THE BLOG

The Trouble With Cheap Meat

19/01/2015 17:38 GMT | Updated 21/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Over the past few years, I've been on something of a journey with meat. I grew up on a small mixed farm in South Devon that raised sheep, cows, chickens, geese and turkey for their meat, feeding them mainly on pasture and crops we grew. I was under no illusions about the fate of the animals that filled my childhood, but I also knew they were treated well during their lives.

I saw nothing wrong with eating their meat; it seemed to me part of an implicit bargain between farmers and their livestock. Our side was to provide a safe life, free from cruelty, hunger and misery, and the animals' was to provide sustenance for us at the end of their lives. But the way meat is now produced makes a mockery of that bargain. 

The small-scale mixed farms are almost gone, replaced by industrial behemoths with scant regard for animal welfare. The livestock trapped in these vicious factory-farming systems are forced to endure such grotesque treatment that it must be hidden from public view, masked behind labels that suggest a bucolic rural existence that couldn't be further from reality. Weasel-words like 'farm fresh', 'natural' and 'country-fresh' are designed to mislead the public, creating the impression that the meat they are buying comes from happy animals kept on old-fashioned farms. The truth is rather different: overfed, pumped full of antibiotics, unable to stand under their own weight, caked in their own faeces and living ever shorter lives as new ways are found to get them to grow faster, the lives of the animals whose meat fills our supermarkets is not a happy one. 

As meat consumption rises, the demands placed on the environment grow. Livestock now produces nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, consumes a third of the world's grain, and a third of the fish we catch. Soya production for animal feeds is devastating pristine rainforest habitat in Latin America, contributing to a collapse in biodiversity so severe that scientists say we are living through an extinction event. Thousands of litres of water are used to produce a typical steak. And the huge quantities of manure produced by this system are poisoning our rivers and seas, even posing a threat to human health.

All told, it's an environmental disaster that is hidden from public view behind the quaint drawings of tumbledown barns and rolling hills that are used to market the meat produced by factory farms. And it's going to get worse. As the population grows, and economic development boosts the ranks of the global middle class, meat consumption is set to soar. By 2050, we'll need to produce twice as much meat as we do today to keep up with projected demand. 

But the injustices of intensive meat production aren't limited to the animals involved, or the natural environment, or the people unfortunate enough to live close to industrial farms. It's worse than that. While the rich world happily pillages the environment to grow food for these tortured animals, an estimated 800 million people in poorer countries simply don't have enough to eat. The world produces enough food every year to feed 5 billion more people than there are on the planet, but grains and cereals that could save lives are instead being fed to livestock.

In my humanitarian work, I've watched children die of starvation. I've seen the desperation in the eyes of mothers as their children waste away in front of them because there simply isn't enough to go around. I've sat with farmers whose families face months of hunger because their crops have failed. I know what rising cereal prices means for the world's poor. And I know the effect rising demand for meat will have on those cereal prices. The conclusion is inescapable: the global meat binge is contributing to world hunger. 

So I've made a New Years Resolution. I'm drastically cutting down on my meat consumption. I'll eat wild meat and meat from the family farm only, and save it for special occasions. Our grandparent's generation saw meat for what it was: a treat, to be enjoyed occasionally. We should hope, for the sake of our animals, our planet and our human brothers and sisters, that our grandchildren's generation have similar views.