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.

Modern intensive livestock production, which has been partly founded on these artificially low agricultural commodity prices, has largely developed down an economic cul-de-sac. Perhaps due to northern, puritan influence, markets in meat became simplified with the product being treated as a commodity. Within these markets, providing criteria criteria were met, beef was beef and pork was pork.

Perhaps such simplification would not have been so widespread if the system had developed in France or Italy where different animal breeds and regionality are often celebrated. Devoid of such differentiation, Western meat producers had only one competitive tool available to them – price. Ever since, there has been a competition to produce meat as cheaply as possible, thereby gaining market share as overall value shrank. Inevitable questions regarding what this cost-cutting was doing to meat quality have led to defensiveness and obfuscation by the industry. Such questions are virtually impossible to answer convincingly when almost all production effort is centred on production efficiency and profit margins.

With declining profit margins, producers had to expand production to survive and that expansion further increased competition. In this vicious circle of competition, livestock producers were either able to expand fast enough to stay with or ahead of the competition or were forced out of the industry. Consequently the number of livestock producers plummeted. Economic conditions remain extremely difficult for many producers in the West. Their operations require considerable initial investment, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the generally depressed market conditions.

Fairing somewhat better than the primary producers are the meat distribution and processing companies. They have been able to ensure their own profitability, a task made easier by considerable consolidation within this sector leaving a few giant corporations in control of much of the market. These companies sometimes have extraordinary power over the contract farmers that actually raise the animals due to the terms of the operations, high investments in equipment, and lack of alternative buyers (Singer & Mason 2006).

Food security

The agricultural production revolution of the 20th century greatly increased the total amount of food being produced on the planet. However, strong global population growth has kept the proportion of people that can not adequately feed themselves at significant levels. While this is more to do with an inability to access food rather than a true global shortage, the globalised nature of agricultural commodity trading exposes the world’s poor consumers to a host of disadvantages. Until the price rises of 2006 these globally traded commodities were at historically low prices. However, for the significant number of food-buyers in the world earning less than $1 per day, food prices had never seemed low and the price rises presented a significant threat to their wellbeing.

Livestock production’s involvement in the use of roughly a third of arable land for feed production puts it in direct competition for land that could feed people directly. Given that global population is still increasing, overall food supplies need to expand. As discussed in part 5 there are many environmental difficulties threatening the continuation of current production let alone an expansion. The current growth of meat consumption further reduces overall food security by diverting agricultural outputs to feed livestock rather than people directly.

Food security is compromised by intensive meat production because converting animal feed into animal meat is much less efficient in food energy terms than if humans were to eat agricultural outputs directly. This is due to the loss of energy to the animal’s metabolism, life systems and movement. Modern intensive production has excelled at reducing these losses in order to limit their economic damage but significant further progress in this direction is unlikely. Currently chicken is the most efficient meat in terms of the amount of meat produced for a given amount of feed. According to data compiled by Singer & Mason (2006) chicken production results in about 1kg of boneless meat for 3kg of feed, pork is less efficient with 6kg of feed needed and beef requires about 13kg of feed. They point out that due to the relatively high water content of meat compared to grain, the data is even less encouraging. However, it shows that the shift in meat consumption away from beef towards chicken has been beneficial in terms of food production efficiency.

Traditional production systems have tended to raise animals on marginal lands and crop “wastes”, preventing livestock from competing for resources useful to humans. In such systems, animal wastes were also a valuable source of fertiliser, reducing the need for external inputs.

Sources

Singer, Peter and Mason, Jim. 2006. The way we eat: Why our food choices matter. Rodale.

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