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.

There are many alternatives to intensive production. Grass-fed beef is considerably less of a burden on the environment if it is not from razed rainforest areas. The meat also has a healthier balance of fats and less likelihood of being contaminated with the most dangerous pathogens. However, there would not be enough grazing land to produce the same amounts of beef as current intensive systems can produce. While not necessarily reducing the total environmental foot-print, free-range, traditional breed chickens and pigs have healthier and happier lives, their meat can taste much better and endangered breeds can be preserved.

With increased awareness, personal responsibility has to be taken for stabilising or reducing global meat consumption. This is easiest in the West where consumption levels are highest. If US or Australian meat eaters halved their very high consumption, they would still enjoy as much meat in their diets as Norwegians and eat more than the Japanese presently. Culturally, this would present relatively few problems as it would be similar to a return of cuisine a couple of generations earlier. Even a return to the consumption levels of 20-30 years ago would make a significant difference to global demand while requiring a relatively modest change in consumption patterns.

With a shift from buying intensively produced meat to that of more traditional methods, meat quality is likely to improve. The extra cost of meat from these types of production would help in the effort to reduce total consumption and would provide greater value for producers.  Less intensive production techniques are more labour intensive, meaning that rural employment levels could be improved.

A greater debate and interest in fundamental food quality could be highly beneficial to the Western diet. A shift to concentrating on quality rather than quantity for meat is needed. With the deep cultural importance of meat in many societies’ cuisine, and its frequent past restriction through economic and other means, talk of reduction of meat consumption is often strongly resisted. Only better consumer knowledge about the realities of production can lead to greater personal responsibility and a shift in attitudes to meat consumption.

Most Western food culture is meat-centric, this is understandable considering the history and culture of food in the West. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the first gastronome and author of La Physiologie du Goût thought about vegetarianism: “It is difficult to conceive of a people subsisting merely on bread and vegetables. If such a nation existed it would certainly be subjected by carnivorous enemies… If not, it would be converted by the cooks of its neighbours…”. This meat dominance has, at least, been reduced by greater interest in Italian, Asian and other cuisines. Italian cuisine has probably done most to elevate non-meat products and dishes to all levels of gastronomy. That may have something to do with a focus on quality of ingredients and taste rather than the importance and quantity of meat and a wider application of these principles would be beneficial. More could certainly be done by leaders in the world of gastronomy to encourage sustainable eating and have less reliance on modern meat staples.

Wider responsibility

In order to resolve or reduce the impact of meat production at a global level, it is essential to build a consensus on the extent of the problem and a willingness to tackle it. The world at present has both positive and negative pressures affecting the likelihood of such a consensus. On the positive side, President Obama’s administration has signaled itself to be committed to tackling environmental problems and taking responsibility with other issues his country and the wider world face. Furthermore, the recent spike in food and oil prices have raised awareness about insecurities within the world’s food system and the dangers faced by the poorest consumers of the world. However, the sudden global economic deterioration and the falling back of food and oil prices could divert attention away.

Systemic solutions to the problems of growing meat consumption are always going to suffer from some serious resistance and difficulties in implementation. Meat industries in developed countries have become extremely powerful, both economically and politically. Consolidation in the agricultural sector has led to large parts of the meat industry being controlled by a few multinationals like Tyson and Cargill that are also involved with other agricultural products. The industry has tended to resist changes that might pressure them to help improve dietary health, raise levels of animal welfare, environmental responsibility and consumer knowledge. Furthermore, with the global nature of both these corporations and the problem, action needs to be coordinated across multiple continents and countries.

Most advanced, modern economies are based on a capitalist, free market system and alternative systems have not faired well. While the importance of free markets is often mentioned, the lack of free-ness that impairs many of our markets is less often mentioned. Free markets require certain factors such as open market information and participants not being large enough to distort them. Consequently,  many of the food commodity markets can not be described as “free”. Due to consolidation, market share, economic/ political power and the global reach of companies at the heart of our food system, much of this trade is more like that of a cartel than a free market. Governments need to take more interest in who controls their nations’ means of sustenance.

There has been an effective loss of sovereignty within developed, democratic nations as large corporations have evolved to the point where they are able to create their own rules and realities and now effectively work beyond the control of any particular elected government. In the food industry, these corporations have been able to effect changes to the diets of a large part of the world’s population. That those diets are causing such devastation to their consumers and the world in general suggests that the system needs urgent change. Discussion of this leads to strong industry resistance in the name of consumer choice.  However, consumers, have had their food choices influenced by decades of artificially low, dangerously competitive prices and trillions of dollars of extremely effective advertising. Therefore, industry defence in the name of consumer choice can not be taken at face value. If health is to be restored to people, diets and the wider food production system, it will take some bold action that will certainly meet much resistance.

The production of meat relies on a complex global trade of agricultural commodities grown with the aid of large amounts of petro-chemicals and often subsidised by rich countries’ taxpayers. Frequently, the industry operates within lax environmental restrictions, leading to environmental damage that is not redressed by the industry. There are so many hidden costs in the “cheap” meat produced by this system that it is extremely difficult for different models of production to compete in such a market. If consumers were fully aware of the costs to the environment, their taxes, health and animals, they would be able to make an informed choice and the cheap meat would not seem so cheap. Regulation to ensure full cost inclusion within food production would help redress these problems.

In the aftermath of the recent food crisis, one solution that policy-makers could consider is to seek a significant reduction in the feeding of human-edible food crops to animals. Fattening cattle with soya and grains in order to produce high fat-content meat as quickly as possible is damaging for the environment, animal health and human health. With around a billion people in the world going hungry it is also morally untenable.

Governmental control and nutritional guidance by official bodies needs to be protected from the political influence of the food industry and producer organisations. It is regrettable that matters of population health and environmental security can be subverted by the short-term, relatively inconsequential wishes of a minority interest.

Currently, international trade allows and sometimes protects the importation of meat produced in countries that have lower welfare and production standards than the importing country. This puts local producers in the importing country at a disadvantage and subverts local efforts to raise welfare conditions within the industry. Efforts should be made to allow the restriction of imports that do not meet local production standards or at least force clearer labelling of such imports. In the UK for instance, imported meat can be labelled “produced in the UK” if it has only been “processed” in the UK, which is highly confusing for consumers.

In western countries, a colossal amount of food is thrown away. In the US the proportion is estimated to be around one third of all food produced. There are numerous reasons for the high figures including consumers buying more than they need, retailers preferring not to have empty shelves, strict selection criteria for fruit, vegetables and meat and the banning of feeding mixed food wastes to livestock. Considering the expense in terms of resources that goes into growing, processing and transporting this food, especially meat products, any initiatives to reduce this waste would be highly beneficial. Japan, for example is researching safe methods of recycling food waste for use as animal feed (FAO 2006). Higher taxation of food waste might help change the current economics of waste for retailers and producers.

Many of the systems that guarantee better production and welfare standards such as organic certification add extra costs for producers that are avoided by “conventional” producers.  This makes it even more difficult for them to compete. Costs should be re-arranged in order that wider side-effects of production are priced into those products, creating a more level playing field for different types of production.

Some of the environmental disadvantages of modern intensive production can be reduced with technological solutions. Feed can be re-configured to significantly reduce methane production during digestion. Animal waste can be used in anaerobic digesters to produce and capture methane which can be used as a fuel. Regulation and taxation should be revised to promote good practice and punish environmental irresponsibility.

Intelligence needs to be re-applied closer to the farm in order to research and develop truly sustainable practices. Organisations that research and diffuse intelligent, sustainable system knowledge and help empower and enrich small farmers need to be developed and encouraged. For example, Vandana Shiva’s organisation, Navdanya in India, teaches small farmers how to farm in both an environmentally and an economically sustainable way. Research is needed on techniques such as intensively managed grazing which is reported to improve grasslands and beef yields while reducing environmental impact.

Human population growth is one of the factors reducing food system sustainability. Efforts to reduce this growth are essential for environmental protection and to reduce overall poverty. Jeffrey Sachs (2005) proposes education as the key to decreasing poverty and reducing population growth. However, action to deal with the problem of debt is needed first for many of the poorest countries.

Traditional agricultural and hunter-gatherer communities have long been marginalised by modern economics due to their lack of contribution to economies. The realisation that their sustainability has often been proved over thousands of years shows that such systems need to be revered, protected and promoted. Their wisdom should be employed in improving our own systems’ sustainability.

If economic factors are to continue to be used as key drivers, the economic value of sustainability needs to be realised in some way and priced into markets.

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

Sachs, Jeffrey. 2005. The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime. Penguin Books.


4 Responses

  1. “If economic factors are to continue to be used as key drivers, the economic value of sustainability needs to be realised in some way and priced into markets.”

    This is what I hope to research in graduate school. Is there a new form of accounting that accounts for ecological and systematic costs? There is a movement in the UK with “Accounting for Sustainability” but it tends to focus entirely on energy use, not the total cost of production. Ecological economics (EE) is a worthy movement, but traditional economic measurements account in a different manner than EE.

    Great summary and I enjoyed reading your paper.

    • Thanks Matt, it’s not an area I’ve done much research into. That’s an interesting link, Prince Charles is managing to do some good work in the area of environmental protection and sustainability. I’m not sure if much progress is going to happen until there are some fundamental changes in government policy. Changes like shifting taxation away from income and towards environmentally or socially harmful activities. Until that happens, we are mostly left with good intentions that often do not make economic sense.
      Maybe the current economic crisis mixed with relatively high concern over the climate/resource issues could lead to revolutionary policy change in this area. At present it doesn’t seem likely but nor did the end of apartheid or communism in the USSR just before they happened!

  2. Dear Mr. Hoffman,

    I have read your thesis (all 9 parts) on meat consumption and wanted to let you know that it has been invaluable in my research for a documentary I am developing on CAFOs.

    As you know public awareness on the detrimental impacts behind meat consumption is weak, and it is this reason that compels me to produce a documentary that will address the agricultural sustainability issues presented by the increased demand for meat.

    I’m interested in opening up discussions on possibly having you partake this film. Please let me know if this is something you would be interested in.

    Geri Atos

    • Dear Geri,

      Thank you for your appreciation and comment. It is great to know that it has been useful to make this work available.

      I am flattered by your interest in the possibility of taking this further. I would be very interested in assisting your work, as long as you are taking into account that in this thesis I was pulling together work from authors, many of whom have a much greater knowledge of these subjects than my own.

      I’ll send you a mail.



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