Wednesday, January 30, 2008

No More Meat

Or at least less of it. The days of cheap and plentiful meat are coming to an end:

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: Or their phone/fax is available here.


Nat-Wu said...

I can only imagine that it'll take a major (enormous!) price increase before Americans really get discouraged from eating meat. I mean, when those 69c packages of hot dogs they sell at Wal-Mart go up to $2.59 and pound of ground round goes up $9, maybe we'll see Americans cutting back. Until then, I think people are going to keep on with their meat-eating ways.

Anonymous said...

I thank that yall are crazier than hell...if meat quites being raised then the farmer is dead which WOULD spll the end of meat and a lot of people still farm the old fashioned way not using a confined system....95% of all farms are small operations...the other 5% are your confinment and large scale operations...i can't understand why anyone would want to kill the farmer...all those cattle you see in the Slaughter House are there because of the fact that they are not able to function in the herd they cam from and altough rolling them with a forklift is not the best way to go about moving them it is very hard to get a downed cow to move trust me it's nearly impossible. Without meat mainly beef farmers will have nothing to do and then you will have even an increase in the poor population because farmers don't have a fall back plan it's all they've ever done and for some of us younger ones it's all we've ever wanted to do. And as for polluting the environment everythang we do has some affect on the environment...WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO NEXT TRY TO BAN THE GROWING OF CROPS BECAUSE THE PESTICIDES GET IN THE SOIL YOU VCAN'T DO IT IT'S NOT POSSIBLE JSUT TO QUIT DOING SOMETHING THAT FEEDS AN ENTIRE NATION. And another thing if you have all this to complain about you've obviously never farmed for some of us it is a joy and in the words of my deceased papaw "If ther So smart Why aint they farming"...i've thought about that for years and now i know it's because those people don't know shit....and i also think that when you are talking about not raising meat i would have to agree with Nat-Wu until prices get that high noone will quit buying and consuming meat because if the meat prices are that high then what peopole get payed every day week and month will go with it...INFLATION...and to all you people who think that shocking animals to move them is "wrong" yoi've never been to a stockyard or a is often the only way to get an animal to cooperate with you when you want them to move or get up...and the very last cow in the video with the back legs bent in the knee that is common ith old cattle becase of srthritis and often can come from deficencies not caused by the Slaughter house workers.

Nat-Wu said...

Boy, that's just a lot of ignorance. Alright, here's some statistics from the USDA here:

"First, small family
farms make up 91 percent of all U.S. farms. Second, large-scale family
farms account for 59 percent of all production", but "Small farms account for 63 percent of the value of
production for hay, 58 percent for tobacco, 39 percent for cash grains
(including soybeans), 37 percent for dairy products, and 33 percent for beef cattle."

That means large scale farms account for most beef production.

This is not about some campaign to "kill the farmer", this is about a campaign to realize that there are more important things than feeding people cheap beef. We don't really want to see lots of farmers go out of business, but we also really don't want to see the world destroyed by pollution and I think the latter has precedence over the former. Besides which, being liberals, we'd support federal funding to enable farmers to move to crop growing.

Growing crops doesn't have to have the same environmental effects as cattle ranching. Although most farmers use pesticides, it's not nearly as necessary when you don't monocrop, which the American corporate structure has forced on farming.

Maybe a system where cruelty is part of the system isn't a good system to begin with, anonymous. And no matter what, there's no reason to put diseased or sickly cattle into the food chain. That's what's insane.

Sorry man, but cattle just aren't as important as you (and many others) think they are.