In Search of the True Cost of Industrial Meat

An important conference this week held by the Sustainable Food Trust brings together leaders to assess the true cost of food. Its director discusses one of the largest concerns: how to value the externalities of factory farmed meat.

Animal Welfare, Climate, Nutrition

A few weeks ago, we introduced our readers to Patrick Holden, a farmer and the director of the UK-based Sustainable Food Trust. This weekend, Patrick is bringing together hundreds of scientists, advocates, business leaders, and journalists for a three-day conference in San Francisco on the True Cost of American Food. He points out that while food in the developed world is cheaper than at any other point in history, the resources required to grow and make it—and the environmental and health impacts of doing so—are costing governments and taxpayers a great deal.

This week, we’ve asked Holden to talk about industrial meat production and its costs to society.

What are some of the costs of industrial meat production that you’d like to see quantified and why?

The cost that’s most potentially interesting to the public is the health cost. Because everyone is interested in their health. And if it becomes clear that one of the most significant hidden costs of our industrialized livestock system is the impact on public health—and that we as a society have adopted a policy of “cause the damage now and pay more later” and that we pay literally with our health—it is potentially really serious.

Antibiotics resistance is one of the most pressing issues. It is recognized internationally that we’re on the threshold of a post-antibiotics era and while we can’t prove that antibiotics used in livestock systems are the leading cause of this, with 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. going to livestock in some way or another—under the spurious title of “therapeutic,” when actually the truth is they’re being used mainly for growth promotion purposes or to suppress diseases which would otherwise make those systems unviable—you can see that this is starting to be of government interest. Imagine a situation where all the antibiotics of last resort—which are propping up public health everywhere in the world—become useless. And we’re quite close to that now.

We’d also need to look at the cost of infectious diseases linked to industrial livestock production, the quality of the meats not being as health promoting as grass-fed meat, residues of various kinds finding their way into the meat, and the cost to the environment—both of the production itself (particularly water pollution resulting from nitrate pollution) and of the cropping systems that feed the livestock (more nitrate pollution from the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used to grow acres and acres of corn and soybeans). Another major cost is greenhouse gas emissions, which impact climate change.

I’m not saying just getting the data and monetizing the data is a panacea which is going to solve this. But, in this era, good data is important and it’s regarded as important by governments, for instance. We hope that this conference will be adding to the sum of good data out there.

Whose role is it to assess these costs?

Let’s follow the money. Who’s spending the money to quantify these costs at the moment? Up until now it has mainly been the NGO community with funding from foundations and the philanthropic community. But that’s changing. I think the best indication of that change is people like Tyler Norris, [a vice president at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Total Health]. He’ll be speaking at the conference, and he says these costs are so enormous now that [even large HMOs] can no longer afford them.

In the UK, we have a national health service and its costs are now escalating out of control. Some would say that’s because we have better technology, and people are living longer, and we’re getting more sophisticated with our treatments. But it isn’t just that. We now have epidemics of cancer, obesity, diabetes, diseases of the immune system, and allergies—all of which now are beginning to be traced to farming systems and in significant measure to livestock production systems. So this is now a societal and government interest.

But in the UK it behooves the government to reduce those costs, because they’re footing the bill. That’s not the case here.

I would have said that until now. But I think that in a strange way that might turn out not to be true. The fact that Kaiser Permanente—which is not only involved with health insurance, but also health treatment and are in a marketplace of health care—the fact that the people there are starting to say, “we can’t afford this, we have to do something to change our premiums to incentivize our customers to live in a more healthy way including changing their diets,” suggests otherwise.

How would we go about quantifying what you see as the benefits of pasture-based meat?

One of the big issues is whether there are significant differences in the fat composition—the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids—between pasture-based ruminants and feedlot ruminants. More research is needed into that. The animal fat debate is an issue I have a lot of personal interest in. In the UK, as well as the U.S., there has been a major shift away from animal fats throughout the 20th Century.

Even as late as the 1980s, a significant portion of our fat intake was still coming from animals. But American and British diets are now fundamentally different in terms of the sourcing of fats. A series of government reports (which it has recently been revealed were partly influenced by the sugar industry) demonized animal fats on the basis that saturated fats were bad for public health. So there has been a massive decline in lard, butter, and red meat consumption. But cardiovascular diseases haven’t gone down even though we gave up eating these animal fats.

There have also been changes in the breeding of animals, so the typical animal is bred to have much less fat, and an increase in drugs, such as ractopamine, that result in leaner animals. And now we’re learning that animal fats—if they’re from animals that were correctly fed—might actually be good for you. But the dependence on plant-based fats, such as palm oil, as a replacement for animal fats has grown. [That production comes with its own costs to the environment.]

There are massive, strategic questions about how we feed the world population in the 21st Century and in my view there will have to be a shift back to a greater dependency of our fat intake from animals.

There not only needs to be a shift in the animals we keep—away from poultry and hogs and toward ruminant animals (because they’re the ones that can digest cellulose)—but we also need to shift away from the current, mainly grain-based feeding systems toward pasture-based ones. Doing so would also involve growing fewer acres of corn and soy and bringing back crop rotations with legumes and forage crops that would be consumed by the ruminant animals. The animals need to stay on the farms and the farms need to be mixed. And unless there’s a public understanding of the value of the right kind of animal fats, that change won’t be able to take place.

Do you think it’s important to quantify the environmental impacts of grazing animals versus those finished in a feedlot?

The NGO-led eat-less-meat campaigns have often thrown the ruminant baby out with the bathwater. In the UK, that has led to an increase the consumption of industrially produced poultry (some of the meat causing the most damage) at the expense of beef and lamb production (which has the potential to be part of the solution).

These are controversial statements because it has now become almost orthodoxy to say that the worst offender in terms of Livestock’s long shadow is [beef and lamb’s] impact on greenhouse gas emissions. What those and other reports don’t reveal is that there’s a great different between industrial ruminant production and pasture-feeding animals. One of the things that hasn’t been taken into account is that if you are grazing livestock on pasture, particularly as part of a crop rotation … it has the capacity to significantly increase soil carbon, which reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

France introduced the 4 for 1,000 Initiative at the COP21 talks in Paris in December. The aim is to find government incentives to pay farmers to be carbon stewards by rebuilding the catastrophic loss of soil carbon, which occurred during the last century as a result of continuous crop production all over the developed world. And the way to do that is to re-introduce farms that integrate livestock and crop production with fertility building systems.

Now ruminant animals do emit methane. But if you look at the methane cycle it has always been around—there were once herds of bison all across the great plaines—and methane degrades. So if we reduce the quantities of the other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—namely carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide—I don’t think it’s as important of a factor.

What do you think about the idea that even if we eat “better” meat, we still have to eat less meat over-all?

I think that’s absolutely right. We do have to eat less meat overall, but it’s a nuanced, subtle thing. This complex ecosystem of agriculture and human beings involve subtle cycles of nature, which include livestock—the right kind of livestock.

I’ve recently learned that the vegetables grown in California’s Central Valley are largely fertilized by composted manure from large animal feeding operations. So this dependency on livestock goes right to the core our food system, it’s just that we’ve put it “out of sight out of mind.”

What is a sustainable diet? It’s giving up all intensively raised meat, eating poultry and pork much more occasionally and paying more for it. And in the UK, it would actually mean eating a little more beef and lamb. But overall you’d be eating much less meat.

There’s a way that all these things are seen as disconnected. But it sounds like just as important as getting at some of these costs, is the fact that you want people to consider the whole system.

I think we’re going through a paradigm shift. We’re emerging into a new age where we understand that we can’t think of things as separate components anymore because everything is connected. We cannot separate ourselves as organisms from our environment.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Civil Eats is the official media sponsor of the True Cost of American Food Conference.

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  1. Tuesday, April 12th, 2016
    It is truly strange that Patrick Holden doesn't discuss that taxpayers are FINANCING the ag we have today. They are not just paying for externalities. The low hanging fruit, which can be calculated in ten minutes and doesnt require us to guess what the health effects, ecological effects and so on are, are the subsidies/crop insurance/tax breaks/ export credits/and so on put into agriculture by taxpayers. If this tax money wasnt being spent to finance the inputs, practically all farming would be organic. Published studies show it.
  2. Wednesday, April 13th, 2016
    Many scientists and economists are connecting changing the food system with improving human and ecosystem health, but few doctors are used as intelligent voices advocating for this, which seems a huge missed opportunity to me. Is there any interest in hearing what a physician might have to say about these topics? Especially at conferences like this? I've been writing and talking about this exact thing for years, as have a few other doctors in the US and the UK, but most of the medical community's focus is elsewhere, and many publications don't seem to be interested either. Thoughts?
  3. Thursday, April 14th, 2016
    We should stop talking about cheap food. It is not cheap as it is causing health problems and environmental problems yet "cheap food" is always used in these discussions. We ought be more precise in our terms and distinguish between "food" and "industrial products that look like food."

    The legume pasture option is viable and has been used in Australia for more than a century. (Amos Howard 1886) We have to change the price signals which favor grass and nitrogen rather than legume based pastures.

    Has the animal fat really disappeared from our diets? Of course lard, dripping and suet are not used in great quantities and even the names are unknown to some generations but it is being recycled back into industrial food because it is so cheap.
  4. Ron Griffiths
    Friday, April 15th, 2016
    This problem goes right to the heart of the diet/health issue. It stems from the US McGovern diet mantra that was based on unscientific dogma that was influenced by Money and the desire for cheap food supplied by the agriculture industry (Grains). This has been an unmitigated health disaster, which would be too embarrassing to rescind. Net results have produced a topsoil virtually destroyed by grain production and insufficient grassland to naturally graze animals who should form the essential ecosystem for the land to rotate mixed farming with healthy vegetable production and healthy grass fed meat. Regards the meat, too much is wasted because people have been caused "Fat Phobia" and only now want the prime lean cuts.