In a World of Carnivores, Meat Exacts a Costly Toll

世人皆吃肉 養肉代價高

HERE’S THE BEEF This feed lot in in California can accommodate up to 100,000 head of cattle.

Published: January 27, 2008

A big change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store – something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

It’s meat.

Livestock’s High Energy Costs

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally – like oil – meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

The Huge Flow of Animal Waste

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

Beef cattle raised for the Harris Ranch Beef Company, Coalinga, Calif.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, recently announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

The world’s total meat supply was 64 million metric tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 258 million metric tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”

Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about 227 grams a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

An estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than transportation.

Grain, meat and even energy are grouped in a way that could have dire results. More meat means an increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

This will be inconvenient for citizens of wealthier nations, but it could have tragic consequences for those of poorer ones, especially if higher prices for feed divert production away from food crops. The demand for ethanol is already pushing up prices, and explains, in part, the 40 percent rise last year in the food price index calculated by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens. This despite the inherent inefficiencies: about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption, according to Rosamond Naylor, a professor of economics at Stanford University in California. It is as much as 10 times more in the case of grain-fed beef in the United States.

The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States – much of which now serves the demand for meat – contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams.

Because the stomachs of cattle are meant to digest grass, not grain, cattle raised industrially thrive only in the sense that they gain weight quickly. This diet made it possible to remove cattle from their natural environment and encourage the efficiency of mass confinement and slaughter. But it causes enough health problems that administration of antibiotics is routine, so much so that it can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten the usefulness of medicines that treat people. It also leads to tainted meat. A California meat company this month issued the largest beef recall in United States history, about 65 million kilograms.

Experts say it is unlikely price spikes will change eating habits, but perhaps the combination of deforestation, pollution, climate change, starvation, heart disease and animal cruelty will gradually encourage the simple daily act of eating more plants and fewer animals.

Mark W. Rosegrant, director of environment and production technology at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute, says he foresees “a stronger public relations campaign in the reduction of meat consumption – one like that around cigarettes – emphasizing personal health, compassion for animals, and doing good for the poor and the planet.”



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