October 2, 2010 (3 years, 6 months ago)

Meat Should Carry a Health Warning

© The Ecologist

Eifion Rees talks to the Compassion in World Farming veteran and co-editor of The Meat Crisis – a shocking new book that exposes the range of environmental and health threats facing us if we don’t kick our addiction to meat

Eifion Rees: You say the meat crisis is one of surfeit: we’re consuming too much meat for our health, global resources of land and water, the climate and environment and for animal welfare. What is a sustainable level of production and consumption?

Joyce D’Silva: Europeans eat 90kg of meat a year per person, Americans 125kg a year. Countries like China and India, which are rapidly developing an urban middle class, are now wanting to do the things that lots of urban middle-class people do, which is to eat lots of rich food, including meat. Because of this huge burgeoning demand for meat, it’s not something you can see in isolation as just the consumption of one country – it has to be seen in a global perspective. The feed for these animals, by and large factory-farmed in huge industrial units, is traded globally – soya from Brazil, corn from the US, other cereals from southeast Asia, sadly even parts of Africa – as are the animals, sometimes going on horrendous journeys of thousands of miles just to be slaughtered, and of course the meat.

There is a consensus among the experts writing in my book that the current situation of overproduction and consumption of meat is unsustainable – the whole system is unsustainable – and that change has got to happen.

ER: The book reveals the many and complex issues surrounding our consumption of meat, inextricably linked to trade, politics, finance… Given that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts total global meat consumption will grow from 240 million tonnes today to 465 million tonnes in 2050, meaning 120 billion animals being slaughtered a year, how easy is it going to be to unpick these disparate strands?

JD: Very difficult, because we’re still in a growth mindset and even after the financial crisis are trying to build up the system that failed us in the first place. It seems to be absolutely accepted that meat and dairy consumption will double by 2050 – and it probably will unless we do something about it – but how it will happen is really hard to see. There won’t be enough water or crops to go around, which could lead to more hungry people, more land in bad shape and our scare water becoming even more scarce. It’s important that everyone in the western world tries to reduce their meat and dairy consumption at a personal level, as well as try to influence the governments and policymakers to stop subsidising and promoting the growth of meat.

ER: Most governments are notoriously unwilling to stand in the way of food companies and Big Agri, how possible is that going to be?

JD: That will be a difficulty for sure, but not insurmountable – one would like to think governments still have some power. In the book Jonathon Porritt suggests some radical things, such as Personal Meat Quotas and the government setting up a committee to reduce meat consumption, like during the war. Governments are wary of telling people what to eat, but the smoking ban is accepted now.

ER: So what is the best way to convince people to eat less meat?

JD: We may only realise it’s humans not animals we should be feeding if something drastic like a global drought or total crop-failure happens, but it would be less painful to do it gradually. There may come a time when we see carbon or water footprint warnings on packets of meat – in the book Arjen Hoekstra estimated each kilogram of beef account for 15,500 litres of water – or health warnings. Changing what you eat is more difficult than installing a dual-flush toilet or insulating your house; it’s tied up with identity, culture, wealth, so it won’t be straightforward. You could do it in a scary way – by talking about the link between red and processed meat and colon cancer, for example – but it’s better to explain the facts and how people could make things better for animals and the environment by choosing to have a couple of meat-free days a week.

ER: But does consumer advice really work?

JD: If governments invested a fraction of what they do on defence in an engaging advertising campaign you’d get people dying to eat tofu or lentils. They need to grow up and get more sophisticated about laying out the arguments. Consumers are beginning to wake up to farm animal welfare issues. Cargill, one of the biggest US food companies, is phasing out sow stalls; seven states have passed bills phasing out sow stalls and veal crates, and California is even getting rid of battery cages for laying hens. They’re not doing this because they want to but because of a shift within the US in the past 10 years.

ER: Where did it all go wrong?

JD: With the development of factory farming after the Second World War, and also of the antibiotics and vaccines these farms have needed to be able to keep 30,000 meat chickens or 500 pigs or cows in a shed. We use half the world’s antibiotics on animals, which can leave residues in meat; their overprescription has also contributed to the creation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in humans. We’ve been looking at productivity as an end in itself, and not seeing its wider implications for feeding the world. Nearly a billion people will go to bed hungry tonight while we tuck into plates of meat from animals that have eaten crops growing on their land.

ER: So we need to tackle globalisation and multinational capitalism before we can sort out these problems?

JD: Growth and profit are seen as good in themselves, but you need to put other parameters around them – is growth ethical, sustainable? – otherwise there will be mayhem growth, which has devastating impacts on the environment, people’s lives and animal welfare. If you don’t bring ethical sustainability standards into the equation you’re lost. It’s easy for companies to develop a beautiful CSR document but they’re just paying lip service unless [those promises are] translated into action.

ER: What will be the most immediate environmental impact people will notice related to meat production?

JD: It depends where you are in the world but I think water scarcity. Whether people see its relationship to meat production is another question. Drought somewhere may be caused by river water being used for crop irrigation further upstream, but unless the media makes it into a joined-up story most of us won’t realise that those crops are being grown for animal feed – the connection with meat won’t be obvious.

ER: Do farmers need re-educating as well as diners?

JD: Compassion in World Farming has long said that farmers should be licensed, because you’re caring for land and animals, individual sentient beings whose welfare EU states have a duty to protect under the Lisbon Treaty. Through subsidies, training, licensing, there are all sorts of ways to help farmers farm better. Factory farmers lose their independence to controlling companies – they’re more like prison warders.

ER: People often aren’t aware that the meat and livestock industry lobbies hard to keep consumption up.

JD: Yes. The FAO’s Dr Samuel Jutzi recently told the CIWF annual lecture what huge pressure the FAO itself comes under from agribusiness interests. When it produced the Livestock’s Long Shadow report four years ago a couple of the governments withdrew their funding when the first draft came out, because they were so upset by its findings. Just a few months ago, an academic in the US produced a paper trying to debunk it which the press pounced upon – his research was subsidised by the meat industry.

ER: The meat industry would have us believe that demand is the issue.

JD: But demand doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it’s influenced by advertising, media, government policy… Supermarkets are reluctant to choice-edit, but M&S and Waitrose don’t sell battery eggs – they’ve edited the choice of their consumers – and there are no petitions to bring them back. You could have a supermarket that decides not to sell any factory-farmed products. Even McDonald’s in the UK is using free-range eggs and avoiding the use of battery eggs across the EU, though in the US it has only gone so far as to give its caged hens a fraction more space – it would be great if these big global companies took the highest standard in every sphere. You only need one individual in a corporation to move things forward.

ER: And hopefully an increasing number of companies will see which way the wind is blowing and want to stay ahead of the game – it will make good business sense.

JD: Absolutely. I recently visited a big egg-producer in Greece, a country that has been doing battery eggs for years. The traditional battery cage will become illegal in the EU in January 2012, but this company told me they think the market is moving beyond the only slightly better ‘enriched’ cages their competitors are now adopting. Instead they’re investing in free-range farms or indoor systems where the birds can move around freely.

ER: CIWF had its Eat Less Meat campaign in 2004, now there is Meat Free Monday and similar campaigns, and a growing number of people becoming vegetarian – is there momentum building behind meat-reducing diets?

JD: Things have definitely started to change, especially over the last couple of years, with serious TV programmes like Newsnight discussing the issues and respected people like Jonathon Porritt advocating meat-reduction. As well as all the political lobbying we do, we’re planning to build a popular movement to get rid of factory farming, part of which has to be reducing personal meat consumption – watch this space!