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The high price of cheap meat Part I

Nothing changes-whatever familiar measures are announced after every food scandal, once politicians, manufacturers and retailers have made their claims and counterclaims, and after we have gone through the ritual demands and transparency, traceability and labeling. 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 centers of specialization to maximize 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. 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, ad 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 and resources, and the health of producers and sometimes consumers, with 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 emission and uses huge amounts of natural resources, land and agricultural produce. Should cereals be grown to feed people or fatten livestock? It takes at least seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, four for a kilogram of pork and two 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 biofuel) affects the poorest. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s 2006 annual report says “Food production as well as imports has increased. Total food 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. 

Source: DIGEST, Compiled by RDC 

 

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