My Uneasy Relationship With Meat
I have always been a bit ambivalent about eating meat. I like the taste of beef, chicken, lamb and, to a lesser extent, pork, but I have always been aware that if I had needed to kill the relevant animal to eat its flesh, I (to coin a phrase) wouldn’t have had the guts to do it. I suspect that I am by no means alone in this. Most meat-eating humans finding beef or chicken nicely packaged in a supermarket fridge don’t give much thought to the “process” that has brought it there!
The Global Picture
Global consumption of animal proteins has been rising inexorably for the past six decades. Interestingly, meat production actually decreased in 2019 and 2020, but it is unclear if this trend will continue. Much of the decline in 2020 reflected a sharp drop in pork production, largely concentrated in Asian countries affected by the African swine fever virus. There was also a decrease in beef production, especially in the USA and Australia. In contrast, production of poultry meat and ovine meat increased. The pace of expansion of all meat sectors was negatively affected by COVID-19 market disruptions. Meat consumption tends to change in tandem with two factors: population and wealth. Global growth in the former is slowing. The coronavirus pandemic certainly has affected the latter, although meat production didn’t fall even during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.
The Scale Of The Problem
Two quotes that I have come across recently put into perspective for me the scale of the human love affair with meat:
The first is by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, and puts the obsession in historical context: “As humans spread around the world, so did their domesticated animals. Ten thousand years ago, not more than a few million sheep, cattle, goats, boars and chickens lived in restricted Afro-Asian niches. Today the world contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and more than 25 billion chickens. And they are all over the globe. The domesticated chicken is the most widespread fowl ever. Following Homo sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and forth most widespread large mammals in the world.”
The second quote is from David Attenborough’s Foreword to The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review: “But consider the following facts. Today, we ourselves, together with the livestock we rear for food, constitute 96% of the mass of all mammals on the planet. Only 4% is everything else from elephants to badgers, from moose to monkeys. And 70% of all birds alive at this moment are poultry – mostly chickens for us to eat. We are destroying biodiversity, the very characteristic that until recently enabled the natural world to flourish so abundantly. If we continue this damage, whole ecosystems will collapse. That is now a real risk.”
Why Meat Is Bad For The Planet (Or, Rather, Humanity)
Apart from the ethical aspects of eating meat, especially meat produced in factory farms, and the adverse effects of meat production on biodiversity (which are considerable topics in themselves), our obsession with animal protein is bad for humanity in many other ways. I have previously written about the connection between industrial farming and the increasing numbers of zoonoses, including our old friend SARS-CoV-2.
Global beef and dairy consumption generates more greenhouse gas (GHG) than all the World’s cars. Cattle have been estimated to be responsible for 9% of human-induced GHG. To look at it another way, 24% of total GHG emissions come from agriculture and land use, of which 25% comes from cattle meat production. The reason cattle and other ruminants are particular contributors to climate change is that they generate methane. Although it is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, methane traps over 84 times more heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period and 28 times more over 100 years. There is evidence that feeding seaweed to cows, even in small amounts, can significantly reduce their methane production. However, the component of seaweed that has this effect is classed as a carcinogen by some environmental protection agencies, and if our cattle numbers are to keep increasing the amount of seaweed needed would be substantial.
Compared with 46.2 kg carbon dioxide emitted per kg product for beef, the equivalent figures for chicken and pork are 5.4 and 6.1, so from a climate change point of view it is a good thing that recently beef production has declined, but this may only be a temporary hiatus. Almost 30% of the World’s ice-free land is used to raise livestock. We grow an enormous amount of crops to feed these animals, and making space for this almost inevitably involves deforestation. To combat this aspect of the problem, some have proposed farming insects to make animal feed.
The Drugs Don’t Work
The final problem with meat that makes it a threat to human existence relates to antibiotic resistance, which, if unchecked, could effectively cripple modern medical care. Around 60-70% of antibiotics used globally are given to farm animals. Antibiotics have been used in livestock rearing for over 60 years. In Europe, they were originally given to animals to boost their growth, but antibiotic use for this purpose was banned throughout the EU in 2006. It is, however, still common practice in the United States and several other countries.
Another use (or abuse, depending on your point of view) of antibiotics in farming is as an “insurance policy” for intensive farming systems. In the EU, farmers may routinely dose groups of animals preventatively with important antibiotics, even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals. This is particularly common in the UK pig and poultry industries, where animals are often kept in overcrowded and stressful conditions.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity. WHO recognises that misuse and overuse of antimicrobials are the main drivers in the development of drug-resistant pathogens. Even if we ignore the risks of death and disability related to AMR, it also carries significant economic costs. It tends to result in prolonged illness with longer hospital stays, and necessitates the use of more expensive medicines. If antimicrobials become increasingly ineffective, the success of modern medicine in treating infections, including during major surgery and cancer chemotherapy, would be greatly compromised.
So, meat may be tasty, but its associations with loss of biodiversity, pandemic risk, climate change and antibiotic resistance, not to mention the major ethical issues associated particularly with industrial farming, make the current state of play unsustainable.