You are what you (m)eat

Guest blog by
7 October 2010

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:

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.

So what…?

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:

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.