The following article was contributed by UNESCO on meat production and consumption in Asia. ― Ed.
Tens of billions of pigs, chickens, turkeys and cattle are eaten globally every year, and about 2 billion people worldwide live on a meat-based diet.
Asia’s population and economic growth has been charted as the fastest annual growth of any region in the world in energy demand. Even though the demand for meat and poultry is steadily increasing, the number of farms providing them has decreased, allowing for corporate consolidation and industrialized intensification agricultural techniques. Traditional farming practices have been given up.
The global production of meat grew fivefold in the latter half of the 20th century and continues to increase. A recent UNESCO publication shows that 4 of the top 10 meat-producing countries in the world are Asian.
Robert A. Kanaly, head of a UNESCO working group on ethics, energy and meat production from Yokohama City University, Japan, said: “Consolidation in the agricultural markets continues worldwide and currently in Asia, meat production intensification and CAFO-(Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation)-type models are rapidly becoming more popular ...”
“… (However,) there is a lack of discussion of core issues such as their heavy reliance on the availability of cheap non-renewable fossil fuel energy, combined with a large number of potentially serious environmental, socioeconomic and public health consequences,” he added.
As a country becomes wealthier, people tend to eat more meat, resulting in over-consumption and potentially chronic diseases common in developed countries.
Meat production and climate change are closely interrelated. Extra attention should be paid to serious health risks posed by meat production, as well as indirect health consequences caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions.
The intensity of animal production is a key factor in controlling carbon emissions due to land use and animal waste. Up to 180 million tons of animal waste are excreted in the United States each year, releasing methane and other toxic gases.
“I think many people assume that vegetarians are animal-loving tree huggers and it is a political statement against cruelty to animals, which I agree has its merits,” said avid vegetarian Lisa Joya from the Philippines.
“But I have issues with how meat is contemporarily produced by modern farmers and food companies. I have a problem with the hormones and other chemicals meat producers use to plump up their animals and produce at an unnatural pace.”
Meat production is a complicated issue, deeply integral to the environment, public health and economics, among many other factors. Since it is a major factor in global GHG emissions, it should be more heavily scrutinized.
“Environmental experts have been warning about the severe consequences of producing meat for years now. It’s nothing new, just that consumption is exponentially growing at the same time we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” said Darryl Macer, Regional Adviser for Social and Human Sciences in Asia and the Pacific at UNESCO Bangkok.
“Beef, for instance, is particularly damaging due to the low conversion rate of energy from maize to cattle and because methane … is released both by cows and by manure.”
Seventy percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the earth’s land surface is used for pastoral, mixed-system and intensive livestock production. One of the most serious consequences is soil erosion, which diminishes productivity.
“An integral part of intensive meat production is that cereal crops are fed in large quantities to animals that in turn require large amounts of fertilizer, water, land and industrial chemicals to produce. The fertilizer is basically made from nitrogen fixation using oil,” said Kanaly.
“Indeed, Food and Agriculture Organization projects that account for 50 percent of global grain production will be used for animal feed by 2030.”
Through intensification, biodiversity decreases ― a single crop is grown over a huge area, allowing large harvests with minimal labor. The downsides include a quicker spread of diseases since a uniform crop is more susceptible to pathogens. Situations where there is little genetic diversity will result in expansive host populations of animals that will be increasingly vulnerable to emergent pathogens.
Livestock farms are responsible for exacerbating environmental problems. UNESCO’s report revealed that sewage from animal operations in the Philippines contributed to about 52 percent of the pollution.
Another issue is pig waste, which has a low demand as a fertilizer. Most swine farmers deposit pig waste in lagoons, septic tanks or digesters. Pig manure contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria and compounds such as ammonia, organic acids and sulfides. These pollutants can have severe health effects on animals and humans, and the report notes that most of the manure is thrown into canals, rivers, open pits or left on the ground to decompose.
These antibiotics’ effects on ecology are also a concern. Since many antibiotics are poorly absorbed by farm animals, up to 90 percent may end up in manure, then released into soil, surface waters and possibly ground water.
Another concern is the transfer of infectious diseases due to close contact between animals and humans under unhygienic production conditions. When animal production facilities are built closer to the city center, this allows for more human-animal contact. The consolidation of facilities, transport routes and coincident networks increases the transmission of pathogens. Regulations to protect public health and related issues have not kept pace with intensified meat production.
Several meat companies in the Philippines were contacted for a survey on environmental values. However, the producers were unwilling to be interviewed, a clear indication of non-transparency leading many to distrust meat producers. Furthermore, the environmental effects and health consequences that occur affect livestock, human beings and the world around us.
“Transparency and ethical concerns in relation to intensive farming clearly need to be considered more deeply on the production side,” said Kanaly. “But at the same time, the consuming public also needs to consider the ethics of their choices.”
The ethics of producing animals for food by industrialized systems also needs to be considered. From a health perspective, lower levels of saturated fat are always conducive. From an environmental viewpoint, food and energy is arguably wasted since animal production is based on eating animals fattened with grains and other foods that humans could have eaten directly.
Animals’ living conditions are also to be considered, as most live miserable lives so that their meat can be made available at the lowest cost possible, and society tolerates animals being left to unsuitable conditions. It is important for ethical standards to be present in different countries.
In terms of policy options, effective public policies are essential to ensure that livestock contribute to development goals and minimize damage to social equity, the environment and public health.
The UNESCO report recommends that new policies need to influence intensive livestock production, plus abolishment of non-transparency methods. Better regulations, more periodic checks on producers and stricter enforcement would encourage companies to practice healthier livestock production.
For further information, email the Regional Unit for Social and Human Sciences in Asia and the Pacific (RUSHSAP), UNESCO Bangkok, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Emily Chu