Is Meat The Problem Or Is It The Over-Production Of Grain ?
Updated: Jul 4, 2019
This article is part of the current 'War On Meat' (see here). It is also the result of faulty reasoning. Meat is not the problem, over-production of grain is. Lets examine this in detail.
The piece that appears on the WEF's website is a shortened version of a paper written by consulting firm ATKearney. It is interesting to note that it was written by a member of their chemicals practice, and its purpose seems to be to talk up the opportunities 'cultured meat' will present to this industry. The WEF's reproduction of the ATKearney article has the aim of building up momentum behind 'alternative proteins and meat substitutes' by creating a sense of inevitability around their introduction and adoption by consumers in place of actual meat. Progress on the march again.
The WEF has already invested some reputational capital in this area, sponsoring a report by the Oxford Martin School of Oxford University titled, 'Meat the Future Series - Alternative Proteins', available here. This puts forward a scenario where population growth, climate change, and rising incomes combine in such a way that conventional livestock production is unable to meet demand (p.6). It packages the introduction of 'alternative proteins' as a 'healthy and sustainable' solution to this problem (p.5).
This is clever. The agenda in play here involves the replacement of a naturally-based activity - managing herds of livestock outdoors on pastoral land - with chemical manufacturing processes, but it will be sold to us as being in our best interests. The Oxford Martin report is very careful to frame its enthusiasm for meat substitutes in terms of sustainability, nutrition, and the welfare of the world's poor. This of course means that anyone who resists their agenda will be labelled as environmentally irresponsible, and insensitive to the needs of both the emerging middle classes in the developing world who want to eat more meat, and of the dirt farmers trying to scratch out a living under the harshest of conditions.
Here is a taste of how the report goes about this,
"In discussing meat substitutes and the need to reduce global meat consumption, it is very important to ensure that no policies are enacted that negatively affect the health or livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged groups that are dependent on meat and livestock." (p.7)
The Oxford Martin document is not to be underestimated. It is a highly sophisticated effort to push through a well thought through set of objectives. In line with our post-Modern era, its core component is a program of social engineering. This is stated explicitly, and worth quoting at length,
"An important finding of this research is that showing the benefits of these products is not sufficient for consumers to adopt them. A much wider set of interventions will be required to accelerate uptake. To this end, the analysis in this report first uses social science techniques to look at a critical determinant of adoption: the interplay of narratives that are developing
in regard to the costs and benefits of alternative proteins. Chiefly using information from North American and European markets, where alternative proteins are more advanced and available, the report seeks an understanding of which narratives have been most impactful or detrimental in affecting the acceptance and purchase of these products." (p.5)
The report then goes on to outline some suggested narratives and their counters. (see image on right)
Alongside these, it also discusses how 'political economy' and the 'regulatory environment' can be reshaped in order to promote the uptake of alternative proteins.
In comparison to the Oxford Martin report, the ATKearney article is distinctly amateur. Its main weakness seems to stem from its uncritical adoption of vegan talking points. These build some flawed assumptions into its reasoning. The most significant is its claim that the bulk of the grain produced worldwide (46%) goes to feed livestock. This underpins an argument that has been in use for decades and runs like this,
"according to the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) and our own field research, it takes about 7 kg of grain in dry weight to produce 1 kg of live weight for bovine in feedlots... It is worthwhile to note that a plant-based diet would not only provide the same calories but also have the same nutritional value if crops are chosen accordingly to have enough protein. Hence, we could feed around twice as many humans with today’s global harvest if we did not feed livestock but rather consumed the yield ourselves. Based on the current worldwide population of 7.6 billion humans, we would have food for an additional 7 billion people. This number would increase even further if less of the harvest ended up in biofuel and industrial use or if waste could be reduced." (see here)
On closer inspection, the 46% figure is taken from a 1994 article written by an officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The ATKearney chemist must have assumed we would not check the reference, I suspect he didn't himself, because it turns out to be a very interesting document.
First of all, it is written from a perspective that far from being hostile to meat and livestock production, directly advocates for it. It turns out that this is still the position of the FAO today (see here and here), a point worth dwelling on. The FAO's Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock website includes these statements on their banner, 'The livestock sector is vital to global food security and health', 'The livestock sector is crucial to society achieving its environmental, social and economic and health objectives', 'Livestock sector growth contributes to poverty reduction and development'. What the FAO is attempting to do through its programs is improve livestock productivity, reduce emissions, and in general develop the sector to achieve the UN's developmental goals. This is one reason why the organisation took the unusual step of issuing a direct statement on the EAT-Lancet Commission (see here) in clear opposition to the initiative. Around the same time, FAO officers also stepped in to correct misleading statistics such as those cited above by ATKearney, including the following clarifications -
"This study determines that 86% of livestock feed is not suitable for human consumption. If not consumed by livestock, crop residues and by-products could quickly become an environmental burden as the human population grows and consumes more and more processed food. Animals also consume food that could potentially be eaten by people. Grains account for 13% of the global livestock dry matter intake. Some previous studies, often cited, put the consumption of grain needed to raise 1 kg of beef between 6 kg and 20 kg. Contrary to these high estimates, this study found that an average of only 3 kg of cereals are needed to produce 1 kg of meat at global level. It also shows important differences between production systems and species. For example, because they rely on grazing and forages, cattle need only 0.6 kg of protein from edible feed to produce 1 kg of protein in milk and meat, which is of higher nutritional quality. Cattle thus contribute directly to global food security." (see here)
We massively over-produce grain today
The 1994 article referred to above directly challenges one of the key assumptions in the ATKearney paper, that livestock need to be fed grains. This is central to their argument, which is that we are better off cutting out the middle man (animal) and eating the grains ourselves. However, not only are grain fed cows confined mostly to the USA and EU, there is absolutely NO NEED for this practice. The reason why livestock are fed grains is because we currently over-produce cereals on a massive scale, meaning there is a problem of what to do with them all. This has led both to their use in feed lots and the rise of the biofuel industry. The FAO officer writes,
"Because surplus grains are produced in developed countries, it has been assumed that increasing livestock production will be based on grains at the expense of poor people. Is this true ?... Because grains are widely available in developed, temperate countries, or because they have the wealth to import them, these countries can afford to use the grains to feed animals, especially as production costs do not include the imputed costs of soil erosion, loss of fertility and environmental degradation. Developing countries, which have neither the available grain resources nor the money to import them, should, however, follow the same philosophy for feeding their animals, that is, they should use their own locally available feed resources, not grains !" (see here)
At present, we grow enough cereals to feed more than 10 billion people. (see here) This distorts markets and works against small farmers and producers, as well as those in developing countries, by driving down prices. The problem is not meat but GRAIN.
Population growth is likely to reduce some of this surplus in the period ahead. However, over the long term demand for grains will FALL not rise as a result of higher incomes. This point is very significant. The trend was clearly visible as far back as 1994,
"By the year 2010, animal products are expected to contribute proportionally much more to the food supply than they do at present, since income determines the protein intake of people, particularly in urban areas."
People eat grains BECAUSE THEY ARE POOR. I have made this point earlier (see here). As soon as they can afford to, they up their intake of animal foods, meat, fish, eggs and dairy. The Oxford Martin report acknowledges this,
"Meat has a special place in human diets. Modern human beings have an innate preference for meat as it is both energy‐dense and protein‐rich and we evolved in an environment where energy and protein were scarce... By 2050, global food systems will need to meet the dietary demands of more than 10 billion people who on average will be wealthier than people today and will aspire to the type of food choices currently available only in high‐income countries." (pp.5-6)
A Commercial Opportunity
This statement gives us some insight into the real motivations behind the push for 'cultured meat'. They are commercial. The WEF, ATKearney, the companies already operating in this space, see an important opportunity, a potential gap in the market whereby growth in the demand for animal sourced products will go unmet, allowing 'alternative proteins' to step in and clean up. Once established, chemical 'meat' will push proper meat to the side by undercutting it in price and also making land unavailable for livestock production, the ATKearney paper spells this agenda out.
Oxford Martin frame this as a triumph of Modern technology,
"Producing meat in the laboratory without the involvement of living animals is a huge technical feat made possible by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Only in the past decade have technologies advanced enough to make this conceivable, with forms of meat that might be used in products which traditionally contain minced meat (such as burgers) already quite advanced and projected to be available to the public in the next few years." (p.9)
Here, as has so often happened throughout the period of Modernity, technology and capitalism combine, wreaking havoc on both the natural world and on ourselves as humanity. This includes the 'technology' of social engineering, the creation of narratives designed to win our consent towards our own destruction. Powerful forces are at work here, our task is to understand what is at stake and to build up our own counterpoints, our ability to cut through their narratives, and to present a viable alternative. This includes a call for the reduction of grain production and the restoration of land under cultivation to grasslands for ruminant pasture. Making a good case for this will be an important part of our response.