The high cost of cheap meat

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Fac­tory-style live­stock pro­duc­tion is a crit­i­cal driver of agri­cul­tural in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. 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 ki­los 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 so­called 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 meat out­put from 300 mln tons to­day to 480 mln 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 fer­tilis­ers 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, fer­tiliser, 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 jeop­ar­dises 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 nu­tri­tion­re­lated 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 ex­ter­nalise 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 i mports 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 fer­tilise 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 U.S., the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion could ban the non-ther­a­peu­tic use of an­tibi­otics. And the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s farm bill pro­grammes 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 recog­nise 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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