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The Problem With Meat
Global meat consumption is increasing dramatically. Beware, warns Colin Tudge. It is bad for the environment and bad for us.
MEAT is wonderful. Human beings are good omnivores and we have always been hunters as well as gatherers. Farming is always more efficient with a few animals on board: ruminants like cattle and sheep to eat the grass that grows where staple crops will not, and pigs and poultry to sweep up the leftovers. In Africa 80 per cent of farmers keep chickens for just this purpose. In the extreme north and in deserts meat can be the prime source of calories. For the world as a whole meat and milk are the guarantors of quality protein, and a key source of essential structural fats, vitamins, and minerals including calcium and zinc.
But you can have too much of a good thing. And as a new report for the campaigning group Compassion in World Farming will point out next week, we produce and eat so much meat it is literally killing us and our environment. The world's output of meat increased fivefold in the second half of the 20th century. We now have 22 billion farm animals, including 15 billion chickens and 1.3 billion cattle.
And the industry is girding its loins for a 50 per cent increase in the next two decades. BY 2050, the world's livestock population will, on present trends, have grown to the point where the plant food it consumes could feed an extra 4 billion people, if it wasn't hived off for meat production.
The environment is already suffering and will suffer further if the extra beasts continue to be raised intensively in "factories". Million-head pig cities" already exist in the US and are now planned for Poland when it becomes part of the expanded European Union. Collectively, the world's livestock produce 10 per cent of all the greenhouse gases, including 25 per cent of the methane, among the most potent of all. Then there is water, which is rapidly becoming the greatest check on overall food productivity. It takes 500 litres to raise a kilo of potatoes; 900 for a kilo of wheat; nearly 2000 for rice or soya; 3500 for a kilo of chicken; and a staggering 100,000 litres for a kilo of beef.
Our health is suffering too. According to the US Worldwatch Institute, 1.1 billion people worldwide are underweight, and another 1.1 billion too fat. In the US, 23 per cent of adults are obese, but obesity besets poor countries too, from Brazil to China. Meat and milk are not the sole cause but increased fat intake is a prime suspect and most of it, in the developed world at least, comes from livestock.
With fat come "diseases of affluence". In the UK, 165,000 people a year die from heart disease - which, so one report suggests, would go down by 40,000 if everyone were vegetarian. Worldwide, 150 million are now diagnosed with adult-onset (type 2) diabetes. The World Health Organization says this will double by 2025. The world's diabetics will exceed the total population of the US today.
Why is this happening? Why do governments and many scientific experts encourage the big corporations that increasingly control the world's
food, to spoil our lives and ruin the planet? There are two prime answers, both of which boil down to cash.
First, "economic growth" as measured by increase in gross domestic product is the standard index both of government success and human well-being. But GDP is deceptive. For example, heart disease cost the US an estimated $180 billion in 2001, but the money apparently squandered appears as a gain - for it adds to the rising star that is the health industry. Both livestock and medicine are big business, both flourishing, so both, on paper, seem good for the economy.
Then there's the general problem that besets all farming: we can only eat so much. Humans need about 1500 kilocalories per day to stay fit. Eat more than twice that and most of us become obese. Providing enough for everybody is actually not too difficult - if people stick to traditional, plant-rich diets.
Meat offers the food industry a way to raise the ceiling on global consumption of farming output. Simply feed the staple foods to livestock and sell the meat: roughly 2 kilograms of feed for each kilogram of chicken, 4 for pork, and 7 or more for beef. Then the bar can be raised again by throwing most of the carcass away and selling only the steaks and cutlets (when did you last try buying tripe at the supermarket?). This game has a long way to go yet, especially as people in developing countries presently eat only about a third as much meat as westerners eat, and most of the increase is in developing countries.
The myth is that output is raised in response to public "demand". In truth, meat has been sold and sold again, to maximise farm output. Corporations seek to maximise profit; governments see those corporations as the sine qua non; and scientists cannot or will not see what a cynical commercial game they have been sucked into. The fundamental question is why we, humanity, allow the world to be run by people who have long since lost the plot.
Colin Tudge's latest book, "So Shall We Reap", on world food production, is published by Penguin. "The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat" is published by "Compassion in World Farming".
13 March 2004 - New Sc:entist 119
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Updated July 2, 2004
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