Should Humans Eat Meat? [Excerpt]

Should Humans Eat Meat? [Excerpt]

There is no doubt that human evolution has
been linked to meat in many fundamental ways. Our digestive tract is not one of obligatory
herbivores; our enzymes evolved to digest meat whose consumption aided higher encephalization
and better physical growth. Cooperative hunting promoted the development of language and socialization;
the evolution of Old World societies was, to a significant extent, based on domestication
of animals; in traditional societies, meat eating, more than the consumption of any other
category of foodstuffs, has led to fascinating preferences, bans and diverse foodways; and
modern Western agricultures are obviously heavily meat-oriented. In nutritional terms,
the links range from satiety afforded by eating fatty megaherbivores to meat as a prestige
food throughout the millennia of preindustrial history to high-quality protein supplied by
mass-scale production of red meat and poultry in affluent economies. But is it possible to come up with a comprehensive
appraisal in order to contrast the positive effects of meat consumption with the negative
consequences of meat production and to answer a simple question: are the benefits (health
and otherwise) of eating meat greater than the undesirable cost, multitude of environmental
burdens in particular, of producing it? Killing animals and eating meat have been
significant components of human evolution that had a synergistic relationship with other
key attributes that have made us human, with larger brains, smaller guts, bipedalism and
language. Larger brains benefited from consuming high-quality proteins in meat-containing diets,
and, in turn, hunting and killing of large animals, butchering of carcasses and sharing
of meat have inevitably contributed to the evolution of human intelligence in general
and to the development of language and of capacities for planning, cooperation and socializing
in particular. Even if the trade-off between smaller guts and larger brains has not been
as strong as is claimed by the expensive-tissue hypothesis, there is no doubt that the human
digestive tract has clearly evolved for omnivory, not for purely plant-based diets. And the
role of scavenging, and later hunting, in the evolution of bipedalism and the mastery
of endurance running cannot be underestimated, and neither can the impact of planned, coordinated
hunting on non-verbal communication and the evolution of language. Homo sapiens is thus a perfect example of
an omnivorous species with a high degree of natural preferences for meat consumption,
and only later environmental constraints (need to support relatively high densities of population
by progressively more intensive versions of sedentary cropping) accompanied by cultural
adaptations (meat-eating restrictions and taboos, usually embedded in religious commandments)
have turned meat into a relatively rare foodstuff for majorities of populations (but not for
their rulers) in traditional agricultural societies. Return to more frequent meat eating
has been a key component of a worldwide dietary transition that began in Europe and North
America with accelerating industrialization and urbanization during the latter half of
the 19th century. In affluent economies, this transition was accomplished during the post-WW
II decades, at a time when it began to unfold, often very rapidly, in modernizing countries
of Asia and Latin America. As a result, global meat production rose from
less than 50 t in 1950 to about 110 t in 1975; it doubled during the next 25 years, and by
2010 it was about 275 t, prorating to some 40 g/capita, with the highest levels (in the
US, Spain and Brazil) in excess of 100 g/capita. This increased demand was met by a combination
of expanded traditional meat production in mixed farming operations (above all in the
EU and China), extensive conversion of tropical forests to new pastures (Brazil being the
leader) and the rise of concentrated animal feeding facilities (for beef mostly in North
America, for pork and chicken in all densely populated countries). This, in turn, led to a rise of modern mass-scale
feed industry that relies primarily on grains (mainly corn) and legumes (with soybeans dominant,
fed as a meal after expressing edible oil) combined with tubers, food-processing residues
and many additives to produce a variety of balanced feedstuffs containing optimal shares
of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and micronutrients (and added antibiotics). But it has also led
to a widespread adoption of practices that create unnatural and stressful conditions
for animals and that have greatly impaired their welfare even as they raised their productivity
to unprecedented levels (with broilers ready for slaughter in just six to seven weeks and
pigs killed less than six months after weaning). Meat is undoubtedly an environmentally expensive
food. Large animals have inherently low efficiency of converting feed to muscle, and only modern
broilers can be produced with less than two units of feed per unit of meat. This translates
into relatively large demands for cropland (to grow concentrates and forages), water,
fertilizers and other agrochemicals, and other major environmental impacts are created by
gaseous emissions from livestock and its wastes; water pollution (above all nitrates) from
fertilizers and manure is also a major factor in the intensifying human interference in
the global nitrogen cycle. Opportunities for higher efficiency can be
found all along the meat production–consumption chain. Agronomic improvements – above all
reduced tillage and varieties of precision cropping (including optimized irrigation)
– can reduce both the overall demand for natural resources and energy inputs required
for feed production while, at the same time, improving yields, reducing soil erosion, increasing
biodiversity and minimizing nitrogen leakage (Merrington et al. 2002). Many improvements
can lower energy used in livestock operations (Nguyen et al. 2010), reduce the specific
consumption of feed (Reynolds et al. 2011) and minimize environmental impacts of large
landless livestock facilities (IST 2002). Considerable energy savings can also be realized
by using better slaughter and meat processing methods (Fritzson and Berntsson 2006). Rational meat eating is definitely a viable
option. Toward Rational Meat Eating
We could produce globally several hundred millions of tons of meat without ever-larger
confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), without turning any herbivores into cannibalistic
carnivores, without devoting large shares of arable land to monocropping that produces
animal feed and without subjecting many grasslands to damaging overgrazing – and a single hamburger
patty does not have to contain meat from several countries, not just from several cows. And
there is definitely nothing desirable to aim for ever higher meat intakes: we could secure
adequate meat supply for all of today’s humanity with production methods whose energy
and feed costs and whose environmental impacts would be only a fraction of today’s consequences. Meat consumption is a part of our evolutionary
heritage; meat production has been a major component of modern food systems; carnivory
should remain, within limits, an important component of a civilization that finally must
learn how to maintain the integrity of its only biosphere. The most obvious path toward more rational
meat production is to improve efficiencies of many of its constituent processes and hence
reduce waste and minimize many undesirable environmental impacts. As any large-scale
human endeavor, meat production is accompanied by a great deal of waste and inefficiency,
and while he have come close to optimizing some aspects of the modern meat industry,
we have a long way to go before making the entire enterprise more acceptable. And, unlike
in other forms of food production, there is an added imperative: because meat production
involves breeding, confinement, feeding, transportation and killing of highly evolved living organisms
able to experience pain and fear, it is also accompanied by a great deal of unnecessary
suffering that should be eliminated as much as possible. Opportunities to do better on all of these
counts abound, and some are neither costly nor complicated: excellent examples range
from preventing the stocking densities of pastured animals from surpassing grassland’s
long-term carrying capacity to better designs for moving cattle around slaughterhouses without
fear and panic. There is no shortage of prescriptions to increase global agricultural production
with the maintenance of well-functioning biosphere or, as many of my colleagues would say, to
develop sustainable food production while freezing agriculture’s environmental footprint
of food (Clay 2011) – or even shrinking it dramatically (Foley et al. 2011). The two key components in the category of
improvements are the effort to close yield gaps due to poor management rather than to
inferior environmental limitations and to maximize the efficiency with which the key
resources are used in agricultural production. Claims regarding the closing of the yield
gaps must be handled very carefully as there are simply too many technical, managerial,
social and political obstacles in the way of replicating Iowa corn yield throughout
Asia, to say nothing about most of sub-Saharan Africa, during the coming generations. Africa’s
average corn yield rose by 40% between 1985 and 2010 to 2.1 /ha, far behind the European
mean of 6.1 and the US average of 9.6 /ha, but even if it were double during the next
25 years to 4.2 /ha, the continent’s continuing rapid growth would reduce it to no more than
about 35% gain in per capita terms. Asian prospects for boosting the yields are better,
but in many densely populated parts of that continent, such yields might be greatly reduced,
even negated by the loss of arable land to continuing rapid urbanization and industrialization. At the same time, there does not appear to
be anything in the foreseeable future that could fundamentally change today’s practices
of growing livestock for meat. Indeed, many arguments can be made that after half a century
of focused breeding, accelerated maturation of animals and improvements in feed conversion,
these advances have gone too far and are now detrimental to the well-being of animals and
to the quality of the food chain and have raised environmental burdens of meat production
to an unprecedented level that should not be tolerated in the future. And neither the
expanded aquaculture nor plant-based meat imitations will claim large shares of the
global market anytime soon, and cultured meat will remain (for a variety of reasons) an
oddity for a long time to come. Consequently, it is very unlikely that the
undoubted, continuing (and possibly even slightly accelerating) positive impact of the combination
of higher productivities, reduced waste, better management and alternative protein supplies
would make up for additional negative impacts engendered by rising meat production and that
there would be discernible net worldwide improvement: the circle of reduced environmental impacts
cannot be squared solely by more efficient production. At the same time, the notion that
an ideal form of food production operating with a minimal environmental impact should
exclude meat – nothing less than enacting “vegetarian imperative” (Saxena 2011)
on a global scale – does not make sense. This is because both grasslands and croplands
produce plenty of phytomass that is not digestible by humans and that would be, if not regularly
harvested, simply wasted and left to decay. In addition, processing of crops to produce
milled grains, plant oils and other widely consumed foodstuffs generates a large volume
of by-products that make (as described in Chapter 4) perfect animal feeds. Rice milling
strips typically 30% of the grain’s outermost layers, wheat milling takes away about 15%:
what would we do with about 300 Mt of these grain milling residues, with roughly the same
mass of protein-rich oil cakes left after extraction of oil (in most species accounts
for only 20–25% of oilseed phytomass), and also with the by-products of ethanol (distillers
grain) and dairy industries (whey), waste from fruit and vegetable canning (leaves,
peels), and citrus rinds and pulp? They would have to be incinerated, composted
or simply left to rot if they were not converted to meat (or milk, eggs and aquacultured seafood).
Not tapping these resources is also costly, particularly in the case of porcine omnivory
that has been used for millennia as an efficient and rewarding way of organic garbage disposal.
Unfortunately, in 2001, the EU regulations banned the use of pig swill for feeding, and
Stuart (2009) estimated that this resulted in an economic loss of €15 billion a year
even when not counting the costs of alternative food waste disposal from processors, restaurants
and institutions. Moreover, the ban has increased CO2 emissions as the swill must be replaced
by cultivated feed. At the same time, given the widespread environmental
degradation caused by overgrazing, the pasture-based production should be curtailed in order to
avoid further soil and plant cover degradation. Similarly, not all crop residues that could
be digested by animals can be removed from fields, and some of those that can be have
other competing uses or do not make excellent feed choices, and not all food processing
residues can be converted to meat. This means that a realistic quantification of meat production
potential based on phytomass that does not require any cultivation of feed crops on arable
land cannot be done without assumptions regarding their final uses, and it also requires choices
of average feed conversion ratios. As a result, all such calculations could be only rough
approximations of likely global totals, and all of my assumptions (clearly spelled out)
err on a conservative side. Because most of the world’s grasslands are
already degraded, I will assume that the pasture-based meat production in low-income countries of
Asia, Africa and Latin America should be reduced by as much as 25%, that there will be absolutely
no further conversion of forests to grasslands throughout Latin America or in parts of Africa,
and that (in order to minimize pasture degradation in arid regions and nitrogen losses from improved
pastures in humid areas) grazing in affluent countries should be reduced by at least 10%.
These measures would lower pasture-based global beef output to about 30 t/year and mutton
and goat meat production to about 5 t. Another way to calculate a minimum production
derived from grasslands is to assume that as much as 25% of the total area (the most
overgrazed pastures) should be taken out of production and that the remaining 2.5 ha would
support only an equivalent of about half a livestock unit (roughly 250 g of cattle live
weight) per hectare (for comparison, since 1998 the EU limits the grazing densities to
2 U/ha, Brazil’s grasslands typically support 1 U/ha and 0.5 U is common in sub-Saharan
Africa). Assuming average annual 10% off-take rate and 0.6 conversion rate from live to
carcass weight, global meat production from grazing would be close to 40 t/year, an excellent
confirmation of the previous total derived by different means. At the same time, all efforts should be made
to feed available crop residues to the greatest extent possible. Where yields are low and
where the cultivated land is prone to erosion, crop residues should be recycled in order
to limit soil losses, retain soil moisture and enrich soil organic matter. But even with
much reduced harvest ratios of modern cultivars (typically a unit of straw per unit of grain),
high yields result in annual production of 4–8 of straw or corn stover per hectare,
and a very large part of that phytomass could be safely removed from fields and used as
ruminant feed. The annual production of crop residues (dominated by cereal straws) now
amounts to roughly 3 Gt of dry phytomass. Depending on crops, soils and climate, recycling
should return 30–60% of all residues to soil, and not all of the remaining phytomass
is available for feeding: crop residues are also used for animal bedding; for many poor
rural families in low-income countries, they are the only inexpensive household fuel; and
in many regions (in both rich and poor countries) farmers still prefer to burn cereal straw
in the fields – this recycles mineral nutrients but it also generates air pollution. Moreover,
while oat and barley straws and stalks and leaves of leguminous crops are fairly, or
highly, palatable, ruminants should not be fed solely by wheat or rice straw; rice straw
in particular is very high in silica (often in excess of 10%), and its overall mineral
content may be as high as 17%, more than twice that of alfalfa. As a result, the best use
of cereal straws in feeding is to replace a large share (30–60%) of high-quality forages. These forages should be cultivated preferably
as leguminous cover crops (alfalfa, clovers, vetch) in order to enhance the soil’s reserves
of organic matter and nitrogen. If only 10% of the world’s arable land (or about 130
ha) were planted annually with these forage crops (rotated with cereals and tubers), then
even with a low yield of no more than 3 /ha of dry phytomass, there would be some 420
t of phytomass available for feeding, either as fresh cuttings or as silage or hay. Matching
this phytomass with crop residues would be quite realistic as 420 t would be only about
15% of the global residual phytomass produced in 2010. Feeding 840 t of combined forage
and residue phytomass would, even with a very conservative ratio of 20 g of dry matter/kg
of meat (carcass weight), produce at least 40 t of ruminant meat. Unlike in the case of crop residues, most
of the food processing residues are already used for feeding, and the following approximations
quantify meat production based on their conversion. Grain milling residues (dominated by rice
and wheat) added up to at least 270 t in 2010, and extraction of oil yielded about 310 t
of oil cakes. However, most of the latter total was soybean cake whose output was so
large because the crop is now grown in such quantity (about 260 t in 2010) primarily not
to produce food (be it as whole grains, fermented products including soy sauce and bean curd,
and cooking oil) but as a protein-rich feed. When assuming that soybean output would match
the production of the most popular oilseed grown for food (rapeseed, at about 60 t/year),
the worldwide output of oil cakes would be about 160 t/year. After adding less important
processing by-products (from sugar and tuber, and from vegetable and fruit canning and freezing
industries), the total dry mass of highly nutritious residues would be about 450 t/year
of which some 400 t would be available as animal feed. When splitting this mass between
broilers and pigs, and when assuming feed : live weight conversion ratios at, respectively,
2 : 1 and 3 : 1 and carcass weights of 70% and 60% of live weight, feeding of all crop
processing residues would yield about 70 t of chicken meat and 40 t of pork. The grand total of meat production that would
come from grazing practiced with greatly reduced pasture degradation (roughly 40 t of beef
and small ruminant meat), from feeding forages and crop residues (40 t of ruminant meat)
and from converting highly nutritious crop processing residues (70 t chicken meat and
40 t pork) would thus amount to about 190 t/year. This output would require no further
conversions of forests to pastures, no arable land for growing feed crops, no additional
applications of fertilizers and pesticides with all the ensuing environmental problems.
And it would be equal to almost exactly two-thirds of some 290 t of meat produced in 2010 – but
that production causes extensive overgrazing and pasture degradation, and it requires feeding
of about 750 t of grain and almost 200 t of other feed crops cultivated on arable land
predicated on large inputs of agrochemicals and energy. And the gap between what I call rational production
and the actual 2010 meat output could be narrowed. As I have used very conservative assumptions,
every component of my broad estimate could be easily increased by 5% or even 10%. Specifically,
this could be achieved by a combination of slightly higher planting of leguminous forages
rotated with cereals, by treatment of straws with ammonia to increase its nutrition and
palatability, by a slightly more efficient use of food processing by-products and also
by elimination of some of the existing post-production meat waste. Consequently, the total of 200
t/year can be taken as an unassailably realistic total of global meat output that could be
achieved without any further conversion of natural ecosystems to grazing land, with conservative
pasture management, and without any direct feeding of grains (corn, sorghum, barley),
tubers or vegetables, that is, without any direct competition with food produced on arable
land. This amounts to almost 70% of the actual meat
output of about 290 t in the year 2010: it would not be difficult to adjust the existing
system in the described ways, eliminate all cultivation of feed crops on arable land (save
for the beneficial rotation with leguminous forages) and still average eating only a third
less meat than we eat today. A key question to ask then is how the annual
total of some 200 t of meat would compare with what I would term a rational consumption
of meat rather than with the existing level. Making assumptions about rational levels of
average per capita meat consumption is done best by considering actual meat intakes and
their consequences. A slight majority of people in France, the country considered to be a
paragon of classic meat-based cuisine, now eat no more than about 16 g of meat a year
per capita, and the average in Japan, the nation with the longest life expectancy, is
now about 28 g of meat (both rates are for edible weight). Consequently, I will round
these two rates and take the per capita values of 15–30 g/year as the range of rational
meat consumption. For seven billion people in 2012, this would translate to between 105
and 210 Mt/year – or, assuming 20/30/50 beef/pork/chicken shares, between 140 and
280 Mt in carcass weight. The latter total is almost equal to the actual global meat
output in 2010, with the obvious difference being that the consumption of today’s output
is very unevenly distributed. If we could produce 200 t/year without any
competition with food crops, then the next step is to inquire how much concentrate feed
we would need to grow if we were to equal current output of roughly 300 t with the lowest
possible environmental impact. Assuming that the additional 100 t meat a year would come
from a combination of 10 t of beef fed from expanded cultivation of leguminous forages,
10 t of herbivorous fish (conversion ratio 1 : 1) and 80 t of chicken meat (conversion
ratio 2 : 1), its output would require about 170 t of concentrate feed, that is, less than
a fifth of all feed now produced on arable land. Moreover, a significant share of this
feed could come from extensive (low-yield and hence low-impact) cultivation of corn
and soybeans on currently idle farmland. Roques et al. (2011) estimated that in 2007
there were 19–48 Mha of idle land (an equivalent of 1.3–3.3% of the world’s arable area),
that is, land cultivated previously that can be planted again, most of it in North America
and Asia. Using 20 ha of this land would produce at least an additional 60 t of feed. And when
factoring in increasing crop yields, regular rotations with leguminous forages (producing
excellent ruminant feed while reducing inputs of nitrogen fertilizers) and, eventually,
slightly higher feed conversion efficiencies, it is realistic to expect that the share of
the existing farmland used to grow feed crops could be reduced from the current share of
about 33% to less than 10% of the total. Consequently, there is no doubt that we could match recent
global meat output of about 300 t meat a year without overgrazing, with realistically estimated
feeding of residues and by-products, and with only a small claim on arable land, a combination
that would greatly limit livestock’s environmental impact. Prospects for Change
Many years ago, I decided not to speculate about the course and intensity of any truly
long-term developments: all that is needed to show a near-complete futility of these
efforts is to look back and see to what extent would have any forecast made in 1985 captured
the realities of 2010 – and that would be looking just a single generation ahead, while
forecasts looking half a century into the future are now quite common. Forecasting demand
for meat – a commodity whose production depends on so many environmental, technical
and economic variables and whose future level of consumption will be, as in the past, determined
by a complex interaction of population and economic growth, disposable income, cultural
preferences, social norms and health concerns – thus amounts to a guessing game with a
fairly wide range of outcomes. But FAO’s latest long-range forecast gives
just single global values (accurate to 1 t) not just for 2030 (374 t) but also for 2050
(455 t) and 2080 (524 t). Compared to 2010, the demand in 2030 would be nearly 30%, and
in 2050 about 55% higher. When subdivided between developing and developed countries,
the forecast has the latter group producing in 2080 only a third as much as the former.
These estimates imply slow but continuing growth of average per capita meat consumption
in affluent countries (more than 20% higher in 2080 than in 2007) and 70% higher per capita
meat supply in the rest of the world. Standard assumptions driving these kinds of
forecasts are obvious: either a slow growth or stagnation and decline of affluent population
accompanied by a slow increase of average incomes; continuing, albeit slowing, population
growth in modernizing countries where progressing urbanization will create not only many new
large cities but also megacities, conurbations with more than 20 or 30 million people, and
boost average disposable incomes of billions of people; advancing technical improvements
that will keep in check the relative cost of essential agricultural inputs (fertilizers,
other agrochemicals, field machinery) and that will keep reducing environmental impacts;
and all of this powered by a continuing supply of readily available fuels and electricity
whose cost per unit of final demand will not depart dramatically from the long-term trend. Standard assumptions also imply continuation
and intensification of existing practices ranging from large-scale cultivation of feed
crops on arable land (with all associated environmental burdens) to further worldwide
diffusion of massive centralized animal feeding operations for pork and poultry. Undoubtedly,
more measures will be taken to improve the lot of mammals and birds in CAFOs. Many of
them will be given a bit more space, their feed will not contain some questionable ingredients,
an increasing share of them will be dosed less with unnecessary antibiotics and their
wastes will be better treated. Some of these changes will be driven by animal welfare considerations,
others by public health concerns, new environmental regulations and basic economic realities;
all of them will be incremental and uneven. And while they might be cumulatively important,
it is unlikely that their aggregate positive impact will be greater than the additional
negative impact created by substantial increases in the expected demand for meat: by 2030 or
2050, our carnivory could thus well exact an even higher environmental price than today. I would strongly argue that there is absolutely
no need for higher meat supply in any affluent economy, and I do not think that improved
nutrition, better health and increased longevity in the rest of the world is predicated on
nearly doubling meat supply in today’s developing countries. Global output of as little as 140
t/year (carcass weight) would guarantee minimum intakes compatible with good health, and production
on the order of 200 t of meat a year could be achieved without claiming any additional
grazing or arable land and with water and nutrient inputs no higher than those currently
used for growing just food crops. And it could also be done in a manner that
would actually improve soil quality and diversify farming income. Moreover, an additional 100
t/year could be produced by using less than a fifth of the existing harvest of concentrate
feeds, and it could come from less than a tenth of the farmland that is now under cultivation
and that could be used to grow food crops. Even for a global population of eight billion,
the output of 300 t/year would prorate to nearly 40 g of meat a year/capita, or well
above 50 g a year for adults. This means that the average for the most frequent meat eaters,
adolescent and adult men, could be 55 g/year, and the mean for women, children and people
over 60 would be between 25 and 30 g/year, rates that are far above the minima needed
for adequate nutrition and even above the optima correlated with desirable health indicators
(low obesity rates, low CVD mortality) and with record nationwide longevities. Global inequalities of all kinds are not going
to be eliminated in a generation or two, and hence a realistic goal is not any rapid converging
toward an egalitarian consumption mean: that mean would require significant consumption
cuts in some of the richest countries (halving today’s average per capita supply) and some
substantial increases in the poorest ones (doubling today’s per capita availability).
What is desirable and what should be pursued by all possible means is a gradual convergence
toward that egalitarian mean combined with continuing efficiency improvements and with
practical displacement of some meat consumption by environmentally less demanding animal foodstuffs. Such a process would be benefiting everybody
by improving health and life expectancies of both affluent and low-income populations
and by reducing the environmental burdens of meat production. Although the two opposite
consumption trends of this great transition have been evident during the past generation,
a much less uneven distribution of meat supply could come about only as a result of complex
adjustments that will take decades to unfold. In the absence of dietary taboos, average
meat intakes can rise fast as disposable incomes go up; in contrast, food preferences are among
the most inertial of all behavioral traits and (except as result of a sudden economic
hardship) consumption cuts of a similar rapidity are much less likely. At the same time, modern dietary transition
has modified eating habits of most of the humanity in what have been, in historic terms,
relative short spans of time, in some cases as brief as a single generation. These dietary
changes have been just a part of the general post-WW II shift toward greater affluence,
and the two generations of these (only mildly interrupted) gains have created a habit of
powerful anticipations of further gains. That may not be the case during the coming two
generations because several concatenated trends are creating a world that will be appreciably
different from that whose apogee was reached during the last decade of the 20th century. Aging of Western population and, in many cases,
their absolute decline appear to be irreversible processes: fertilities have fallen too far
to recover above the replacement level, marriage rates are falling, first births are being
postponed while the cost of raising a family in modern cities has risen considerably. By
2050, roughly two out of five Japanese, Spaniards and Germans will be above 60 years of age;
even in China that share will be one-third (compared to just 12% in 2010!), and, together
with many smaller countries, Germany, Japan and Russia will have millions (even tens of
millions) fewer people than they have today. We have yet to understand the complex impacts
of these fundamental realities, but (judging by the German, Japanese and even Chinese experiences)
continuing rise in meat demand will not be one of them. And while the American population
will continue to grow, the country’s extraordinarily high rate of overweight and obesity, accompanied
by a no less extraordinary waste of food, offer a perfect justification for greatly
reduced meat consumption. Beef consumption is already in long-term decline, and the easiest
way to achieve gradual lowering of America’s overall per capita meat intakes would not
be by appealing to environmental consciousness (or by pointing out exaggerated threats to
health) but by paying a price that more accurately reflects meat’s claim on energy, soils,
water and the atmosphere. Meat, of course, is not unique as we do not
pay directly for the real cost of any foodstuff we consume or any form of energy that powers
the modern civilizations or raw material that makes its complex infrastructures. Meat has
become more affordable not only because of the rising productivity of the livestock sector
but also because much less has been spent on other foodstuffs. This post-WW II spending
shift has been pronounced even in the US where food was already abundant and relatively inexpensive:
food expenditures took more than 40% of an average household’s disposable income in
1900; by 1950, the share was about 21%; it fell below 15% in 1966 and below 10% (9.9%)
in the year 2000; in 2010, it was 9.4%, with just 5.5% spent on food consumed at home and
3.9% on food eaten away from home (USDA 2012b). The total expenditure was slightly less than
spending on recreation and much less than spending on health care. At the same time,
the share of overall food and drink spending received by farmers shrank from 14% in 1967
to 5% in 2007, while the share going to restaurants rose from 8% to 14%. These trends cannot continue, and their arrest
and a partial reversal should be a part of the affluent world’s broader return to rational
spending after decades of living beyond its means. Unfortunately, such adjustments may
not be gradual: while the FAO food price index stayed fairly steady between 1990 and 2005,
the post-2008 spike lifted it to more than double the 2002–2004 mean, and it led to
renewed concerns about future food supply and about the chances of recurring, and even
higher, price spikes. Increased food prices in affluent countries would undoubtedly reduce
the overall meat consumption, but their effect on food security on low-income nations is
much less clear. For decades, low international food prices were seen as a major reason for
continuing insecurity of their food supply (making it impossible for small-scale farmers
to compete), but that conclusion was swiftly reversed with the post-2007 rapid rise of
commodity prices that came to be seen as a major factor pushing people into hunger and
poverty (Swinnen and Squicciarini 2012). In any case, it is most unlikely that food
prices in populous nations of Asia and Africa will decline to levels now prevailing in the
West: China’s share of food spending is still 25% of disposable income, and given
the country’s chronic water shortages, declining availability of high-quality farmland and
rising feed imports, it is certain that it will not be halved yet again by the 2030s
as it was during the past generation. And the food production and supply situation in
India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria or Ethiopia is far behind China’s achievements, and
it will put even greater limits on the eventual rise in meat demand. In a rational world,
consumers in the rich countries should be willing to pay more for a food in order to
lower the environmental impacts of its production, especially when that higher cost and the resulting
lower consumption would also improve agriculture’s long-term prospects and benefit the health
of the affected population. So far, modern societies have shown little
inclination to follow such a course – but I think that during the coming decades, a
combination of economic and environmental realities will hasten such rational changes.
Short-term outlook for complex systems is usually more of the same, but (as in the past)
unpredictable events (or events whose eventual occurrence is widely anticipated but whose
timing is beyond our ken) will eventually lead to some relatively rapid changes. These
realities make it impossible to predict the durability of specific trends, but I think
that during the next two to four decades, the odds are more than even that many rational
adjustments needed to moderate livestock’s environmental impact (changes ranging from
higher meat prices and reduced meat intakes to steps leading to lower environmental impacts
of livestock production) will take place – if not by design, then by the force of changing
circumstances. Most nations in the West, as well as Japan,
have already seen saturations of per capita meat consumption: inexorably, growth curves
have entered the last, plateauing, stage and in some cases have gone beyond it, resulting
in actual consumption declines. Most low-income countries are still at various points along
the rapidly ascending phase of their consumption growth curves, but some are already approaching
the upper bend. There is a high probability that by the middle of the 21st century, global
meat production will cease to pose a steadily growing threat to the biosphere’s integrity.


5 thoughts on “Should Humans Eat Meat? [Excerpt]”

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