You are what you (m)eat
One interpretation of Lady Gaga’s recent outing in a dress made of raw meat is that it was a statement about our society’s ‘hypocritical attitude to meat’. Have some consumers become so distanced from the way in which their meat is produced that the sight of raw meat is so shocking? And is this willful ignorance representative of a wider refusal to accept the realities of how our consumption of meat impacts both the environment and wider society? If that is the case we ignore it at our own peril.
Understanding the impacts of meat and dairy production
The production of meat and dairy – particularly industrial and large-scale production systems - have numerous negative social and environmental impacts. Nevertheless these large-scale systems have been credited with producing 'affordable' animal protein for consumers. But a closer analysis of what affordable really means – and for whom – is vital.
An earlier Due South post highlighted the following negative effects of large-scale animal protein production:
- The diversion of food production for animal feed, which plays a role in driving demand for cereals (and the impacts associated with agricultural expansion and intensification).
- Significant contributions to climate change (approximately one-fifth of all CO2 emissions come from animal protein production) through the release of methane and nitrous oxide and through deforestation for both meat and animal feed production.
- Considerable water usage and contributions to water pollution, particularly from animal waste.
- The loss of biodiversity - of particular concern in the Amazon where cattle ranching and feed production are significant drivers of deforestation.
- Exclusion of small-scale livestock producers from markets and consequent loss of livelihoods.
- Poor animal welfare.
Large-scale production of animal protein (which can take the form of both Concentrated Animal Feed Operations – or factory farming – and more extensive large-scale ranching) has a direct and indirect negative impact on livelihoods and food security in the developing world. While meat may be cheap at the supermarket, low prices do not include the social and environmental costs, which are often borne by the world´s poor. The reality is, therefore, that large-scale meat production really isn’t affordable at all for society or the environment. On the other hand, smaller-scale or mixed farming systems can be far more benign. They are less reliant on external inputs, are more likely to use inputs that cannot be used for human consumption, and typically offer greater socio-economic opportunities for poorer people. Nevertheless these systems can also have negative impacts.
A classic tale of inequality…
Like most environmental issues, meat consumption cannot be addressed without recognising the inequality of current consumption levels. ‘Northern’ diets are typically marked by overconsumption of meat and dairy. Currently the average American eats 100.2 kg of meat a year, compared to just 5 kg of meat eaten by the average Indian. The average American eats almost 40 kg more than the upper limit recommended by the American Heart Association. Although cultural factors influence levels of meat consumption, poverty is the key factor. In fact, while almost 1 billion people currently suffer from hunger, 1 billion people are overweight or obese. This is despite the fact that current world food production could feed the 6.3 billion people on Earth if distributed equitably and based on a diet with only moderate amounts of animal products.
And as incomes in developing countries grow – so too does meat consumption. Indeed the majority of future growth in demand for meat is predicted to stem from emerging economies, particularly China and Brazil.
There is a clear case to reduce meat consumption, but only by individuals who eat excessive amounts of meat and dairy and from large-scale production systems. There is a case for many people – particularly in the developing world - to introduce more meat-based protein into their diets, which could have important health benefits. But for many people the overconsumption of meat is costly to both themselves and wider society.
In terms of consumption, I don’t believe it is necessary or ethical for everyone to become vegetarians or vegans (though my hat goes off to those who are). In addition, if the whole world were to turn vegetarian there could still be significant environmental impacts. I do believe, however, that those who are fortunate enough to eat animal protein whenever they want should consider doing the following:
- Have days where you don’t consume any meat at all and try to reduce your overall consumption of meat. We only need on average 45-50 g of protein per day (less than half a chicken breast!) and not all of this protein has to come from meat. Reduce your consumption of red meat, which is particularly detrimental to health (and the environment).
- For those who can afford it - eat organic and free range meat wherever possible. Organic farming can have a positive impact on soils, biodiversity and water quality. It can promote the conservation and expansion of permanent grasslands which have the potential to absorb carbon (and therefore mitigate climate change). These systems are less likely to be reliable on external inputs and better able to absorb animal waste.
- Consider eating alternative cuts of meat that are typically less in demand for human consumption and therefore more likely to go to waste - offal for example? This makes more efficient use of an entire animal. Others propose eating insects as a source of protein – a popular eating habit in many parts of the world!
Clearly governments also have a vital role to play; some recommendations for what governments could do will be discussed in a future post. Nevertheless the collective efforts of individuals can have astonishing effects and we all have a responsibility to act – to ourselves and to the wider world.