As part of the ongoing debate on how to make farming more sustainable and diets more healthy, the Sustainable Food Trust has run a number of articles arguing the case to ‘eat less meat’. Tom Levitt continues that theme this week, with a particular focus on the impact of industrially produced meat on the world’s poorest people.

When I bite into a bacon roll, I don’t think about the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. I’m busy focusing on the sensory experience of eating bacon, and not the intangible reality of how that food was made. Connecting the story behind our food to what we put in our mouths, is not always easy to do. However, the connection needs to be made, and although complex – when we consider where most supermarket meat comes from – it reveals how intensive meat-production is responsible for huge global inequalities and why many now see meat as a pivotal issue for climate justice.

Levels of meat consumption have, for a long time, been seen as a marker of development and wealth. And while per capita meat intake is increasing across the world, people in rich countries consume considerably more. The average European, for example, eats around four times as much meat as someone in Africa. In this context, talk of Western Europe entering a new era of post-meat centric diets is a little premature.

The 20th century boom in meat consumption has been met through the rapid growth of an industrial model of livestock farming, with large numbers of confined animals fed on grain and oilseeds. A system of farming that is far removed from the one advocated by Simon Fairlie, in his much-cited book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, about the important role animals can play in sustainable farming systems.

The downside of this system and our increased meat consumption, has been the conversion of more and more of the world’s arable land to growing grain for feeding to animals, rather than directly to humans. As Emily Cassidy, from the University of Minnesota, pointed out in a study published earlier this year, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, but only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet (as meat and other animal products).

The inherent inefficiency of cycling crops through animals to produce food means that more land and resources must be devoted to agriculture.

“Growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people (more than the projected 2–3 billion people arriving through population growth),” concluded Cassidy.

“Even small shifts in our allocation of crops to animal feed… could be an instrumental tool in meeting the challenges of ensuring global food security,” she added.

Our high levels of meat consumption are, effectively, a potential barrier to solving hunger and malnutrition around the world. But they are also impacting the world’s poorest in another way.

By continuing to enjoy a meat-based diet, we are putting more pressure on the world’s remaining ecosystems and contributing to added greenhouse gas emissions, either directly from the animals (methane, etc) or indirectly, as a result of land-use change associated with the additional crops grown to feed them.

African farmers

And who will be most adversely affected by the additional greenhouse gas emissions we generate and the resulting climate change? The very same regions, Africa and south Asia, that eat far less meat in the first place. Our comparatively high levels of meat consumption is just one more example of how those least responsible for climate change, namely the world’s poorest people, are often most at risk or vulnerable to its greatest impact.

To tackle this unequal burden compels us, in the eyes of academic researchers such as Tony Weis, author of the The Ecological Hoofprint, to confront our high levels of meat consumption, the industrial model of meat production, and the feeding of so much of the product of the world’s arable land to livestock.

For Weis, it’s not about eating no meat at all, but about challenging what he calls the ‘meatification of diets’ – how meat has moved from the periphery to the centre of human diet – something that he feels is now a block on creating a more equitable and sustainable world.

“If we see meat as a vector of an enormous environmental burden and climate change then we need to reduce it as a foundation for building more sustainable agricultural systems,” he told me in an interview. “And that means challenging industrial meat production, and the feeding of so much of our grains and oilseeds to livestock.

“While the meatification of diets has long been held as a goal and measure of development and a marker of class ascension, it should instead be understood as a vector of global inequality, environmental degradation, and climate injustice,” he said.

Policymakers have been adept at largely dismissing the environmental downsides of a meat-centric diet, however its links to social injustice and inequality may prove harder to overlook.

Next week, Richard Young will argue the SFT’s case, that contrary to popular opinion, the consumption of beef and sheep meat is central to the development of sustainable food production and the development of sustainable healthy diets.

Feature image by Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, farmers by the Gates Foundation

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