The High Cost of Cheap Meat


Nothing changes — whatever familiar measures are announced after every food scandal, once the politicians, manufacturers and retailers have made their claims and counterclaims, and after we’ve gone through the ritual demands for transparency, traceability and labelling. What we really need to do is widen our focus from the contents of “beef” lasagne to the intersecting routes of the current global agricultural system.

It has been developed with the single goal of large-scale production for export, with centres of specialisation to maximise profits. In emerging countries, greater wealth has led to an increase in demand for meat, and therefore a need for agricultural land to feed livestock. In China, meat consumption per person has increased 55% in 10 years (1). To feed its battery hens, China has to import soya grown in Latin America; to grow food for human and animal consumption, it has started to grab land in Africa. Raw ingredients are grown in one continent, bought by another, and exported to a third, just like the global supply chains of manufacturing industry.

For several decades, the food industry has persisted with an approach that has damaged small farmers, biodiversity, soil, water resources, and the health of producers and sometimes consumers, without managing to feed the planet — in 2011 a billion people did not have enough to eat. The meat industry exemplifies the problem. It accounts for less than 2% of global GDP but produces 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and uses huge amounts of natural resources, land and agricultural produce. Should cereals be grown to feed people or to fatten livestock? It takes at least seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, four for a kilogram of pork and two for a kilogram of chicken.

Pasture takes up 68% of all agricultural land (and 25% of it is already exhausted and infertile), while growing fodder takes up 35% of arable land: so in all, livestock requires 78% of all agricultural land. This dedication of land to the production of poor quality meat (plus further land demands for biofuels) directly affects the poorest. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2006 annual report says: “Feed production as well as imports have increased. Total feed imports have surged … giving rise to fears that the expansion of China’s livestock industry could lead to price hikes and global shortages of grains, as has been predicted many times in the past.” We know what happened next: food riots in 2008 in Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Indonesia and the Philippines, caused by the unprecedented rise in the cost of raw materials on the international market.

Pushing millions into poverty

Early in the financial crisis, political leaders should have banned speculation on basic foodstuffs, but didn’t. Despite a reduction in the real cost of cereal production, prices kept going up (2). In February 2011 The World Bank warned: “Global food prices are rising to dangerous levels and threaten tens of millions … The price hike is already pushing millions of people into poverty, and putting stress on the most vulnerable, who spend more than half of their income on food” (3).

Most cattle are grazed, and while a small herd of black and white Pie Noir cows chewing the cud in the shade of cider apple trees in the Breton countryside might not be a problem, environmental damage increases as herd density rises. In South America over the past few years, overgrazing has left the soil sterile and saturated with animal manure. Producers easily resort to illegal logging to clear fresh land, especially in Brazil, which is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of beef and leather, supplying 30% of the global market. It exports primarily to Russia and the EU. A 2009 Greenpeace report revealed that Brazil’s 200 million head of cattle were responsible for 80% of the deforestation of the Amazon (4) — 10m hectares of forest destroyed in 10 years, to the detriment of small farmers and native peoples. For 40 years Survival International has condemned the killing of indigenous people by ranchers in Brazil’s forests.

The Amazonian rainforest is being destroyed primarily to produce biofuel and cattle feed. According to the peasant movement Via Campesina: “Soybean monocultures … now occupy a quarter of all agricultural lands in Paraguay and … have grown at a rate of 320,000 hectares a year in Brazil since 1995. In Argentina, where soybeans occupy around half the agricultural land … 5.6 million hectares of non-agricultural land was converted to soya production between 1996-2006. The devastating impacts that such farms have had on people and the environment in Latin America are well documented and acknowledged” (5).

Cereals and oil-producing plants, cultivated and harvested in Latin America with the help of chemicals, are transported across the Atlantic to the huge silos of agribusiness multinationals in Europe, ready to be turned into concentrated feed for millions of battery-farmed pigs and chickens around the world — in 2005 they consumed 1,250m tons.

Factory farms supply processors and supermarkets internationally. The industry tries to minimise costs by “rationalising” the production and distribution chain, reducing the workforce, automating tasks, standardising products and mechanically recovering meat slurry for cheap processed meals. The system is there to meet the demands of agribusiness and the big supermarkets.

Assembly-line animals

Processed food makers produce sausages as if they were assembling a car from components; and in a way, the animals they use have become artificial, the product of agricultural research, selectively bred to accelerate muscle development and boost reproductive performance, their vital organs reduced to the point where they are not able to function properly. They are extremely vulnerable to illness, and producers try to remedy this by heating the buildings in which they are raised, although this is often not enough to avoid infections, so they are given antibiotics. The liquid manure they produce, a dangerous mix of nitrogen and phosphorus, is disposed of by spreading on land that is already oversaturated. In Brittany, cyanobacteria pollution of groundwater, rivers and shores caused by the pig industry, is now endemic.

Traditional farming takes account of how much feed is available locally. Pastureland is nurtured, grass regrowth protected from too many hooves, and animal waste prevented from affecting soil and water quality. Animals are reared in symbiosis with cereal and vegetable crops: green waste with peas, lupins and field beans makes a balanced and healthy fodder, straw provides bedding for the animals, and manure fertilises the soil, completing the cycle. A new generation of farmers who want to produce local healthy food that does not damage the planet have been inspired by traditional practices; they have studied, tested, improved and modernised them, and some have moved into agroforestry, as recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, in which trees shelter crops from the wind and sun and contribute to soil fertility, while tree roots keep water at the base of the plants.

Translated by Stephanie Irvine.

Agnès Stienne is a graphic designer.


(1) “The State of Food and Agriculture”, FAO, Rome, 2009.

(2) See Jean Ziegler, “Speculating on hunger”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2012.

(3) “Rising food prices have driven an estimated 44 million people into poverty”, The World Bank press release, Washington, 15 February 2011.

(4) “Slaughtering the Amazon”, Greenpeace International, 1 June 2009.

(5) “The World Bank funding land grabbing in South America”, open letter from Via Campesina, 7 July 2011.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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