How much meat is too much?

Bee Wilson

  • BuyFarmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Philip Lymbery, with Isabel Oakeshott
    Bloomsbury, 426 pp, £12.99, January, ISBN 978 1 4088 4644 5
  • Planet Carnivore by Alex Renton
    Guardian, 78 pp, £1.99, August 2013

Vegetarians, we say, are self-righteous and humourless; or fussy and weird; or like Hitler; we say that their diet makes them anaemic; that having to cater for them ruins every dinner party; that they are crazy not to eat bacon/lamb shanks/pepperoni because we evolved as hunter-gatherers; that their food smells horrible, and by implication, so do they; that it’s cruel to bring up a child vegetarian; that they are hypocrites, because how can they pretend to care about animal suffering when they still buy clothes from normal shops – and are those leather shoes by any chance?

Vegetarians themselves often argue that they make us feel uncomfortable because their existence is a reminder of the cruelty and carnage that the rest of us refuse to see; there’s probably some truth in this. But I suspect that the root of our hostility is more basic. It isn’t so much that they remind us of the slaughterhouse – meat itself does a pretty effective job there – as that they make a mockery of our unthinking preferences. What we’re protecting when we ridicule vegetarians isn’t our own ignorance about the way meat is produced – however it’s done, killing animals for food isn’t nice – but our taste for it: the smell of sausages sizzling in a pan, the charred umami crust of a good steak, the pink tender pieces of a rack of lamb. Meat tastes good, ergo vegetarians must be idiots.

It sounds a little selfish, though, to say that we’re prepared to squander the world’s resources and see animals die to satisfy our taste for savoury dinners, so we think up other excuses. We say we eat only small quantities or only free-range and ‘happy meat’ (unless we are buying take-out curry or a sandwich, when different moral rules seem to apply). We talk of ‘cuisine’ or ‘tradition’ or how it’s ‘in our nature’ as human omnivores to eat meat. When all else fails, we invoke what nutritionists call ‘the wisdom of the body’: we’d be happy to go vegetarian, if only our bodies weren’t telling us they needed meaty replenishment.

The prospect of meat as it is produced in the modern farming system, however, is not so appealing. In Farmageddon, Philip Lymbery – chief executive of the charity Compassion in World Farming – suggests that mass market meat is leading to ‘the death of our countryside … and billions starving’. For two years Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, political editor of the Sunday Times, travelled the world to investigate ‘factory farming’. The horrors they witness will come as little surprise to anyone who has read Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Felicity Lawrence, Eric Schlosser or any of the previous exposés of factory-farmed meat, but they make grim and startling reading even so. If you can get beyond the title, the great virtues of Farmageddon are its global reach and eyewitness accounts of the many grotesque landscapes – seabeds without oxygen, fields without wildlife, chickens without beaks – generated by our love of meat.

In Taiwan, Lymbery and Oakeshott see half-dead chickens being scooped into rubbish bags; in Argentina, they meet tribespeople forced off their land to make way for soya farms growing animal feed; in India, they track the wave of suicides among peasants no longer able to make a living; in California, they hear of children who have asthma because they live near a ‘mega-dairy’ housing around 10,000 cows; in China, they see a village where there is no clean water because of the excess of pig effluent from a nearby farm, run by a company producing a million pigs a year. Near the farm, they notice some strange poplar trees, whose trunks are bare and leaves and branches wilting. ‘We scrambled along the edge of a maize field, and then up a steep bank, and there we saw the source of the problem: a huge lagoon of putrid watery muck.’ This farm, ‘ironically’, had received accreditation from the UN ‘on the basis of its environmental record’.

One of the best, most truly alarming chapters investigates the fishmeal industry in Peru. The lunacy of this business is that it involves taking a valuable protein that very few people eat enough of – oily fish – and turning it into a protein that is less healthy and that we already eat to excess: broiler chicken.

Fishmeal is one of the filthiest secrets of the factory-farming industry, an environmental catastrophe that involves sucking millions of tonnes of small fish out of the sea and crushing them into fish oil and dry feed for farmed fish, pigs and chickens. The process deprives millions of larger wild fish, birds and marine mammals of their natural prey, drastically depleting stocks of important species. It also pumps vile fatty waste into ocean bays, creating ‘dead zones’; pollutes the atmosphere around processing plants, causing widespread human health problems; and diverts what could be a highly valuable source of nutrition for people to industrially farmed animals.

In Chimbote – one of the places where Peruvian fishmeal is fashioned from dried cakes of rotting fish – 20 to 30 per cent of the population suffers high levels of malnutrition. Many of the children have lesions on their skin caused by the fumes the fishmeal factories emit. They are surrounded by oily fish – the stench of it in the air, a slick of grease floating on the water – but few of the locals eat it. ‘As little as 1 per cent of the highly nutritious anchoveta caught off Chimbote is likely to end up on dinner plates’; the remaining 99 per cent goes to feed chickens in faraway countries. Lymbery and Oakshott meet Javier Zabaleta, the secretary of the local fishing union, who wishes Peruvians would eat more of the local fish. ‘Peruvians,’ he says, ‘are not used to eating darker flesh-coloured fish – we prefer white fish, chicken and other meat.’ These Peruvians have every reason to approach meat warily, yet even they – like the rest of us – cannot get enough.

Not all meat is produced in equally vile conditions, but for supermarket meat it is the norm by a colossal margin. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer noted that there wasn’t enough ‘non-factory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island’. Farmageddon states that ‘99 per cent of broiler chickens in America’ are reared in the worst kind of processing plants, where many chickens are diseased and ‘in such poor shape they can barely walk’, while the minimum-wage workers are likely to have hands swollen to double the normal size from being pecked when they catch the birds for slaughter. Even if you can stomach the thought of the way the animals and workers live, there’s still the problem of resources. Nearly ‘a third of the planet’s land surface’ is devoted to ‘rearing farm animals or growing their feed’. If the cereals fed to animals reared for meat went instead directly to humans, an extra three billion people could be fed – roughly the number currently at risk of malnourishment. Yet, for all this, Lymbery is careful not to side with the vegetarians. You ‘don’t have to choose between eating cereals or meat’, we are assured. This book, he insists, is not ‘anti-meat’, though by the time you get to the chapter ‘Bugs’n’Drugs’, tracing the ‘vast tide of disease’ coming from meat – MRSA from antibiotics in pigs, salmonella from broiler chickens – you wonder why it isn’t. If anything, the extent to which meat makes people ill is underplayed. Though only briefly discussed in Farmageddon, a particularly nasty form of food poisoning called campylobacter spreads like wildfire in overcrowded chicken sheds; it infects 65 per cent of all British chickens, yet hardly anyone seems to have heard of it. In 2009, it caused 17,500 hospitalisations in the UK (200,000 across the EU) and it’s the reason you should never order chicken liver paté at a wedding (because the livers are cooked pink).

Farmageddon’s premise is that there are better ways of producing meat. For Lymbery, the evil is not the slaughterhouse itself, but cheap meat like the £2 supermarket chicken whose full cost is not apparent at the point of sale. Chandran Nair, the environmentalist who runs the Global Institute for Tomorrow, ‘argues that the true economic cost of a US$4 burger, if you factor in the externalities (such as the cost of converting grain to meat, water and energy use) is “something like US$100”’. Advocates of mass-produced meat take the view that it offers huge benefits to the poor: once a chicken was a special treat, now it is an everyday staple. ‘They talk as if industrial farming is some kind of driver of equality,’ Lymbery notes. But cheap meat has the unintended consequence of pushing up the price of everything else, disproportionately affecting the poor, who still depend on grain for their calories. Global meat production creates a bloated demand for grain, which exacerbates the effects of inflation when harvests are hit, as they were in 2010-11 thanks to hot dry conditions across Europe, Africa, America and Australia. It is the poor who live with the direct consequences of industrial meat production: they are the ones whose homes are on the banks of pig lagoons, whose babies suffer respiratory disease from pesticide spraying. In Argentina, Lymbery and Oakeshott see what happens when a field with a picturesque duck pond and a fig tree is replaced with a cattle feedlot consisting of thousands of cattle in a sea of mud. ‘Around us was GM soy, interspersed by a lot of weeds and more mosquitoes than any of us had ever seen in one place.’

If this is a picture of the end of the world – Farmageddon – Lymbery finds an alternative future – Farmutopia? – at Highgrove, the organic estate in Gloucestershire owned by the Prince of Wales:

The farm is home to 180 dairy cows, 150 suckler cows, 130 breeding ewes that produce around 200-220 lambs a year, and a few rare-breed pigs. It works on a crop-rotation system, a seven-year cycle designed to maximise the richness of the soil. Organic mutton from Home Farm is sent to Calcot Manor, a luxury hotel near Tetbury, and to the Ritz in London.

Quite apart from his admiration for ‘His Royal Highness’, Highgrove satisfies Lymbery’s criteria for sustainable meat in numerous respects. First, and foremost, it offers a mixed system of agriculture, the ‘happy partnership’ between animal and crop rearing that was the normal way of farming before ‘industrialisation divorced them’ in the postwar era. Second, it is run organically: Lymbery cites calculations by the Soil Association that organic meat production is more ‘energy-efficient’, with organic beef using 35 per cent less fuel than non-organic and organic lamb 20 per cent less. Third, in contrast to the profligacy of the industrial meat system, Highgrove is run with minimal waste: ‘there’s a bespoke reedbed sewage system to process royal excrement.’ Fourth, the produce of Highgrove is nice and expensive, priced too high for the masses to gorge on it: what is not sold to luxury hotels goes under the Duchy Originals label in Waitrose.

If all meat production were more like this the future for meat-eaters would be rosy. Or so Lymbery believes. Farmageddon is a curiously consoling book for a British meat-eater because, once you’ve waded through all the horror, you can think, at least I haven’t forced any tribespeople off their land lately and thank God I’m not buying my chickens in Taiwan. Despite being gluttons for meat, the British have always prided themselves on superior animal husbandry, abhorring the Continental cruelty of eating tiny songbirds or unnaturally white veal, and Farmageddon shares some of this mood of self-congratulation. Thanks in part to the lobbying power of bodies such as Compassion in World Farming, four British supermarkets now stock exclusively free-range eggs and nearly a quarter of the chicken sold is produced to higher welfare standards: ‘free-range, organic or RSPCA Freedom Food Standard’. Compassion in World Farming gives an award for the most compassionate British supermarket every year: it passes ‘back and forth between Waitrose and Marks & Spencer’.

In his final chapter, on ‘consumer power’, Lymbery states that ‘avoiding Farmageddon is easy.’ Which makes you wonder why he chose to call his book that in the first place – if Armageddon is easy to avoid then it can’t be Armageddon. But Lymbery hopes we can shop our way out of it, without doing anything extreme like becoming vegetarian: ‘As long as we buy products from animals reared on the land (free-range, organic), favour local producers or retailers that we trust, eat what we buy and thereby reduce food waste, and avoid overeating meat, we can fill our plates in ways that benefit the countryside, our health and animal welfare.’

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That's a relief! But the crucial questions are not answered. What would it mean to ‘avoid overeating meat’? How could populations ever be persuaded to do so? I suspect that all meat-eaters claim to ‘avoid overeating meat’, in the same way that all wine drinkers are ‘moderate’. Farmageddon suggests that ‘going meat-free on Mondays’ is ‘a simple step towards avoiding factory-farmed produce’. Yes, it would be simple but it wouldn’t be anything like enough. The true ratio required for a future of sustainable meat-eating would be something more like meat on Mondays only. For a book that paints such horrific pictures of the disease, misery and squalor of factory farming, Farmageddon seems curiously determined to spare our feelings when it comes to the sacrifices that would be required in terms of our meat-eating habits.

If the meat industry looks ugly now, it is nothing to what it might be like if and when India and China catch up with the levels of meat consumption in the West. One of the major consequences of an expanding middle class in Asia has been a huge rise in meat-eating. By 2022, China will be importing more soya for chickenfeed than the whole of Brazil currently produces: 102 million tonnes. One of the surest signs of affluence is and always has been eating more meat. It’s the way you celebrate having risen above the carbohydrate-eating peasant classes. In A Vindication of Natural Diet in 1813, the vegetarian Shelley noted that ‘it is only the wealthy that can, to any great degree, even now, indulge the unnatural craving for dead flesh, and they pay for the greater license of the privilege, by subjection of supernumerary diseases.’ The difference today is that cheap meat means you don’t have to be quite so wealthy to tip over into the carnivorous demographic. Currently, the whole of Asia gets through around 18 billion chickens a year. If consumption continues to rise at current levels, by 2050 this figure will have increased more than tenfold to 200 billion chickens. But China and India will never be able to live like this – ‘simply because there isn’t enough to go around’. Lymbery appears to hope that higher meat prices will force consumption down, but since meat-eating is a consequence of wealth, prices would need to rise astronomically to have an impact. It would be as easy to persuade Americans to take their turn at eating dal and rice for a few centuries – it’s only fair – as it would to tell the new Asian middle classes not to buy meat for their families.

In Planet Carnivore, an excellent short ebook, Alex Renton looks into how much meat we’d have to give up in order to be sustainable. Renton points out that even though eating meat has become more popular in India, ‘the average Indian consumes a thirtieth of the meat that an Australian or an American does – around 4.4 kg in 2009’ whereas in the US it is ‘120 kg per head per annum, as much or more meat than anyone’. To reduce our consumption enough to mean that intensive farming could be abandoned would entail getting much closer to Indian levels, which for many would feel like virtual vegetarianism.

Renton cites Vaclav Smil, an energy expert from Canada, who has calculated that the world could comfortably accommodate a global output of 190 million tonnes of meat per year, two-thirds of current supply, if crop residues could be turned into animal feed and pasture could be used more efficiently. Universal vegetarianism is not necessary or desirable, in Smil’s view: animals are just better at digesting some things than humans, notably grass and food waste. Anyone in the world could eat meat, if they wanted to, on Smil’s model, so long as individual consumption was kept at around 15-30 kg a year: roughly what the average Japanese eats. This sounds good until you realise that average meat consumption in the UK is 89.1 kg a year; to get to Smil’s sustainable levels would involve cutting down to somewhere between a sixth and a third of the meat we now enjoy (15 kg a year works out at just 41 grams a day). A rib-eye steak at Hawksmoor in Covent Garden (400 g) would take you over your weekly limit in a single sitting. To reach Japanese levels of meat consumption, we would have to backtrack on the promise of the postwar years of plenty that meat could be a staple food. This would represent what Smil calls a shift from ‘massive carnivory’ to ‘rational meat-eating’.

Such a turn of events is not very likely, as Renton admits, because in order for the necessary reforms of the farming system to take place, there would need to be some ‘democratic, accountable and supranational body’, similar to the one that John Boyd Orr hoped would be set up by the UN after the war: a World Food Board. This would integrate ‘transport, human and animal health, the environment, agriculture and aquaculture and financial systems’ and guide ‘food production, trade and distribution’, working with the ‘food ministries of every nation’. Only then could the change in meat production happen, with ruminants restored to ‘their original, pre-19th-century … niche where they eat the things humans cannot in places where crops cannot be grown’ and safe food waste fed to ‘pigs, goats and chickens’. Renton does recognise, however, that there is no prospect of such an agency. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in existence since 1945, certainly shows no sign of playing this role. As Renton says, ‘it has no teeth: it is an advisory and research body.’ Moreover, since its main remit is to alleviate malnutrition, its ‘programme in meat and meat products’ currently focuses on increasing meat production in developing countries, especially poultry – the goal is 7.3 kg of animal protein per person per year – rather than decreasing demand or supply in developed countries.

There are few signs that we genuinely want to eat less meat, or enough less to make a difference. Perhaps we could start with a hard-hitting ad campaign, like the ones they run against drink-driving at Christmas, showing what happens when a bad batch of chicken livers collides with a wedding marquee: the vomiting, the misery, the hospitalisations. But who’s going to pay for it?