Monday, June 15, 2015
Forget about all the nasty images of animals jammed in cages and railroad cars being carted off to their doom, slaughter houses, butcher lines, feed lots, antibiotic additives, cholesterol and roly-poly “people” bellies that consume it all. Economic and great environmental realities are impacting animal protein production in startling and dramatic ways. And yeah, despite the above picture, chickens are not the answer either. Most of the same issues apply at some level.
Let’s start with the general social trend that people generally gravitate to a higher animal protein diet as their economic conditions improve. Meat is the upscale component in diet, and even within categories, the quality of that food moves from offal-driven leavings to select, choice, prime to specialized Kobe and on up. Just looking at the differential of meat consumption between developed and developing nations tells you where we are heading. We eat about three times the per capita consumption levels of meat as compared to developing countries. Thus, as developing nations grow their middle and upper classes, we can expect demand from those segments to move up and mirror our consumption patterns.
More folks eating meat, higher demand mean higher prices. Higher prices negatively impact the lifestyles of consumers who have to pay for it. “As of November , pork prices were up roughly 10 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency says it expects an additional increase of about 5 percent in 2015. Even eggs are more expensive: After a 7 to 8 percent increase in 2014, the price of eggs will tick up another percentage point or two in … And beef is in a class by itself: ‘Most retail beef prices, on average, are also at record highs, even after adjusting for inflation,’ the U.S.D.A.'s Economic Research Service said. It predict[ed] beef and veal prices will end up with an 11 to 12 percent increase for 2014, and will rise by another 5 percent or so in 2015.” NBC.com. Got it. We’re going to pay through the nose to continue our eating habits.
But the environmental impact of raising more livestock is equally disturbing. Take for example, the impact of cattle on greenhouse gasses. “Any way you slice it, beef has the highest environmental cost of just about any food going, and the cow’s digestive system is to blame. Ruminants — cows, sheep, goats and also yaks and giraffes — have a four-chambered stomach that digests plants by fermentation. A byproduct of that fermentation is methane, a greenhouse gas with some 20 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon. One cow’s annual output of methane — about 100 kilograms — is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline.” Washington Post, March 10, 2014
Butt weight (literally), there’s more as our water supplies become increasingly challenged: “Shock is reasonable after discovering that the global average water footprint – or the total amount of water needed – to produce one pound of beef is 1,799 gallons of water; one pound of pork takes 576 gallons of water. As a comparison, the water footprint of soybeans is 216 gallons; corn is 108 gallons…
“What the water footprint reveals is the magnitude of water ‘hidden’ in meat as a tally of all the water consumed at the various steps during production. Better understanding meat’s resource intensity necessitates a closer look at two crucial factors.
“The first has to do with an animal's efficiency to turn its food into body mass known as feed conversion ratios (FCR) (i.e., identical units of feed to meat, so feed: meat). The range of FCRs is based on the type of animal, and according to Dr. Robert Lawrence of Johns Hopkins University, the ratios are approximately 7:1 for beef, 5:1 for pork and 2.5:1 for poultry. The larger the animal, the larger the percentage of that animal’s body mass is inedible material like bone, skin and tissue. This is why beef conversion ratios are the highest and it takes exponentially less water and energy inputs to produce grains, beans and vegetables than meat. To be clear, raising a beef cow takes more resources because a typical beef cow in the US eats thousands of pounds of the above-listed corn and soybeans during its lifetime. Of course, the cultivation of field crops that are eventually fed to beef cattle require huge amounts of water, fertilizers, fuel to power farm machinery, land for farm fields and so forth. It all adds up.
“The second reason for meat production’s great resource intensity is due to its immense scale. Globally, there is a projected ‘food animal’ population of over 20 billion, more than twice that of the current seven billion humans the planet carries, with the animal count expected to rise along with human population growth. The animal production system expanding rapidly around the world is the industrialized concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFOs) model, the so-called ‘conventional’ (and extremely problematic) American system developed in over the last 50 years or so. CAFOs are more efficient strictly in terms of more animals produced, faster animal growth and shorter meat-to-market times because huge numbers of animals are combined into one facility where they are fed grains (and growth promoters) before being butchered. The enormous quantity of feed given to large populations of livestock, poultry and even fish – consisting primarily of corn, soy and other grains – can also exact a heavy toll in terms of resources and external pollution because of the industrial production of these crops. So even though there are perceived economic efficiency gains due to scales of production, the sheer size of these operations – including industrially produced crops and their overreliance on fossil fuels and fertilizers – swamps those gains entirely in terms of real, absolute resource-use and pollution.” Foodtank.com, December 16, 2013
Additional controversies spin around whether we should move to more natural grassland feeding systems or maintain our feedlot practices. Grassland at least produces oxygen and is less cruel to the animals allowed to roam, right? Well, it really isn’t that environmentally beneficial: “In a much-shared interview on the website of the Breakthrough Institute, Washington State University researcher Judith Capper informs us that the US status quo is the way forward. ‘If we switched to all grass-fed beef in the United States, it would require an additional 64.6 million cows, 131 million acres more land, and 135 million more tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions,’ she said. ‘We’d have the same amount of beef, but with a huge environmental cost.’…
“Is the feedlot system itself sustainable? That is, can we keep stuffing animals—not just cows but also chickens and pigs—into confinements and feeding them gargantuan amounts of corn and soybeans? And can other countries mimic that path, as China is currently?
“The answer, plainly, is no, according to the eminent ecologist Vaclav Smil in a 2014 paper. Smil notes that global meat production has risen from less than 55 million tons in 1950 to more than 300 million tons in 2010—a nearly six-fold increase in 60 years. "But this has been a rather costly achievement because mass-scale meat production is one of the most environmentally burdensome activities," he writes, and then proceeds to list off the problems: it requires a large-scale shift from diversified farmland and rainforests to ‘monocultures of animal feed,’ which triggered massive soil erosion, carbon emissions, and coastal ‘dead zones’ fed by fertilizer runoff. Also, concentrating animals tightly together produces ‘huge volumes of waste,’ more than can be recycled into nearby farmland, creating noxious air and water pollution. Moreover, it's ‘inherently inefficient’ to feed edible grains to farm animals, when we could just eat the grain, Smil adds.
“This ruinous system would have to be scaled up if present trends in global meat demand continue, Smil writes—reaching 412 million tons of meat in 2030, 500 million tons in 2050, and 577 million tons in 2080, according to projections from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Such a carnivorous future is ‘possible but it is neither rational nor sustainable’—it will ultimately destroy the ecosystems on which it relies.” MotherJones.com, June 10th.
Okay, you’ve got the facts. You know what’s coming. You understand the issues that are rather directly going to impact animal protein consumption. TMI or relevant stuff to think about?
I’m Peter Dekom, and how we live very much depends on what we know and what we care about, so the decisions are up to you.