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Drink Wine or Beer for Least Environmental Impact?

Last month I came across this article on treehugger raising the question of whether drinking wine or beer was less harmful environmentally.  When I read the full piece I was a little disappointed as I had imagined it would cover aspects regarding the production – growing conditions, fertiliser use, energy used in wine making versus malting/brewing.  I started to think that vines could be grown locally with few inputs or mechanisation and the wine-making could be achieved with limited energy use whereas growing barley was going to rely on mechanisation, transport, energy for malting/drying and then all the energy to mash and boil.  However, the article covered none of this, the only factors considered were around transportation – of raw ingredients to the production facility and the final transportation to the consumer.  Therefore I thought I’d look a bit further into the subject.

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Meat consumption research – Part 9 Conclusions/Solutions

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

Solutions can be divided into what we can do personally as individuals and what can be done at a wider level by corporations, governments and other organisations.

Personal responsibility

To summarise the issues detailed in previous sections, continued human population growth and expanding meat consumption both require expansion of agricultural output. Deteriorating resource and environmental conditions for agriculture and the dangers of rainforest destruction make that expansion difficult to achieve without compounding ecological damage. Western populations have relatively little control over global population growth but certainly have the power to affect meat consumption rates – a relatively small reduction of Western consumption rates could eliminate global growth. Consumers have to become aware of the wider costs that their food choices have in a world with, possibly, billions of similar consumers. With that knowledge, consumers with an interest in environmental protection would have to reject high consumption of meat from modern intensive production. Furthermore, consumers with an interest in animal welfare have to understand that most meat from intensive production systems fail to deliver that welfare due to the conditions in which animals are raised.

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Meat consumption research – Part 8 Ethical considerations

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

Fundamental ethics of meat-eating

As discussed in parts 1-4, historically, meat-eating has been a fundamental part of life throughout human history and for our evolutionary ancestors. Indeed, modern humans may never have evolved if it was not for the meat in their diet. In nature, the hunting and consumption of other animals by carnivores and omnivores is part of a survival strategy and philosophical questions regarding the ethics of eating of meat have only been available to relatively modern humans. Before the introduction of agriculture the consumption of animal meat appears to have been almost essential for human life. Therefore, it’s possible that hunter-gatherer humans had a similar relationship and dependence on hunting as carnivores such as the tiger.

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Meat consumption research – Part 7 Other impacts

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

Economic factors

The development of the modern agricultural system summarised in part 4 has resulted in an enterprise with some perverse economic realities. Supply has been partly decoupled from demand, prompting over-production. These surpluses have depressed agricultural market prices and subsidised Western farmers have had an unfair advantage over unsupported farmers, often in poorer parts of the world.

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Meat consumption research – Part 6 Impact of meat and diet on human health

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

The Western “killer” diet

Modern food production systems ended millennia of food uncertainty for much of the world’s population. Unfortunately, this security has not reached the poorest billion of population who still struggle to feed themselves due to lack of income or resources. For the richer populations, effective food price deflation has stimulated over-consumption and considerable changes in diet. After years of increasing longevity, life expectancy is starting to retreat as more of the population succumbs to obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

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Meat consumption research – Part 5 Impact on the environment

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

Due to there being fairly extensive information about agriculture’s impact on the environment and my focus on some of the less investigated areas, this section only briefly outlines some of the major environmental impacts.

According to research carried out by FAO (2006), around 70% of the total agricultural land area is used in the raising of livestock. That area accounts for about 30% of the total ice-free land surface. However, much of this land is marginal and is used for grazing and would not be productive for other types of agriculture. Raising of livestock utilises about a third of the total arable land supply for growing of feed-crops. Given these figures, it is clear that continued expansion of the industry presents a challenge in terms of environmental and food supply security as either more land needs to be used or more crops needs to go towards animal feed. Intensive livestock production is still mostly the preserve of the more economically advanced countries and the livestock feed is also mainly produced in OECD countries. Current levels of livestock production let alone expansion look unsustainable due to their dependence on large energy inputs, heavy impact on the environment and dwindling global water security.

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Meat consumption research – Part 4 Industrialisation and modernisation

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

As the early industrial countries enriched themselves in the 19th century, the spectre of famine gradually diminished with international market-based trading generally guaranteeing food availability. In these societies, eventually even the poorest members came to be able to afford meat regularly. Rising incomes allowed more of society to eat as only the rich had done in the past making elite cuisine more attainable and widespread.

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Meat consumption research – Part 3 Between agriculture and industrialisation

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

Much of the information for this part came from Massimo Montanari’s lessons at the university and his excellent book of food history, The Culture of Food (1994).

With the fall of the Roman empire, the power base became shared between what the Romans had distinguished as “civilised” and “barbarian” societies. This brought about a melding of the dominant food cultures, creating a hybrid system where both meat, especially from hunted animals and agricultural produce were both important for food and ideology.

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Meat consumption research – Part 2 The introduction of agriculture

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work

It is not known exactly how agriculture spread after emerging in the middle east around 10-15 thousand years ago and political ideas have skewed some of the theories raised from archaeological findings in the last couple of centuries. The political influence often promoted theories of descent from “civilised” farming ancestors rather than from what were considered “savage” hunter-gatherers. Consequently, the idea of hunter-gatherer incumbents being replaced by a wave of “civilised” farming peoples coming from the middle east was preferred by many in the field and seemed to fit the evidence. However, examination of the current state of research leads Richards (2003) to conclude “the majority of European genetic lineages have their roots in the European Palaeolithic.” This suggests that agriculture was a technique that was taken up by existing peoples rather than being the preserve of a conquering or replacing immigrant farming population.

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Meat consumption research – Part 1 Meat and diets in our evolutionary history

San Hunters

San Hunters - Photo by Charles Roffey licensed under Creative Commons license

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work

When considering human diets, food requirements and choices it is essential to look at the evolutionary history of our species. This requires looking back at least the couple of hundred thousand years of homo sapiens time on earth and even the previous hundreds of millions of years since our ancestral divergence from other primates. With the relatively recent changes to diet that agriculture and industrialisation have brought, it is especially valuable to consider what has been eaten for most of our evolutionary history.

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Meat consumption research – Introduction/Aim

I spent the last 4-5 months working on my final thesis for the University of Gastronomic Sciences.  I chose to look at meat consumption, the growth of which is exacerbating agricultural sustainability issues.  Following my time at the university, I was especially interested to look at some of the historic and cultural issues that make meat such a valued part of the diet.  I was also interested to look further into the health implications of diets.  The work was helped and inspired by my reading of Richard Manning’s book Against the Grain, Massimo Montanari’s teaching at the university and his book The Culture of Food and Michael Pollan’s books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defence of Food.

The title of my work is…

Towards a more sustainable food system: Understanding the history, culture and impact of meat in human diets

and a brief synopsis…

High and rising global meat consumption threatens the sustainability of our food system with ever more resources devoted to livestock farming while much of the world remains hungry. I look at the history and culture of meat in human diets, the way we produce meat, it’s role in human health, ethical issues and solutions to restore sustainability.

In the end I think I was a little over-ambitious with the wide scope of the research.  It was more work than was required for the university but I was interested in doing it and felt that I was looking at the issues from a unique set of perspectives.  Unfortunately, I had to rush at the end to get it finished for the deadline and some parts could have done with some more work.  I will publish it here over the coming weeks, tidying up some bits that I was not satisfied with.

The work was a real challenge and a valuable exercise.  In places it was very difficult to keep objective and construct defendable arguments.  Please comment if you find anything you think is poorly argued or wrong.

See below for the aim of the research

Part 1: Meat and diets in our evolutionary history is here

Part 2: The introduction of agriculture is here

Part 3: Between agriculture and industrialisation is here

Part 4: Industrialisation and modernisation is here

Part 5: Impact on the environment is here

Part 6: Impact on human health is here

Part 7: Other impacts is here

Part 8: Ethical considerations is here

Part 9: Conclusions/Solutions is here

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More on Peak Oil

Last month I wrote a little about the ‘peak oil’ problem after watching the film A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash.  With the recent escalation of oil prices, it is much easier to believe that the time of peak oil (when production can no longer increase and starts to contract) may be with us.  I came across a host of other videos dealing with the subject and showing how significant these events could be.

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Food Ethics Magazine – The Food Crisis


The current issue of the magazine of the Food Ethics Council covers the issues behind and caused by the recent food commodity price rises (that I also wrote about here). Here are some contributions that stood out for me…

Alex Evans of the Center on International Cooperation, New York University presents some detailed analysis of the factors causing the situation. He writes that the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that roughly half the recent price increases are due to changing consumption patterns with growing affluence in places like China, India and Russia. Extra income allows the purchase of more meat and dairy products and animal rearing consumes large quantities of agricultural outputs as feed. They give the role of biofuels in removing food-crops from the food markets a lesser importance, responsible for around 30% of the price increases. The high prices should ease this year but are likely to remain higher than before. He goes on to warn of the other factors that threaten food security in the near future such as water scarcity, climate changes and feeding the poorest people of the world. Feeding the poor has been made much more difficult for the World Food Programme, much of its food came from surplus stocks and its budget can now purchase much less food and transport than previously. On top of this there are now many more hungry people in the world.

Adam Drewnowski of the UW Center for Obesity Research, University of Washington, Seattle writes that where it could be thought that higher food prices would reduce obesity rates, in fact the opposite could be true. This is because as poorer people try to save money on food, they will buy cheaper energy-dense foods and will be even less likely to buy healthier, fresh foods.

Peter Melchett of the Soil Association explains how prices of organic agricultural products have not had the same level of price rises, insulating organic producers from some of the shock. However, he thinks that with the renewed greater profitability of non-organic farming, there will be less conversion of farmers to organic production – organic margins were especially attractive to farmers facing low market prices for conventional crops.

David Barling of the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London had been working on a study of UK food security. After a recent high in the 1980s when 75% of all food was produced in the UK, this fell to 58.1% in 2006. He believes that the government should align their food policy with their other priorities for sustainable development, making sure they are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.

Bill Vorley of the International Institute for Environmental Development worries that the environment will be one of the big losers from the current crisis. Rather than dealing with some of the underlying causes, the outcome will be increased planting of crops, using land that had been set aside, and opening up new agricultural land for example clearing forest.

Sophia Murphy of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy provides an eloquent criticism of globalised “free trade” systems which have mostly only benefited the large agricultural trading companies. The World Trade Organisation purports to give markets stability, Murphy writes that the current conditions show that it does nothing of the sort. To conclude, she details some solutions governments could adopt that have been developed in a report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development.

Daryll E. Ray and Harwood Schaffer of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee analyse the causes of the price rises, most of which have been identifiable for some time. They conclude therefore that governments could have planned for this situation.

Edward Clay of the ODI looks at some problems in the way the World Food Programme operates, for example that much of its donations have been food-based out of unsold surpluses. This has helped promote an import-based solution which may further hinder long-term local solutions. With less surplus and higher prices, funding of the programme will probably need to change and he presents some ideas on how the whole concept of food aid might be improved.

Patrick Mulvany of Practical Action praises the work of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development. Their report was sponsored by FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the World Bank and WHO. 400 scientists were involved with the research. The 2,000 page report was overseen by a committee that included representatives from 30 governments and 30 other organisations. The report concludes that to feed the world’s population into the future, agriculture needs to be radically changed to a more sustainable practice.

Tido von Schoen-Angerer of Médecins sans Frontières warns that the people most at risk with the increased food prices are poor children. The most important time for good nutrition is between the age of 6 months and 2 years. Even before the price rises, malnutrition was contributing to the death of 5 million children under the age of 5.

And finally, Nick Snelgar of Futurefarms offers their vision of community-owned agriculture as a possible model for revitalising food and agriculture in the UK.

How bad will this oil situation get?

I have heard mentions of the coming of peak oil for a number of years now. The other night I watched the film A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, a film first released in the US back in March 2006 but not in the UK until November 2007. The film is mostly made up of parts of interviews with some oil industry people and people who have researched the subject.

The film, coupled with the current massive increase in oil prices made me realise that I hadn’t really understood the full implications of peak oil and how quickly it could affect us.

The peak oil concept, while being significantly absent from much of the media, government and industrial dialogue, seems mostly to have been met by dismissal, a little like how global warming was received 10-20 years ago. As the film points out, there are a few dangerous assumptions at work behind these dismissals… there seem to be some hangovers from the 1970s when 2 oil crises prompted a lot of “it’s the end of the world” type cries followed by complete returns to normality shortly afterwards, unfortunately, the current situation is based on a completely different problem. There also seems to be a belief that we have to be “running out of oil” before we have a serious problem. But this does not take into account how catastrophic rising demand and falling production can be for market prices. In fact in the 1970s it seems that the quadrupling of prices was only caused by a 5% reduction in availability.

Finally, with the incredible reliance on oil that we have built much of the world’s economy and infrastructure on, the realisation that oil supply will only shrink and become more expensive in the future is highly likely to cause an economic crash, possibly of gigantic proportions.

One of the most interesting interviewees in the film was Matthew Simmons, an energy investment analyst with a long history with the oil business, he is even reputed to be an adviser to George W Bush. He points out that data show that their was a peak in global oil production in May 2005 of 74.3 million barrels per day. As time passes, this is looking likely to have been the point of peak oil production! In August 2007 when he collated this data, the production was down to 72.5 mbpd. Meanwhile, consumption of oil has been growing consistently by almost 2% per year.

The question is, what will happen next? The Guardian’s economist last week wrote that he thought the oil price was suffering from a classic bubble market effect, with speculation driving most of the recent price gains. He was expecting this to collapse at some point and become more stable. Certainly, high oil prices should start to have some impact on demand. Unfortunately, energy markets do not respond as easily to price increases due to lack of alternatives (a person commuting 80km to work by car with no public transport alternative can not easily reduce consumption even if the cost doubles). However, there seem to be noises that the US is losing its appetite for SUVs and some airlines are starting to fold.

What is unclear for me is how much the financial markets have really taken account of of this situation and its implications, and what effect there will be when most people do come to understand it. Are we facing sudden financial melt down or a slower reaction depending on exactly what happens with oil prices? With the way global finance seems to be based on ever more illusory forms of investment, I’m not sure I credit the system with much intelligence.

To understand more, I recommend watching the film and looking at some of the following…





Reform Club Menu, 9th May 1846

Reform Club Menu, 9th May 1846

Scan of menu from Alexis Soyer’s book “The Gastronomic Regenerator” found at books.google.co.uk

As part of a food history course we have had with Professor Alberto Capatti, food historian and dean of the University of Gastronomic Sciences we were given an assignment to analyse a menu.  In Colin Spencer’s “British Food, An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History” I found a menu from the Reform Club in 1846, a time when Alexis Soyer, the most famous chef of the time was employed there.  Following are some information about the menu and an analysis of the food on offer…

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World Food Crisis Conference with Solomon Katz

Last week Solomon Katz came to the university to talk to us about the current problems with food prices and supplies. He is a professor of anthropology and director of the Wilton M. Krogman Center for Research in Child Growth and Development at the University of Pennsylvania. Here is a summary of the information I picked up and some of my thoughts…

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