Red and white—and far from green

En­vi­ron­men­tal cost of pro­duc­ing meat is un­sus­tain­able be­cause of in­dus­trial farm­ing

Down to Earth - - ANALYSIS -

The 21st cen­tury has been marked by con­cern about the im­pact of live­stock on the en­vi­ron­ment, a con­cern that grew sharper in the wake of the 2006 re­port by fao, Live­stock’s long shadow, which said the live­stock in­dus­try is di­rectly or in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for 18 per cent of global green­house gas emis­sions (ghgs) — a fig­ure higher than that for the en­tire trans­port sec­tor.

It brought into fo­cus, the role of live­stock in en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion by driv­ing de­for­esta­tion and degra­da­tion, agri­cul­tural in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion and in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, and as a sec­tor that com­petes for nat­u­ral re­sources.But grab­bing at­ten­tion was its im­pact on cli­mate change, wa­ter and bio­di­ver­sity. Last year, how­ever,it re­vised down­wards the fig­ure of emis­sions to 14.5 per cent of ghgs but em­pha­sised that live­stock plays an im­por­tant role in cli­mate change.

The 2013 re­port, ti­tled Tack­ling Cli­mate Change through Live­stock, says cat­tle used in both milk pro­duc­tion and beef ac­count for the majority of emis­sions, re­spec­tively con­tribut­ing 41 and 20 per cent of the sec­tor’s emis­sions.Pig and poul­try meat along with eggs add nine and eight per cent re­spec­tively. “The strong pro­jected growth of this pro­duc­tion will re­sult in higher emis­sion shares and vol­umes over time,”it warns.Al­ready, global meat pro­duc­tion is at a new peak of 308.5 mil­lion tonnes in 2013 and is set to rise fur­ther with de­vel­op­ing coun­tries pro­duc­ing and con­sum­ing more meat.

The quest for cheap and plen­ti­ful meat has re­sulted in fac­tory farms where more and more an­i­mals are squeezed into smaller lots in cruel and shock­ing con­di­tions. Such prac­tices have re­sulted in many of the world’s health pan­demics such as the avian flu. “World­wide, live­stock are in­creas­ingly raised in cruel, cramped con­di­tions, where an­i­mals spend their short lives un­der ar­ti­fi­cial light, pumped full of an­tibi­otics and growth hor­mones, un­til the day they are slaugh­tered,” notes Meat At­las, a far from ed­i­fy­ing re­port on the state of meat pro­duc­tion. The re­port brought out by Hein­rich Boll Stiftung and Friends of the Earth Europe is subti­tled Facts and fig­ures about the an­i­mals we eat and high­lights the prob­lems that arise from a com­plex set of is­sues re­lated to pros­per­ity, health and sus­tain­abil­ity.

Wa­ter us­age is one of the gnaw­ing wor­ries. Worldwatch In­sti­tute points out that a ma­jor strain on the en­vi­ron­ment is the wa­ter-in­ten­sive na­ture of meat pro­duc­tion, es­pe­cially beef. It cal­cu­lates that an es­ti­mated 15,000 litres is needed for ev­ery kilo­gram of beef com­pared with 3,400 litres for rice, 3,300 litres for eggs and 255 litres for a kg of pota­toes.

At the root of the prob­lem is the trans­for­ma­tion of pro­duc­tion sys­tems. The small farmer and the lo­cal butcher shop are now a dis­tant mem­ory in the de­vel­oped world where ruth­less ef­fi­ciency is the or­der of the day as con­sol­i­da­tion of the meat in­dus­try reaches epic proportions.For in­stance,in the US,feed­lots for 100,000 head of cat­tle are now in op­er­a­tion. Such stag­ger­ing economies of scale are nec­es­sary to bring down costs in an in­dus­try where profit mar­gins are thin.

To high­light the scale of op­er­a­tions, Meat At­las gives the ex­am­ple of jbs sa, a beef company based in Brazil, which is the world’s top food and bev­er­age company with sales of $38.7 bil­lion dol­lars in 2012. A rel­a­tively un­known name,jbs’s has global ca­pac­i­ties to slaugh­ter 85,000 head of cat­tle, 70,000 pigs, and 12 mil­lion birds daily. This meat is dis­trib­uted in 150 coun­tries as soon as the car­casses are “dis­as­sem­bled”.

But in Asia and Africa,it is com­pletely the re­verse. Small farm­ers are the back­bone of the meat in­dus­try and their meth­ods of pro­duc­tion do not dam­age the en­vi­ron­ment be­cause ru­mi­nants are grazed on pas­ture which binds their emis­sions into the soil.But change is tak­ing place—in chicken pro­duc­tion in In­dia and pork in China where fac­tory meth­ods are be­com­ing the norm. For those who dream of a meat­free world,it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that live­stock pro­duc­tion ac­counts for 1.4 per­cent of the world’s gdp and pro­vides liveli­hood to 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple,most of whom (987 mil­lion) are the poor.

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