Intensification, industrialization, and rising demand – I’ve tossed these concepts around in my last month of posts about the harms of modern meat production but haven’t fully explained their relevance. To conclude the Meat of the Issue series, I want to step back and identify what has led meat production and its consequences to be a significant global issue. The basics are these: the whole world is eating a whole lot more meat and taking a whole lot of risks (as discussed in the other posts) to do so.
Despite the prevalence of veganism in the foodie (first-)world, the last half-century or so has actually seen a global surge in popularity of meat. The WHO has predicted that, to satisfy the world’s appetite, annual meat production will reach 376 million tons by 2030, as compared to the 218 million tons of 1999. It’s the result of a constant, modernized supply-and-demand cycle: improvements in agricultural technology and methods have allowed humans to greatly increase the availability of meat, which has, in turn, spurred global demand for it, which, again, prompts further agricultural intensification efforts.
Abundance means lower prices, thus the last few decades have seen a rapid decline in meat prices that has allowed developing countries to embrace more Westernized diets – that is, greatly increase their animal protein consumption. However, worldwide demand increases can’t be attributed to the third world alone. In the United States, 10 billion animals are consumed annually, with the average four-person household accounting for 120 chickens, 4 pigs, and one cow per year. Meat constitutes 67% of the average American’s protein intake, nearly double the global average of 34%, and the most marked growth in demand is occurring in poultry. Urbanization has also played a key role, as it makes perishables easier to trade.
As Walker et al. note in their paper Public Health Implications of Meat Production and Consumption, “although meat is not an essential component of the human diet, for the millions of people who are threatened with malnutrition, improving access to nutrient-rich animal source foods is an easy way to improve nutritional status.” In much of the developing world, meat is a convenient means of supplementing diets with protein, fats, and vitamins. This brings me back to a point that I’ve mentioned time and time again: I’m no vegetarian, and I have no problems with the principle of consuming animal products. Nonetheless, as previous posts have discussed, eating too much meat – especially red meat – can be unhealthy, and its intensified production has immense consequences.
So, why am I saying all of this? It’s not like I’m about to run through the streets as the world’s biggest hypocrite by persuading people to become vegetarian. No, I just want to spread awareness so that people can make the decision for themselves. I’ll applaud vegetarians and vegans and suggest moderation for those unwilling to completely relinquish meat and dairy. Mostly, though, I advocate supporting reputable, smaller animal farmers (I hesitate to say ‘local’ only because it depends on where you live) who raise their animals well, use the environment responsibly, and pay attention to the safety and cleanliness of their products. Buy less from massive corporations so as to discourage large-scale intensification. It’s all about the little things that everyone can do to make a big impact: decreasing meat demand.