"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." --Michael Pollan
I am going to talk hard science, but sometimes I like to use metaphors to tell a story. Imagine this: You are in your home and the temperature is locked-in at 90+ degrees and rising. You can't change the thermostat, only one way to go, up. And then you have habits that contribute to barren land and drought in your neighborhood. Also, your precious water supply is filthy and smells bad. No fun, right?
In my last piece on the environment, I talked about the seismic changes we are seeing in Antarctica (link). Our food choices and the livestock farming practices in play today are definitive contributors to what is taking place there. So strap in and let's talk about food and food production. Meat in particular.
Meat production is a brutal process. I am one of those guys that has respect for all living sentient things. I'm a vegan, so when I do my homework on standard meat production and watch the process, it does not settle well at all. Couple that with the skyrocketing demand for meat worldwide, and making the meat as cheap as possible, you will see that this is all causing catastrophic environmental consequences.
Anyone who eats meat should spend some time in a slaughterhouse or better yet a factory farm or as they call them now---Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), and get a first hand look at the impact of your creation.
And then there is processed meat which is now categorized as a carcinogen (Group 1 Carcinogen) by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the same category as tobacco consumption, diesel exhaust and asbestos. If that were not enough, some scientists think that our addiction to meat may pose an even greater threat to humanity than we previously thought if we continue down the road we are on.
So what's on tap?
The demand for meat is going to increase exponentially around the world and with the current CAFO livestock production process there is no way demand can be matched. If we were to all refrain from eating meat 5 days a week we could get by, but the human race is doing the polar opposite.
Stem cells are a possible go-to for the carnivores of the world. Simply take a slice of muscle from your animal of choice and over a few days scientists provide the conditions for those meat cells to grow into fuller tissue. The end result is the creation of hamburger, veal cutlet, pork sausage, etc. from stem cells. It is roughly a seven to ten week process taking the stem cells and then turning that stem cell into meat. A clean and rapid production process (and more humane). The price tag? The first synthetic or cultured meat burger cost $325,000 to make. The hope is to produce them cheaper and on a larger scale.
The US and Brazil are the worlds top meat producers and the environmental havoc the current state of meat production produces is totally unsustainable. Welcome to CAFO. CAFO business is good around the world and is expected to get even better. Brazil is about to be allowed to export fresh beef directly to the US. And meat production in Brazil is so land-intensive that it's responsible for more than two-thirds of the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.
Americans ate more than 100 pounds of red meat per person in 2014, and now, Africa and Asia are moving toward that same diet. Global meat production has quadrupled since the 1960s, and by 2050 it will increase by another 50%.
Here is the long and short of it. Feed lots demand huge amounts of water and energy consumption. Using cattle as an example, each animal is typically fed 48 pounds of food per day. Roughly 450 tons per CAFO per day. A typical slaughter operation takes three months per head of cattle to produce the desired effect---the slaughter of the animal. Each head of cattle balloons in weight after being force fed; 400 pounds of weight gain in just 90 days. It's your standard factory farm. Animals cooped up in pens for months and then led to slaughter. Think one animal slaughtered every 30 seconds. The focus on making the meat as cheap as possible following the CAFO method, and cutting corners on costs, in a word is cataclysmic.
Ken Cook, a food policy expert, says that 70% of the land devoted to agriculture on the planet is devoted to meat production. That's almost a third of the entire surface area of the earth. That many acres producing red meat, pork, chicken, etc. is completely unsustainable.
Let's assume that the world population will grow to 9 billion people by 2050. There isn't enough land. There isn't enough water. There isn't the capacity for the Earth's atmosphere to absorb all of the CO2 and the methane that would come out of animal agriculture.
Check this out. In Duplin County, North Carolina, the pork industry is so big, the hogs outnumber people. Larry Baldwin monitors CAFOs in North Carolina for the Waterkeeper Alliance. Pigs in the CAFO defecate, so you've got urine and feces dropping through the floor, but then there are slots in the concrete below. The waste falls through that, and then gets flushed into the lagoon outside the CAFO though pipes that lead from the CAFO. There are multiple buildings in the CAFO and each building has unfiltered piping that empties into the lagoon. Can you even imagine suggesting that that's the way we would handle human waste?
When you see this region from the air, the scope of these hog CAFOs and their waste is off the charts. You can see every single CAFO is attached to these huge lagoons. Hundreds of them. The bottom-line is that the ground simply cannot absorb this much waste, and according to Kemp Burdett of Cape Fear River Watch, the overflow is wreaking havoc on local waterways.
The thousands of fresh water streams in the region surrounded by hog farms show nitrogen and phosphorous levels at ridiculously high and unhealthy levels with bacterial measurements far exceeding healthy levels due to the raw feces being discharged. If you're a fisherman or if you're a swimmer, if you're throwing the ball for your dog, you've got to deal with dangerous biohazards. And these creeks flow downstream into the Northeast Cape Fear River, which is a part of the Cape Fear River basin, the largest river basin in North Carolina. It's a problem. Just like Flint, Michigan, but different. A fifth of North Carolinians drink water out of the Cape Fear River Basin.
And it isn't just the quality of the water that's the problem. In meat-producing regions in the western US, it's the quantity of water being used. In the dry High Plains region, many feed crops draw water from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is now losing water faster than it can be replenished.
Mike Callicrate, a small cattle rancher in this area, broke down the relationship between water, corn, and industrial meat---it takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn. And if an animal eats 50 bushels of corn in its time in the feedlot, we're looking at about 125,000 gallons of water per animal, under this industrial model. So when it comes to those industrial-scale feedlots, the majority of the water they're using actually goes into producing the corn. And the reason that they have big feedlot at Yuma, Colorado is because there's water, and they don't pay one dime for it. And they pay below the cost of production for the corn since corn is the cheapest thing that we can feed, they say, The water is subsidizing the operation since it's free. So with free water and cheap corn, the price of mass-produced beef is kept artificially low. A system that depletes the resource base which will eventually crash and burn no matter what the cost of the beef. It's sounding like the mortgage industry in 2008.
So where do we go from here? Along with stem cell technology, the farm-to-table movement is an option that focuses on responsible production. They use a system called rotational grazing. Everyday the cows get a brand-new salad bar, a new plateful of food. Land for grazing is typically rotated every 50 days. So this is the way that cows have traditionally grazed on grass. This is the role of herbivores in nature. On this type of farm, every animal has a role, and even their waste plays a part.
Farmers with chickens can also rotate chickens into the grazing spot after the cows have moved on. The chickens then scratch through these cow dung patties, incorporate them into the soil, eat out the fly larvae and actually sanitize the fields before the cows come back through, so it's a very multi-speciated system. The entire process has tremendous benefits for the land and for the environment. The downside, in our current economy is, it takes more time, more labor, more management. More expense.
So, instead of moving towards the more sustainable model that's been catching on in parts of America, it's mass production that's on the rise in most places around the world. And the market for cheap, industrial meat, is blowing up everywhere. If the meat industry continues as it is at the moment, where does that take us, in 20 years time? Meat production globally will be an environmental disaster of epic proportions. If we try and expand meat production to reach 9 billion people by 2050......Antarctica will be a lagoon and a smelly one at that.
Kale burgers anyone?
Thanks to the folks from Vice News, The World Health Organization and National Geographic for your data and background info.