Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The planetary case for a meat-free society

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There is no case at all for humans to continue eating the amount of meat they do. In what are commonly called ‘industrialised’ countries (a category that includes most of the OECD countries) the share of meat in total food consumption is around 48% and has been so for several decades (has in fact been so once the overhang of the food shortages of the Second World War wore off, and particularly after the emergence of Europe’s common agricultural policy, which ushered in a change in that part of the world which was as far-reaching in its consequences as was the Green Revolution in South Asia).

Per capita consumption of major food items in developing countries, 1961-2005. Source: FAO

Now we see more clearly that as per capita food consumption has increased it has been accompanied by (those ‘market forces’ at work, the industrialisation of agriculture and the disinheritance from local choices for the average consumer, both by connected design) a change in dietary patterns that can only be described as catastrophic. Those who look at this change from an economic standpoint call it ‘structural’, for we have seen the diets of people in ‘developing’ (forgive the use of this term, so misleading it is, especially when the ‘developed’ world’s ravenous greed for resources turns these very concepts grotesquely on their heads) being altered.

In the South, for these peoples (some of them newly urbanised and whose activities contribute to the growing inequality of incomes – one has only to look at oddly swelling Gini curves to see this), there has been a rapid increases of livestock products (meat, milk, eggs), vegetable oils and, to a smaller extent, sugar, as sources of food energy. These three food groups together now provide 29% of total food consumption (also often called “dietary energy supply”) and this proportion has risen from 20% only three decades ago. Mind, these are not small increases over more than a generation – as a first look at this change will seem to imply. A single percentage point increase over a generation for a country’s population places a very large burden on land, water, crop growing patterns and of course health.

It is the prognosis that I find chilling. The FAO has rather unemotionally remarked that this share is projected to rise further to 35% in 2030 and to 37% in 2050. Can civilisation (let’s assume we can call this human imprint on the planet a single civilisation of a homogenous species although we all know it isn’t, not by any stretch of the fertile imaginations of our tens of thousands of indigenous peoples) tolerate such a shift in how people feed themselves. No, certainly not, the impact is catastrophic already.

Per capita GDP and meat consumption by country, 2005. Source: FAO

There are libraries of evidence to show that demand for livestock products has considerably increased since the early 1960s in the ‘developing’ countries. India, for example, so staunchly vegetarian through its struggle for freedom and through the leisurely years till economic ‘liberalisation’ strengthened its grip on minds and alimentary canals alike, is home to a very large and rapidly growing poultry industry (how quickly the vocabulary turns upon the rational, when did harmonious domestication and the organic circling of the nutrient cycle turn into an ‘industry’, banishing animals from their roles in our ecosystems?) and a fisheries ‘industry’ that has depleted the Arabian Sea (it is the Mer d’Oman from the other side) and the Bay of Bengal of their creatures both demersal and pelagic.

Thus we are confronted by the spectres of consumption of food which is attached, like a motor-car engine is to its crankshaft, to growth-by-magnitude. In the ‘developing’ South, the consumption of milk per capita has almost doubled (recall Operation Flood in India), meat consumption more than tripled and egg consumption increased by a factor of five (recall the National Egg Coordination Committee and its catchy jingle: “Meri jaan, meri jaan, murgi ke ande khana“). And yet, it is not yet South Asia – for the most substantial growth in per capita consumption of livestock products has occurred in East and Southeast Asia. China, in particular, has seen per capita consumption of meat quadruple, consumption of milk increase tenfold, and egg consumption increase eightfold between 1980 and 2005. And yet again, among the developing-country regions, only sub-Saharan Africa has seen a modest decline in per capita consumption of both meat and milk (according to FAO).

Where will this lead to? Into what zone of rolling disaster will the pursuit of the animal protein take our land-water-crop-habitat balance, already so precarious and already on a knife’s edge? The estimates (all bland, all unemotional, as if unable or unwilling to emote the reality to come) are that such demand is set to increase significantly towards 2050 because of population growth and continuing change of dietary patterns. The forecasts ought to be seen as terrifying: according to FAO’s estimates, an increase in the consumption of livestock products will cause a 553 million tons increase in the demand for feed, which represents half of the total demand increase for coarse grain between 2000 and 2050.

The FAO’s regiments of agro-economists and trend watchers have said that income growth in low-income countries and emerging economies will drive demand even higher (the Foresight 2011 report has said so too). They concur that there will be a shift to “high-status and non-seasonal foods, including more meat consumption, particularly in countries with rising income” (ah yes, the rising income, the fata morgana of a tide that lifts all boats, as the development banks have long wanted us to believe). No, comrades, it is not so – Nature does not recognise your balance-sheet.

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