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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

Aim of research

The world faces an unprecedented set of problems which threaten catastrophe unless action can be taken to reduce risks. Climate change has proved to be a much greater and more imminent threat than most people anticipated just a few years ago. Global population growth continues adding pressure to many systems and resources that the human population relies on. Rapid economic growth in developing countries like China, India and Brazil have increased the spending power of a significant proportion of the world population, leading to shifts in consumption towards that of the richer developed countries. Food production faces insecurities due to climate change, land degradation caused by unsustainable farming practices and land loss from increasing urbanisation and transfer of food crops to bio-fuel production. Oil supplies may soon begin to contract due to peaking of global production, threatening much of the food production infrastructure that developed nations have come to rely on. Water supplies are looking increasingly insecure due to over-extraction, changing weather patterns and competition for water resources between various peoples. With reduced yields and increased competition for food resources pushing up prices, the poor of the world have been left in a significantly worse situation, facing hunger or starvation.

Demand for meat is projected to double from the 229 million tonnes produced worldwide in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050 (FAO 2006). In developing countries average consumption has already doubled since the 1980s to around 28kg per person per year and at the top of the consumption ladder, the average US consumption is more than 120kg per person per year (Carcass weights, FAO 2006).

Livestock already account for the use of around 70% of global agricultural land through their grazing and feed crop production and that feed-crop production uses around 33% of the world’s crop-land (FAO 2006). Therefore, future expansion of the industry would require extensive conversion of extra land to grazing and/or feed-crop production.  Expansion of agriculture is often at the expense of rainforest destruction in the tropics, making it particularly damaging ecologically.  Agriculture already uses 70% of the total world fresh water supply and many areas of the world are experiencing declining water security.  This threatens the continuation of current agricultural yields let alone an increase.  The livestock sector is responsible for around 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is a greater share than that produced by transport (FAO 2006). Considering all of these factors, it is clear that the projected expansion of the sector poses a considerable concern for the world.

It is clear from looking at food cultures around the world that meat plays a very important role. Furthermore, with the long power and economic dominance of Europeans and their descendants, much of the developed world has been influenced by the meat-rich dietary model that was central to north/central European cultures. Economic development and industrialisation of food systems in the last 100 years have created a system based on supplying this model, consequently, high meat consumption has become affordable to ever greater proportions of society. Powerful western political and corporate influences have spread this production and consumption model to the developing world and now, with strong economic growth in countries like China, India and Brazil, the meat and livestock industry has been growing strongly.

While domesticated animals have played an important role in food supplies in many traditional agricultural societies, production methods tended to be integral and complementary to production of other foods. Animals would be grazed on otherwise under or un-productive land, they would eat “waste” plant matter and their manure would be used as a fertiliser for crops. Meat was generally expensive and could only be eaten regularly by the rich. The modern system that has made meat so relatively cheap within economically advanced societies is considerably less holistic. Firstly, animals have more and more often been fed on human food crops like corn and wheat rather than plant-wastes and grassland. This makes the meat very expensive in terms of arable land use and agricultural inputs used and means that livestock competes with the world’s poor food-buyers for edible crops. Modern livestock systems have had their raw efficiency greatly increased through breeding, concentration of animal numbers and reduction of human labour input. However, there have been considerable side-effects including poorer animal health, requiring greater use of pharmaceuticals, large quantities of animal waste from the more concentrated operations become a big disposal and pollution problem, and for the consumer, the meat has become less healthy and often less tasty.

The danger behind increasing meat consumption has been recognised by some organisations involved in food and policy but wider awareness is weak. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which, in 2006, concluded a large study of the livestock sector’s impact within the food system “Livestock’s Long Shadow”. In their report they conclude that “the truly enormous impact of the livestock sector on climate, biodiversity and water is not fully appreciated” even by environmentalists and environmental policy makers.

With increasing awareness that the current levels of meat consumption growth are unsustainable, attention has to be directed towards solutions for reducing that growth or consumption. However, this leads to a difficult area with many counter-balanced arguments in respect of entitlements to freedom, strong cultural and historic pressures, powerful commercial and economic interests and complex factors within people’s relationship with food, nutrition and meat consumption. When the issue is raised, the full importance of cultural and historic factors are often overlooked resulting in unbalanced arguments and debates.

Having personally been both a meat eater and vegetarian and following my time studying food culture, history and production at the university, I felt it useful to look into the historic and cultural factors that have made meat so important to most modern food cultures. I then look at some of the environmental, health and ethical issues that meat production and eating is causing today. Finally, I consider some of the solutions for restoring food system sustainability and meat’s role in it.


Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Environmental Issues And Options.

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