The global benefits of not eating meat

The global benefits of not eating meat

In the second half of the 20th Century, worldwide meat production increased roughly five-fold; per capita consumption more than doubled. Even though the industrialisation of farming has allowed vast numbers of animals to be reared in relatively 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 6 billion — shares the planet and its resources at any one time with nearly 1 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. 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 isnow 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 10 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.

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 million tons (54%).’ This is approximately the same massive rate of increase as we have seen in the last 40 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.’

If this prediction proves accurate, some 80 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 also suggests that 95 per cent of increased milk production will come from developing nations, leaving them with some 57 per cent of worldwide consumption. 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’.

(‘Global food security’ is defined by them as ‘the individual’s access to enough food to maintain a healthy and active life’.)

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 of imitation. 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.

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 active citizens 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 two decades. In the UK, some consumers have reduced their consumption of meat (particularly red meat) or made a decision only to eat organic or free-range produce.

The vegetarian population has grown significantly and now stands at roughly 5 per cent of the population. The number of vegans has also risen sharply from approximately 70,000 in 1985 to an estimated 250,000. Part of the purpose of this report is to encourage more people to support 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 that governments 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 to the latest findings on healthy and sustainable food production methods from many respected organisations — notably the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

Defining agricultural sustainability Sustainability has become a key concept for environmentalists and human rights activists. What does it mean for food 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, soil regeneration 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.’ 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 welfare attempt 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 biodiversity as 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 by powerful 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.

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 than people directly). It is these trends that must be reversed if sustainable levels of production are to be achieved.