The Global Dangers of Industrial Meat

Through lobbying, marketing, and proselytizing about cheap meat, the global meat industry is working hard to keep industrially produced meat on the menu, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Animal Welfare, Business, Commentary, FARMING, Food Safety

The world’s largest beef manufacturer is in trouble. Reports have emerged that employees in over a dozen plants knowingly packed rancid meat, covering up the smell with acid, slabs of which were then sold on to schools and Walmart.

All this happened not in the U.S., though, but in Brazil, headquarters to meatpacking giant JBS. Named for its founder, Jose Batista Sobrinho, the company turns over almost as much as the next three largest U.S. beef producers—Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef—combined.

In response, Egypt has already banned Brazilian beef, and U.S. Senator John Tester (D-Montana) recently introduced legislation to prevent Brazilian beef from entering into the country, even as JBS suspended meat production at 33 of its 36 Brazilian meatpacking plants.

But choosing “America First” for your steak misses two far larger points. The Brazilian giant is simply striving to adopt ideas from, and buy out companies in, the U.S. meat industry. Pilgrim’s, Cargill’s pork business and Smithfield’s beef operation have been acquired by what Bloomberg once called the world’s second largest packaged food company (behind Nestlé).

And even if you could stop the import of dodgy sausage, you still couldn’t avoid the bigger planetary impact of the beef industry, because it’s airborne. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), meat and dairy production alone now generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport combined.

Much of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial livestock occur indirectly, through the production of grains to feed to animals that then get fed to humans. In 2010, about one-third of all cereals on Earth went to animal feed, and the FAO predicts this figure will reach 50 percent by 2050. More feed means more land under cultivation. And feed crops like soybean, maize, and sorghum are usually grown with chemical fertilizers, themselves another potent source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, consumption is soaring, made possible by widespread marketing and producing meat that’s cheap to buy—even if those low prices are made possible through dangerous and poorly paid jobs, lax environmental practices, corporate subsidies, and dreadful living conditions for animals. If current trends continue, the FAO predicts world meat consumption will grow a further 76 percent by 2050. If, on the other hand, people kept their level of meat consumption to the World Health Organization’s recommended guidelines, the world could reduce 40 percent of all current greenhouse gas emissions.

Unsurprisingly, this advice hasn’t been well received by the meat, fertilizer, pesticide, and processing industries. Industrial meat concerns blasted the FAO after they put out a report in 2006 on the role of livestock in the climate crisis. “You wouldn’t believe how much we were attacked,” said Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division this UN agency. The FAO soon buckled under the pressure and agreed to establish a partnership with the meat industry’s main lobby groups and shifted the focus of its work accordingly.

Canadian academic Tony Weis has a term for what’s happening here: the world’s diet, food system, and food policy are being “meatified.” The corporations doing it are increasingly based in the global South, where most of the world’s future industrial meat eaters live, and those firms are doing roaring business.

For example, a recent report by GRAIN shows that JBS is also the world’s largest poultry producer. The world’s largest pork producer is the Chinese WH Group, and France’s Lactalis Group is the world’s largest dairy producer. These firms, together with more-established U.S. and European ones, work hard to increase their control over the market: They blunt domestic government attempts to regulate them, they spur demand across the world, and they destroy the livestock practices of small-scale farmers in the process.

Propping Up the Meat Market

When Germany drafted guidelines to reduce meat consumption, demonstrating that a 50 percent cut by 2030 would be “crucial to climate protection,” the industry lobbied. Hard. By the November 2016 launch date, the country’s climate change plan had been gutted, and stripped of any reference at all to greenhouse gases in the agriculture sector. Similar stories can be told of U.S. efforts and those, predictably, in Brazil.

Despite industry opposition to certain kinds of regulation, they’re very happy to suck at the teat of government subsidy. In 2013, OECD countries dished out $53 billion to livestock producers, with the EU paying $731 million to its cattle industry alone The same year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid more than $500 million to just 62 producers (starting with Tyson Foods) in order to get meat and dairy on school meal trays, compared to just a fraction of that to fruit and vegetable suppliers.

But the big guns in the industry’s arsenal are “free trade” agreements. These trade deals artificially prop up production and consumption by promoting the dumping of cheap meat and dairy into poor countries’ economies. They include clauses that eliminate protections for local farmers from foreign competitors. They also make it illegal to grant preference to local suppliers or products and they make government regulations subject to investor-state dispute settlement under which a foreign company can sue governments that adopt social or environmental legislation that they think undermines their profits.

Contrasting the broader carbon footprint of factory farm animals vs animals from small-scale, mixed farms using a systems lens. (Click for larger image.)

Not all meat production is the same, of course. Small scale mixed farmers and herders who graze animals on land where crops often cannot be grown are the sustainable old-guard. Their production and consumption systems contribute relatively few greenhouse gases, while improving family nutrition and livelihoods and forming an integral part of people’s cultural and religious traditions.

But even if they’re better for the planet, small-scale farmers and ranchers don’t have the political clout that industry has. Factory farms are the most rapidly growing segment of meat and dairy production, accounting for 80 percent of the growth of global meat and dairy in recent years. Industrial livestock production has grown at twice the annual rate of traditional, diversified farming systems, and at more than six times the annual growth rate of production based on grazing.

Change is Possible

Yet it’s not unimaginable to shift, at scale, away from industrial meat. Last month, Friends of the Earth and Oakland Unified School District published the result of a unique two-year experiment. The district reduced animal protein on school menus by 30 percent while increasing fruit, vegetables, and legumes. When kids ate meat, it came from local organic producers. The result: a 14 percent reduction in the school’s food carbon footprint and $42,000 savings in the cost of the meals. Perhaps most remarkable: the children reported increased satisfaction with the healthy, regionally sourced meals.

The Oakland school initiative is smart and, unlike the U.S. meat industry’s practices, deserves to be shared and spread widely. But we can’t just default to letting our children solve climate change for us. Voting with one’s fork or school menu is important, but that alone won’t restore small-scale production, and it won’t detoxify agricultural politics of corporate influence. Larger-scale policy change is vital. Some governments—including Sweden, the Netherlands and China—have started formulating recommendations that people eat less meat in the interest of reducing climate emissions.

De-meatifying the world will require more from legislators, and more from consumers. It will mean rejecting the meat-marketing and the fertilizer, feed, and fossil fuel industries, too. It will mean pushing back on the trade agreements of which these industries are so fond—and doing so without backing into the nationalism of the right. (It is striking that earlier this year we saw a Trump supporter go head-to-head against the U.S. meatpacking industry in defense of sustainable beef.)

The rift between the left and the right around climate change turns on whether you think industrial meatification is an unintended consequence of the food system or its embodiment. If it’s no accident that today’s food system exploits animals, humans and nature, then it’s clear that a radically transformed system—one that moves beyond capitalism—is what’s needed.

Buying America First won’t save us from the worst of Big Meat. But it looks as if there are many ranchers, educators, and small-scale farmers who are ready to take a more radical stand. If consumers are ready to boycott Big Meat for good, permanently choosing to support sustainable animal raising by paying more for it, there’s hope for us all.

Cattle photo CC-licensed by Alex Proimos.

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  1. Andrea Gipson
    Friday, March 31st, 2017
    GROW UP and GET OFF ANIMALS.
  2. Nicolette Hahn Niman
    Thursday, April 6th, 2017
    Well, I have tremendous respect (and affection) for Raj Patel, and, having spent the past 16 years of my life working on urging people to support BETTER farming and ranching practices, there is MUCH to praise about this article. HOWEVER, I find, once again, a troubling over-simplication of a very complex question. This article seems to stress that meat (and other foods from animals) is INHERENTLY problematic for the environment. As a person who spent two years working full time as an environmental lawyer specializing in livestock-related pollution, I am extremely familiar with that question. And, after all the years I have now spent researching and working in the field (literally), I am now absolutely persuaded that well managed animals add tremendous ECOLOGICAL value to the food system, things that are unique to animals, particularly the beneficial impacts that can be had on soil biology, especially of non-tillable land (on which the VAST MAJORITY of the world's grazing animals exist). I wish the article had spent less time with blanket vilifications of livestock and meat and a great deal MORE time exploring the complexity of truly ecologically beneficial livestock systems. ONLY by spreading the word on that point will we move in the right direction. Simply reducing or even removing animals will NEVER GET US THERE.
  3. Thursday, April 6th, 2017
    Great read. Would love to be a resource if you'd like to look at how insects as a food and feed can play an outsized role in reducing the negative impacts of factory farming and help raise the tide of small and family farms.

    RNA
  4. Stefhan
    Friday, April 7th, 2017
    Civil Eats typically has sound reporting, but unfortunately this article made some major errors. Specifically the FAO Long Shadow report does not compare the GHG numbers from the livestock Ag sector to those of the transportation sector. So the often repeated assertion that "meat and dairy production alone now generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport combined" is a mistaken assertion.

    The actual comparison is between the entire life cycle of the livestock sector versus only the tail pipe emissions of the transportation where all land use change is attributed to livestock, which isn't the case (e.g land use change for crops for ethanol or palm oil plantations for palm oil isn't done primarily, if at all, for livestock) . Long Shadows authors acknowledged this was the case . They did the LCA for livestock, and borrowed their tail pipe emission numbers from the IPCC. Consequently, the 2006 report was superseded by the 2013 report which still didn't have a full accounting (LCA) for the transportation sector.

    Also worth noting, the intent of Long Shadow authors was to demonstrate that intensification of livestock (meaning factory farming) was the way to mitigate GHG numbers from extensive (pastured) systems. This is why Long Shadows authors acknowledged, but didn't account for carbon sequestration as well as why LS's authors also attributed all land use change to livestock which the IPCC didn't do. This is why IPCC's number is 8% for all Ag including livestock Ag.

    Long Shadow's authors manipulated their stats to further their goals.
  5. Roy Williams
    Tuesday, April 25th, 2017
    The livestock industry utilizes natural resources that are otherwise not available for human consumption. In the U.S., about 600 million acres of grazing land are utilized for beef production. Those 600 million acres are not suitable for crop production, due to factors such as terrain, lack of water, non-tillable soil, and soil pH. The rain or other water available to those regions cannot be efficiently captured for any other use except supporting the natural forage and the cattle. Anyone who believes that any significant part of U.S. grazing land, or the water that reaches that land, can be used for any other purpose (except in some cases mining) is invited to take a road trip across the western U.S. - perhaps I-80 from western Nebraska to eastern California, and back on I-10 to eastern Texas.
    Animal agriculture provides us with an extensive array of products that we would either no have at all, or would be made from petroleum based materials. Animal agriculture provides an incentive for ranch owners to control erosion, maintain healthy forage grasses, and control invasive plants that were imported into the U.S. The vast ranches in the western U.S. protect our dwindling open space from further development, prevent abuse by those who do not care about anything except finding unspoiled land over which to drive their off-road vehicles, and provide surveillance for diseases that can devastate the few wild animals left.
    Claiming that we should abolish animal agriculture is denying our own biology - humans evolved to eat meat. We have multiple metabolic processes specifically for the purpose of digesting both animal and plant protein; while we can chew plant material, and extract some minerals and vitamins from those plants, we are not biologically suited to avoid animal based food (although we can do so). However, had proto-humans survived on a plant-based diet, we would likely be unable to digest animal protein. For whatever reasons, our ancestors some 4000 to 10,000 generations ago learned to use fire to cook and preserve meat and other food sources, thereby accomplishing through the use of tools (broadly speaking) what carnivores accomplished by development of their immune system: the ability to withstand pathogens inherent in animal food sources.
    So remember that our biology positions humans as consumers of animal protein - that cannot be denied. Furthermore, about 1/3 of the world's population carries a modified gene that allows us to digest milk. This genetic change occasionally occurs spontaneously, but became dominate in some populations some 10,000 to 7,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that, in the case of northern Europe, people who could digest milk had a considerable survival advantage during periods of repeated drought and famine, because their cattle could digest the sparse forage, and produce milk, while humans were unable to digest the available plant material, but could survive by supplementing their meager diet with milk produced by the cattle. The survival advantage may have been small, but it was sufficient to insure that by the time Europe was fully occupied by modern humans (ca. 4000 years ago), over 90% of the population carried the genetic change that allowed them to digest milk. (A similar scenario also played out in several other places in the world.)
    So not only did our distant ancestors' ability to learn to control fire help establish us as consumers of animal protein, so too did later successive waves of famine in various parts of the world reinforce our genetics to allow us to survive on primarily animal products.
    As a former dairyman and cattleman, I can tell you that if I were a cow, and had a choice of living on a small farm or a large farm, there is no question that I would choose the large farm or ranch. The idyllic notion that small farms are somehow "better" is largely false. Just as you would live better if nutritionists planned your every meal, and you had regular medical checkups than if you had neither of those things, so too do cattle on large farms and ranches receive better feed and better medical care than those on most small farms. Furthermore, large operations typically have the financial resources to treat unusual medical conditions, rather than let the cow die, as I have seen on many smaller farms. Larger operations can and do generally provide better housing than do most smaller operations. Finally, large farms have the resources to recycle waste products using modern technology, instead of just spreading waste products on crop land to run off into the watershed. Those of you who believe that large farms are somehow "bad" need to open your mind and go spend some time at a "mega-farm" that provides for visitors, and learn how modern agriculture implementing technology to reduce environmental footprint of farming far beyond what is financially feasible on small farms.
    Environmentally, we are all better off to promote large scale agricultural operations which have the financial resources needed to most efficiently produce our food, whether it is a 15,000 cow dairy farm or a 300,000 acre ranch. Remember: you don't see the ground pollution due to thousands of small farms, but it is there, and often smaller operations, because they cannot invest in consultants, technology and capital improvements, produce more pollution, and use resources less efficiently than large farms. As one small operator said, "we know how to farm a lot better than we can afford to farm".
    That said, there will probably always be some opportunities for the small stakeholder farm, just as there are still opportunities for small retail businesses even in a world dominated by big-box retailers.
    If you doubt what I say, you are welcome to repeat my experience of working on both large and small farms for 20 years, and see for yourself. My statements are based solely on actual, hands-on experience of working on farms, large and small, plus the knowledge of biology over 7 years of class work at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Please put your ideology aside and join those of us who want to achieve real progress in reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture, and improve the food security of the world without using resources in an inefficient or foolish manner.
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