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The International Writers Magazine: Life Diet

Who pays the true price of cheap meat?
Asta Audzijoynte

Meat has become a ubiquitous part of our diet. In the last thirty years global meat production has nearly doubled and is projected to further increase drastically. People in western societies often eat meat three times a day, with the average yearly consumption of 90 kg of meat per person. Many believe meat is an essential source of protein and its daily intake is important in a well balanced diet. Yet, doctors are warning that the current level of meat consumption is unhealthy. High meat consumption is related to higher gastric-cancer risks, higher rates of cardiovascular diseases, and increased cholesterol levels.

People having a diet rich in animal instead of vegetable fats are also nine times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, during most of human history our diet was based on grains and vegetable protein, meat being consumed only occasionally.

While the direct health risks are worrying, there are broader implications of the ever-growing addiction to meat. Here are a few simple facts:
1) About 70% of the entire world‘s agricultural land is in some way used for farming animals, either as grazing land or as crops for fodder. Worldwide 80% of all soybeans, valuable source of proteins for people, are used as animal feed.
2) Today, animal farming produces 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. For comparison, the entire world’s transport system combined (including all cars, planes and ships) produces 13.5%.
3) Animal farming is one of the main forces driving deforestation. About 70% of Amazon rainforest has been cleared to produce land for new pastures or land for livestock fodder crops. The meat produced in these lands, however, contributes little to the diets of Brazilians, and mostly ends up in the USA and Europe. Given that deforestation is responsible for a further 20% of greenhouse gas emissions and combined with emissions from animal farming, meat consumption clearly is a major contributor to global warming.
4) Animal farming requires vast amounts of water, an increasingly precious resource. Depending on species and farming type, a kilogram of beef requires between 13 000 and 100 000 litres of water to produce. By comparison, a kilogram of wheat requires just 1 000-2 000 litres.
5) Most of the animal farming in Europe and North America is conducted in factory farms, and rising demand for meat will increase this practise. Factory farming, in turn, brings with it a long list of environmental, public health and ethical issues associated with growing animals as quickly and cheaply as possible and keeping them crowded, without sunlight, possibility to move, and in suffering.
6) Large quantities of antibiotics are used in factory farms as a "prophylactic" measure to prevent diseases; their use in the Netherlands increased by nearly 30% from 2003 to 2005. This provides ample opportunity for bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance. Such antibiotic resistant bacteria (also called "superbugs") have now been found in 20% of Dutch pigs, 21% of chicken and 3% of cows; the situation in other countries is likely to be similar. The bacteria are transmitted to humans and potential harmful impacts of their spread are hard to overstate. In Dutch hospitals farmers are already kept in isolated rooms. The meat they grow is exported all around Europe and beyond.
7) Despite antibiotics densely packed animal farms provide a perfect place for creating new strains of viruses and bacteria. Moreover, traditional animal breeds are now replaced by fast-growing varieties, wiping out the genetic diversity of the entire livestock industry, a legacy of thousands of years of careful breeding. Because animals are now so alike all around the world, diseases can spread particularly fast. The appearance and spread of avian influenza and mad cow disease is believed to be facilitated by factory farms. During the previous epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom 600 000 cattle and more than 3 million sheep have been slaughtered and burned, causing billions of euros losses for the meat-industry, but also taxpayers.

These are only a few illustrative facts. The full list is much longer: pollution of water and atmosphere by billions of tons of manure, emissions of nitrous oxide which contributes to acid rain, intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers and overfishing to produce fodder, driving indigenous peoples off their land to raise export crops for animal fodder… The globalisation of the meat industry has resulted in less awareness about the true price and quality of meat we are buying. We often assume meat in our shops comes from local sources, but large quantities of meat to Europe are imported from Brazil and New Zealand.

Fish, while promoted as a healthy meat substitute, is unfortunately not necessarily a good option either. First, nowadays marine fish often have excessively high levels of organic pollutants and toxic metals such as mercury. Second, most of current industrial fishery and aquaculture cause grave environmental problems, with nearly 80% of world fish stocks being depleted and marine ecosystems damaged.

Albert Einstein once famously predicted that the largest step in human evolution will be the change to a vegetarian diet. And that is happening. There is also an alternative approach – animals grown locally and grazed outside in low densities. This is also the best source of diary products. First, meat and milk from animals that are growing at their normal pace and eat their usual food is healthier and tastier. Second, raising animals in small densities outside can even benefit the environment, as moderate grazing intensity helps to create rich biodiversity in meadows, that might otherwise become overgrown with shrubs; small amounts of manure in turn naturally fertilizes the soil. Sure, such meat costs more. Yet, the misleadingly low price of meat in shops today hides the true cost of the associated health problems, climate change, deforestation, water pollution and "superbugs" – costs not visible on the price tag. We are all paying the latter.
© Asta Audzijonyte October 2007

Wordwatch paper 171, 2005. Happier meals (
Wordlwatch report 174, 2007. Oceans in peril (
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options. Rome
The Ecologist journal
The Vegetarian Society (
Credit for the picture: Farm Sanctuary

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