, there are already twice as many chickens as there are humans on earth to eat them. Consumption of dairy produce, eggs and seafood have also increased rapidly.

Before the 1990s, the vast majority of animal products were consumed in rich countries, yet in the last decade many in developing nations have also adopted what was once known as the Western diet. Even though per capita consumption of beef, pork and chicken remains at only a third of the quantities eaten in the industrial world, it has doubled in poorer countries in little more than a decade. All indications are that this trend will continue apace for the foreseeable future, encouraged by governments and large-scale international agricultural interests.

0.1 Current policies are unsustainable

The scale of this expansion is unsustainable and will reduce the future prospects of healthily feeding an expanding human population. The main problems can be summarised as follows: In the developed world, inappropriate diet is increasingly accepted as a cause of ill-health and morbidity. Meat, meat products and dairy foods make up the greatest percentage of saturated fat intake and there is now general consensus among nutritionists that this contributes significantly to several diseases which have reached epidemic proportions. All informed opinion stresses the desirability of reduced consumption of animal products and increased intake of fibre-rich carbohydrates, fresh fruit and vegetables in order to minimise risk of heart disease, mature onset diabetes, obesity and (possibly) some cancers.

Rather than adding to our capacity to feed the world's human population, putting animal products at the centre of food policy diminishes the possibility of doing so. Just as growth in the human population inevitably puts a strain on the earth's resources, (leading many experts to cite control of numbers as crucial to the fight against human hunger), so a spiralling farm animal population is also threatening stability. Apart from those who feed predominantly on pasture where it is difficult to grow crops, and others who feed on scraps and waste products as part of rotational mixed farming, farm animals utilise considerably more food calories than they produce in the form of meat. Meat is the most resource costly form of food because livestock waste most of the energy and protein value of their feed in digestion and bodily maintenance. More food can be obtained by using land to grow crops for direct human consumption.

Farm animals also compete with people for other precious resources, notably water. Lack of water is now recognised as the greatest single threat to yields from arable farms, making it vital to develop food production systems which minimise water reliance. Each calorie of meat takes far more water to produce than a calorie of grain, so one of the simplest ways to increase the ratio of food produced to water consumed is to reduce dependence upon meat.

The unsustainably large livestock population is having a devastating environmental impact. Often overlooked as a contributor to global warming, livestock herds account for ten per cent of all greenhouse gases, including approximately 25 per cent of emissions of methane - considered to be among the most potent.

A further major problem is created by the sheer volume of waste produced by the farm animal population - estimated at thirteen billion tonnes every year. Even in countries where relatively strict anti-pollution measures are imposed, this causes high levels of ammonia and nitrate pollution of land, water and air. The excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to grow crops for animal feed creates further environmental damage.

Other ecological problems are specific to individual areas. Among the most spectacular have been rainforest destruction in Central and South America caused by the felling of forests in order to rear cattle for the hamburger trade or to grow soya for animal feed, and desertification from overgrazing in parts of Africa.

The massive increase in meat production would not have been possible without the development of industrialised methods of farming, allowing far more animals to be fattened than would have been possible via traditional systems. Production methods have ignored the rights and needs of animals by depriving them of the opportunity to fulfil natural behaviour patterns. Exercise, fresh air and social interaction have all been considered unnecessary. Selective breeding for unnaturally rapid growth has created numerous endemic health problems, particularly from leg deformities and heart weakness.

Since 1997, the EU has recognised farm animals as sentient beings, capable of suffering and feeling pain. It should, therefore, be incumbent upon policy makers to outlaw methods of production which, by their very nature, severely compromise basic welfare standards. This can only be achieved by reducing the number of animals bred, reared and slaughtered - and consequently by reducing the amount of meat produced and consumed.

0.2 The predicted future for global food production

Whether on grounds of human health, sustainable use of resources, environmental protection or animal welfare, it is imperative that the human population decreases its dependence upon animal products. Yet according to predictions by leading agencies, there is little sign that the warning is being heeded. According to a November 2001 report by the World Bank, Livestock Development - Implications for Rural Poverty, the Environment, and Global Food Security: 'total global meat demand is expected to grow from 209 million tons in 1997 to 327 million tons in 2020 (56%). Over the same period global milk consumption is expected to increase from about 422 million tons to 648 milliontons (54%).' {1}

This is approximately the same massive rate of increase as we have seen in the last forty years, forecast to occur within only two further decades. It is anticipated that most of this increase will come from animals bred in intensive farms, the majority of them in the developing world. According to the World Bank report: 'per capita meat consumption in the developing world will increase from 25 kilograms to 35 kilograms, compared to an increase from 75 kilograms to 84 kilograms in the industrial world'. {2}

If this prediction proves accurate, some eighty per cent of the total worldwide increase by 2020 will occur in developing nations, by which time they will be responsible for 65 per cent of global output. The World Bank alsosuggests that 95 per cent of increased milk production will come from developing nations, leaving them with some 57 per cent of worldwide consumption. {3} While the authors of Livestock Development acknowledge that this projected expansion 'could severely affect global food security, the natural resource base, and rural equity' they dismiss the logical response - to curb demand for meat and milk - as 'not a viable option'. {4} ('Global food security' is defined by them as 'the individual's access to enough food to maintain a healthy and active life'.)

0.3 A planet-saving alternative

Historically there seems to have been a direct correlation between rising affluence and increased consumption of animal produce. This suggests that it will prove extremely difficult to discourage developing nations from emulating the food production and consumption patterns followed in the industrial world since the end of the Second World War. Yet rather than accepting that the current trend towards a high-meat diet is inescapable, this report suggests that an alternative approach is essential. Unless we begin to rely less upon animal products in the human diet we will place a catastrophic strain upon the earth's resources, with potentially disastrous consequences for human health and hunger, the natural environment and animal needs.

This report summarises the case for reduced dependence upon livestock to feed the human population and suggests ways in which change can be achieved. It is aimed primarily at both decision makers and individuals in the developed world. While developing countries must also review, as a matter of urgency, the implications of their increased reliance upon meat and dairy foods, it would be presumptuous to attempt to impose food policy upon them - particularly when the vast majority of animal products are still consumed within the industrial world. The hope is, nonetheless, that those with influence in the developing world may accept the logic of the case presented here.

Meanwhile, one of the most powerful ways in which the North can encourage the South not to follow the predicted massive dependence upon meat eating is to set an example worthy ofimitation. Moving towards a more plant-based diet in the developed world - however belatedly - is probably also the best way of promoting sustainable food policy in developing nations.

0.4 How can change be achieved?

There are two principal ways in which change in food policy can be achieved:

Firstly, through the power of individuals to inspire progress by the actions they take as consumers and/or as activecitizens and campaigners.

Secondly, by the decisions of policy makers.

In some parts of the industrial world, many individuals have radically altered their eating habits over the last twodecades. In the UK, some consumers have reduced their consumption of meat (particularly red meat) or made adecision only to eat organic or free-range produce. The vegetarian population has grown significantly and nowstands at roughly 5 per cent of the population. The number of vegans has also risen sharply from approximately70,000 in 1985 to an estimated 250,000. Part of the purpose of this report is to encourage more people tosupport these initiatives.

Thus far, however, politicians have barely recognised levels of meat consumption as an issue worthy of serious debate, let alone introduced the type of programmes that might bring about progress. A primary function of this report is to gain acceptance of the need for radical reform at the political level, suggesting measures that will promote food policies that are healthier, more humane and sustainable. For the sake of people, animals and the planet, meat must now become an urgent political issue. As an initial step, we recommend thatgovernments in the developed world pursue a target of 15 per cent reduction in meat consumption by the year 2020. Rather than an extreme measure, this should be viewed as a moderate response tothe latest findings on healthy and sustainable food production methods from many respected organisations - notably the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and AgricultureOrganisation of the United Nations (FAO).

0.5 Defining agricultural sustainability

Sustainability has become a key concept for environmentalists and human rights activists. What does it mean forfood production? Dr Jules Pretty of the University of Essex gives the following definition:

'It is farming that makes the best use of nature's goods and services while not damaging the environment. Sustainable farming does this by integrating natural processes, such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soilregeneration and natural pest control, within food production processes. It also minimises the use of non-renewable inputs that damage the environment or harm the health of farmers and consumers.' {5}

In pursuit of this goal, many proponents envisage an agricultural system where intensive production is abandoned in favour of traditional methods in which relatively small numbers of animals are reared extensively. Animal produce is seen as a relative luxury to supplement a largely plant-based diet. Decent standards of animal welfareattempt to ensure that livestock enjoy a relatively natural life and as quick and painless a death as possible. Their wastes are returned to the soil, playing an essential role in maintaining soil fertility and environmental biodiversityas part of mixed organic rotational systems, or by grazing on marginal pasture lands.

Although the tendency worldwide is away from sustainable agriculture towards industrial production dominated bypowerful conglomerates, many small-scale farmers across the globe still produce food in this traditional way. For example, intensive poultry farming is the fastest growing form of intensive farming throughout the world, yet still some 80 per cent of farmers in Asia and Africa raise small flocks of chickens who survive by scavenging. {6}

What makes current levels of meat consumption a particular danger to food security is both the number of animals reared and the fact that they are grain and soya-fed (i.e. land is devoted primarily to feeding them rather thanpeople directly). It is these trends that must be reversed if sustainable levels of production are to be achieved.


{1} Livestock Development - Implications for Rural Poverty, the Environment, and Global Food Security, World Bank, report no 23241, November 2001

{2} Ibid

{3} Ibid

{4} Ibid

{5} Jules Pretty, Agri-Culture, Earthscan Books, 2002

{6} Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply, Council For Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) Task Force report, no 135, July 1999


Executive summary (page) 8
0.1 Current policies are unsustainable 8
0.2 The predicted future for global food production 9
0.3 A planet-saving alternative 10
0.4 How can change be achieved? 10
0.5 Defining agricultural sustainability 11

Part one - Eating for good health 12
1.1 General advice on diet - consistent findings over recent decades 12
1.2 Heart disease and fat consumption 12
1.3 The health benefits of Mediterranean diets 14
1.4 The success of low-fat treatments for heart disease 14
1.5 General advice on heart disease and diet - latest findings 15
1.6 The obesity epidemic and poor diet 15
1.7 The rise in adult-onset diabetes 16
1.8 Diet and cancer 16
1.9 The role of meat in healthy diets 17
1.10 Changing patterns in meat consumption 18
1.11 The role of fish 18
1.12 The role of dairy foods 19
1.13 The monetary costs of poor diet 19
1.14 The food pyramid - a plausible blueprint 20
1.15 Summary21Part two - Feeding the world 22
2.1 The inefficiency of animal foods - food conversion rates 22
2.2 The global water crisis and animal products 24
2.3 The value of livestock to poor communities 25
2.4 The diminishing availability of land for food production 26
2.5 The inappropriateness of industrialised livestock production in the fight against human hunger27
2.6 How the rich world is fed 27
2.7 The global consequences if the developing worldimitates the developed world 28
2.8 Will the world's grain harvest keep pace with global demand for animal products? 28
2.9 Factory farming and developing nations (1) - Brazil's poultry industry 30
2.10 Factory farming and developing nations (2) - Sri Lanka's experience in the 1990s 31
2.11 Factory farming, globalisation and food security 31
2.12 The double burden of disease in the developing world - hunger and obesity 32
2.13 The positive aspects of traditional diets in the developing world 33
2.14 The effect of diet in the developed world upon the developing world 34
2.15 Summary 35

Part three - Poisoning the planet 36
3.1 Water pollution and livestock farming 36
3.2 Land pollution and livestock farming 37
3.3 The contribution of animal waste to acid rain and global warming 38
3.4 The effects of overgrazing and animal feeds on wildlife and soil 38
3.5 The pollution problems of overfishing 39
3.6 Intensive animal farming - impact upon biodiversity 39
3.7 Summary 40

Part four - Food safety: from Foot and Mouth to BSE 41
4.1 The increase in Campylobacter and Salmonella poisoning 41
4.2 Emerging diseases and the risk to human health 42
4.3 The global problem of animal diseases 43
4.4 The use of antibiotics and the threat of transferable resistance to humans 44
4.5 The drugs trade - a worldwide threat 45
4.6 Growth promoting hormones 46
4.7 The dangers of chemical overuse 46
4.8 The financial burden of food-borne disease 47
4.9 Summary 47

Part five - Animal welfare 48
5.1 Broiler chickens 48
5.2 Battery hens 49
5.3 Pig farming 49
5.4 Dairy cattle 50
5.5 Beef cattle 51
5.6 Sheep 51
5.7 Markets, transport and slaughter 52
5.8 Genetically modified animals 52

Part six - Good food policies 53
6.1 Principles of good food policy 53
6.1.1 Redefining the idea of `cheap food' 54
6.1.2 The ethical cost of industrialised animal production 54
6.2 The urgency of reform556.2.1 How we trade 55
6.2.2 The polluter pays principle 56
6.2.3 Introducing financial incentives for `good food' 57
6.2.4 A new emphasis for agricultural research 58
6.2.5 Changing methods of production 58
6.3 Moving towards good food policies - further suggestions 60
6.3.1 The introduction of meat reduction targets 60
6.4 Further evidence for radical reform 61
6.5 Summary 63
6.6 How the individual consumer can help - some choices 64

Appendix 1 -An integrated approach to dietary reform 65
Appendix 2- Vegetarian and vegan diets and human health 66
Appendix 3 - Dietary choice and its potential impact in the fight against human hunger 67
Appendix 4 - The vegetarian food guide pyramid 68

Bill Totten


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