Meat enables a capitalism defined by inequality

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In December 2015 I had lunch with an old friend. This was in Philadelphia. We went to a place that served vegan street food. There were kimchi tempeh tacos, sabich stuffed with tofu rather than egg, dandan noodles flavored with shiitake in place of pork. The place was packed. The prices, it need hardly be said, were not what they might have been in Tuxtla, or Baghdad, or Chengdu. Nonetheless, we emerged into the bright sun of an unseasonably warm late autumn day reeking of charcoal, hearts racing and faces flushed from chiles.

Ten days earlier, I’d picked up a financial news magazine left on a seat in a departure lounge and learned that October had marked the dawn of a new era for the Australian livestock industry: the live export of cattle by airplane. The test flight, a Boeing 747 that took off from Melbourne on October 20 carrying 150 head of cattle bound for Chongqing, came on the heels of a trade agreement between China and Australia that had cleared the way for a vigorous expansion of livestock exports. From 2012 to 2015, Australian beef exports to China grew sixfold in dollar terms, and China’s demand for beef and other livestock products provided a key impetus for the trade agreement. Australian livestock exporters had long been pioneers in the shipment of live animals. The October 2015 Melbourne–Chongqing test flight represented a creative response to Chinese health regulations mandating that imported livestock be slaughtered within 90 kilometers (55 miles) of port of entry. The firm that arranged the flight described it thus:

Angus and Hereford cattle were packed onto the aircraft’s main deck—where you’d sit as an economy passenger—in crates of four or five. . . . The cows were given limited food and water before the trip to reduce the mess they’d make during shipment. What they did excrete during the 13-hour flight was soaked up by absorbent mats, which were destroyed at the destination, along with the crates.

These two scenes—lunch crush at the vegan street food bar, the Melbourne– Chongqing cattle run—stand as diametrically opposed points on a circle delimiting our theme. Meat is a large topic, so large that its character depends on where you are situated with respect to it. For many people, meat exemplifies privilege, and the power to have one’s demand for meat satisfied—to have cattle fasted, crated, and flown 4,600 nautical miles—is economic power at its purest. For a smaller number of people, it is the power to refuse meat, indeed, to have animal-based dishes recast along animal-free lines, that exemplifies economic privilege. Animals raised for slaughter were once a key form of currency. Today they’re an emblem of global capitalism.

My aim is to unpack what I’ve come to call the Meat Question—Should humans be eating meat, and if so who, and what kinds, and how much?—in the most comprehensive way possible. The perspective we adopt is broad in the way suggested by the juxtaposition of vegan street food and live air freight. It is deep in that it encompasses the history of human meat eating and human relationships with other gregarious vertebrates over a span of more than 2 million years.

These relationships are fundamentally economic relationships, which is not to say that they are not at the same time political, ecological, emotional, and spiritual. In his landmark essay “The Original Affluent Society” (1972), the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins observes that at the end of the day, all economic relationships resolve to questions about what people eat and how they get it. As the anthropologist David Graeber shows in “Debt” (2011), you don’t need cash, or even precisely defined units of credit, to have an economy. Historically, most economies have been founded not on currency but on debt, often denominated in human lives. Where currency has emerged, standards of commensuration for different debts have often been fluid and negotiable, with different kinds of transactions conducted with different tokens of exchange: firearms, bars of metal, bolts of cloth, strings of cowries, human beings, livestock. But the 5,000-year period that Graeber covers in “Debt” represents just the tail end of the nearly 2 million years since recognizably human animals first walked the Earth—and camped, and cared for their young, and went out in search of food. This is where the human economy begins, and this is where the story of the human relationship with meat begins too.

Carnivore Planet

Humans are eating more meat. Between 2010 and 2050, global demand for meat is projected to double. This comes on top of a historic surge in demand—between 1960 and 2010, per capita meat consumption in the developing world more than doubled, while in China, total meat consumption grew ninefold. In just the five years ending in 2015, Chinese beef imports grew tenfold as upwardly mobile consumer tastes shifted away from the historically favored, less expensive pork.

Much of this imported beef has come from Australia. Australian livestock producers, it is fair to say, are salivating at the prospects for growth afforded by new access to the Chinese market. But there is more to this story. In 2012, just as Australian cattle exports to China started to surge, the Australian government declared an end to a seventeen-year drought that had decimated the arid grasslands of Queensland and the southeast. The years since the Millennium Drought ended have seen rainfall below historic averages over a wider part of Queensland than during the second half of the drought. Cattle are grazers—ground feeders—but in the absence of grass, ranchers have taken measures to force their herds to behave like browsers, pulling down live mulga trees so that the cattle can get at the leaves. In 2014, Australian cattle ranchers culled—slaughtered—more than 9 million animals for want of adequate pasturage. In this context, market expansion looks less like a strategy of long-term growth than like a onetime fix for oversupply.

In every part of the world, producing meat on the scale necessary to meet current and forecast demand requires a huge commitment of resources. Let’s start with land. Food production uses approximately 38 percent of the Earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface area. Of that, 12 percent is given over to crops, 26 to pasturage. But 35 percent of the Earth’s global crop yield goes to producing concentrated feedstocks for livestock. Upward of 75 percent of the Earth’s agricultural land is devoted to raising animals for meat along with dairy products and eggs.

This proportion will increase as confined or “landless” production using concentrated feedstocks becomes the modal form of livestock production. By 2006 estimates, pure grazing systems accounted for just 8 percent of global meat production, confined feeding systems 45 percent, with the balance involving a mix of pasturage and confinement. The vast majority of growth in livestock production over the next twenty years will be in confined systems. Currently, in Europe and North America, just 40 percent of crop output goes directly to meeting human needs; in Africa, by comparison, it is 80 percent. So in those parts of the world with the most productive, most intensively managed agricultural surfaces, the majority of agricultural land is dedicated to livestock. No matter how carefully managed the livestock system, this represents a net loss for food production over using the same land to produce food that would go directly to meeting human needs. Taking feed, fertilizer, and fuel together, livestock production consumes 58 percent of the biomass that humans draw out of the biosphere annually.

What about water? Livestock accounts for nearly a third of the anthropogenic—of human origin—freshwater footprint. Ninety-eight percent of the water used in livestock production goes to feed production, so water costs depend on feed conversion ratios—how efficiently animals put on weight. These vary widely by species, breed, and living conditions. But even just considering protein conversion, where you’d think animals would have an advantage over plants, in terms of water costs, you’d be better off growing legumes than raising chickens. The water cost of feed production also depends on how you’re supplying animals with nutrition—that is, how much pasturage and how much concentrated feedstock. It takes a lot more water to produce concentrated feedstocks than to keep pasture green, so again we see that using cropland to support livestock yields a net loss in food production capacity.

So far I’ve been talking about water footprint as if all types of water use were equivalent. In fact, water footprint encompasses three kinds of water uses: surface and groundwater consumed in the course of producing something (“blue” water), rainwater similarly consumed in the course of production, and “greywater” or runoff, water that carries by-products of production—pollutants—to the water table. More than 87 percent of livestock-related water is rainwater, so droughts like that in Queensland place huge marginal stress on aquifers.

Now let’s consider greenhouse gas emissions. The most recent estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) integrate country-level data up to 2005. On the basis of the model produced from these data, the FAO estimates that livestock production accounts for 7.1 gigatons (Gt) of CO2-equivalent gas emissions (that is, a volume of gas equivalent in its contribution to climate change to 7.1 Gt carbon dioxide) annually. Two sources account for most of this burden: 45 percent comes from feed production, 39 percent from the methane produced by ruminants in the course of enteric fermentation. Livestock emissions include nearly half the global anthropogenic burden of methane, for nitrous oxide more than half. This 7.1 GtCO2-equivalent represents 14.5 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from all sources—more than the total generated by all forms of transport, including automobiles, marine freight vessels, and airplanes. If you take into account land use change—for example, the loss of carbon sinks from deforestation as land gets converted into crops and pasturage—the sum rises to 18 percent. Is this unreasonable? For reference, the food system as a whole—including not just agriculture but transport, processing, marketing, and preparation at the consumer end of the value chain—generates no more than 29 percent of global emissions. So livestock production accounts for more than half of all food-related emissions.

Livestock production carries other, less commonly mentioned costs. Chiefly, it is the main source of anthropogenic emissions of reactive nitrogen species—ammonia, nitrogen oxides, substances that are essential to plant growth but that at levels beyond those required to sustain biomass turnover contribute to eutrophication, leading to less resilient biomes. I could continue, but you get the point: in land, biomass, water, and deleterious by-products, animal-derived foods are expensive to produce.

They’re not getting cheaper as fast as you might think. In the twenty years from 1985 to 2005, global crop yields per area harvested increased by about 20 percent. That’s taking into account expansions in surface area under production, increased planting of multiple crops on the same surface in a single year, and a net shift of agricultural surface area from temperate zones to the tropics. Twenty percent sounds like progress until you hear that in the twenty years from 1965 to 1985, yields increased 56 percent (these figures do not take into account the longer-term costs, including soil exhaustion, aquifer depletion, and reactive nitrogen mobilization, of the intensive techniques of agriculture necessary to achieve these gains). In light of steeply declining marginal gains in agricultural productivity, even proponents of “sustainable intensification” have concluded that there is no way to meet human nutritional demands simply by closing yield gaps, that is, the gaps between the yields achievable using carefully selected cultivars and the most intensive techniques of land management and the yields commonly attained in parts of the world where these techniques are not widespread. Demand-side mitigation—getting people to change their eating habits—is the key to keeping up with demand. Mainly, that means reducing demand for meat and other animal-derived foods. And yet demand-side mitigation gets practically no attention in policy circles.

As things stand, worldwide demand for meat will grow at double the rate for rice and cereals over the next thirty years. When we ask how we’re going to feed a world of 9.6 billion people, what we’re asking is how we’re going to feed a world of 9.6 billion carnivores—and what we’re going to do with the waste.

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Adapted from The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food by Josh Berson. Copyright, The MIT Press, 2019.