Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.
The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”
Obviously, that rate of consumption is unsustainable. There simply isn't enough room in the world to grow all that meat, at least without devastating side effects on the environment and the world's poor:
Growing meat (it’s hard to use the word “raising” when applied to animals in factory farms) uses so many resources that it’s a challenge to enumerate them all. But consider: an estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation.
Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.
This will be inconvenient for citizens of wealthier nations, but it could have tragic consequences for those of poorer ones, especially if higher prices for feed divert production away from food crops. The demand for ethanol is already pushing up prices, and explains, in part, the 40 percent rise last year in the food price index calculated by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.
Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, an associate professor of economics at Stanford University. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.
Mark Bittman also documents the deleterious side effects that excessive meat consumption has on us as well. To keep up with the high demand for cheap meat, factory farms raise animals in appalling conditions and drug them with hormone and antibiotics so that they'll grow faster and live long enough to be killed for food. This of course is plainly cruel to the animals raised in such conditions, but it isn't good for us other. And factory farmers have every incentive to get sick and dying animals into the food chain, as this article demonstrates:
Video footage being released today shows workers at a California slaughterhouse delivering repeated electric shocks to cows too sick or weak to stand on their own; drivers using forklifts to roll the "downer" cows on the ground in efforts to get them to stand up for inspection; and even a veterinary version of waterboarding in which high-intensity water sprays are shot up animals' noses -- all violations of state and federal laws designed to prevent animal cruelty and to keep unhealthy animals, such as those with mad cow disease, out of the food supply.
One reason that regulations call for keeping downers -- cows that cannot stand up -- out of the food supply is that they may harbor bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. It is caused by a virus-like infectious particle that can cause a fatal brain disease in people.
Another is because such animals have, in many cases, been wallowing in feces, posing added risks of E. coli and salmonella contamination.
Yes we have plenty of laws on the books banning these sorts of cruel, inhumane, dangerous and short-sighted practices. But if you think these practices are isolated, think again (read Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" or Matthew Scully's "Dominion" if you want to know what really goes on in these places.)This goes on all the time because the Agriculture Department doesn't have the regulations or practices in place to stop it, and because the profit motive of factory farmers encourages them to push dying animals into the food supply, even if they happen to be dying of mad cow disease.
But this system is simply unsustainable. Animals raised for food eat food that many of the world's people desperately need to eat, they compete with us for space, they damage the environment, and our practice of raising them in horrendous conditions is cruel to them and damaging to our public health. Bittman also describes the various alternatives available, including raising animals in more humane and less restricted conditions. Though most Americans will not be willing to consider a change in what's on the dinner table based on environmental impact and cruelty alone, we may all find ourselves priced out of cheap meat whether we're ready to change or not. And that can't happen soon enough.
UPDATE: The USDA has suspended Westland's contracts with the government while they investigate, but if you wish to encourage a most robust investigation, visit the Humane Society's website to send an email to the USDA. Westland Meat Co., the owners of the meat packing plant where these acts took place, has replaced their website with a statement about the video and a pledge to clean up their operations. But if you'd like to send them an email, this address should do: email@example.com. Or their phone/fax is available here.