Just about every day, another McDonald’s or Burger King joint opens up somewhere on the planet. And an increasing number of kids have either eaten a Big Mac or are dreaming they can one day afford it. But few people realize that this new, worldwide craze for red meat in the shape of burgers or steak is directly related to many of the world’s environmental problems, writes Roar Bjønnes.
Food versus feed
by Roar Bjønnes (1999)
During this century a fundamental shift in the way we farm has taken place – a change from cultivating food grain to feed grain. This shift is caused by the change in Western eating habits to ever-increasing animal product consumption – a shift enabled by the industrialization and mechanization of farming practices. This shift is now gradually turning the rest of the planet’s population from being primarily vegetarians to becoming carnivores.
For example, about one-third of the world’s total grain harvest is fed to livestock while 1.3 billion people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition and 40-60 million people die each year from hunger and related diseases. In the U.S, where people eat more meat than in any other country in the world, cattle and other livestock consume over 70 percent of all grain produced. And what about U.S. grain exports? Well, 60 percent of all grain exports goes to feed livestock rather than hungry people.
Jeremy Rifkin, author of Beyond Beef says that: “It seems disingenuous for the intellectual elite of the first world to dwell on the subject of too many babies being born in the second and third-world nations while virtually ignoring the overpopulation of cattle and the realities of a food chain that robs the poor of sustenance to feed the rich a steady diet of grain-fed meat.” Rifkin refers to the millions of acres of land in poor, non-industrialized countries that are being used solely for grain production for European or American livestock consumption. In 1984, for example, when thousands of Ethiopians were dying daily from famine, the country continued growing and shipping millions of dollars’ worth of livestock feed to the UK and other European nations.
Topsoil depletion has been the cause for the demise of many great civilizations. It is believed, for example, that the Sumerian civilization was partly destroyed because of desertification due to topsoil depletion. Today in the U.S some 85 percent of the topsoil lost from cropland, pasture, rangeland and forest land is directly associated with raising livestock.
According to Alan Durning of the WorldWatch Institute, it costs about 35 pounds of eroded topsoil to produce one pound of feedlot steak. To replenish the lost soil, however, is not easy. Scientists believe it takes between 200 and 1,000 years to create one inch of topsoil under natural conditions. It is estimated that the direct and indirect costs of soil erosion in the U.S. alone exceed $44 billion a year.
The United Nations Environmental Program defines desertification as “impoverishment of arid, semi-arid, and sub-arid ecosystems by the impact of man’s activities”. This process leads to reduced productivity of desirable plants, alterations in the biomass and in the diversity of life forms, accelerated soil degradation, and increased hazards for human occupancy.
According to the New Scientist, cattle production is the primary factor in all five causes of desertification: overgrazing of livestock, overcultivation of the land, improper irrigation, deforestation, and prevention of reforestation.
Reduced fresh water supply
Few people in the western U.S., where water rationing is quite common, realize the direct connection between dwindling water supplies and the ever-growing consumption of fast-food meat. However, the link is clear: 70 percent of all water consumed in the U.S. is used to grow feed and provide drinking water for cattle and other livestock such as sheep, goats, and chicken.
Reports by the General Accounting Office, the Rand Corporation, and the Water Resources Council have concluded that current water use practices threaten to undermine the economies of 17 western states.
The link between pollution and industry is common knowledge, but is there one between pollution and farming as well? Yes, unfortunately there is. It is estimated that cattle and other livestock account for twice the amount of pollutants as from all U.S. industrial sources.
The nitrogen from cattle wastes is converted into ammonia and nitrates and leaches into ground water and surface water, where it pollutes wells, rivers, and streams, contaminating drinking water and killing aquatic life. Manure nitrogen also escapes into the air as gaseous ammonia, a pollutant that causes acid rain and other forms of acid deposition. The organic waste generated by a typical 10,000-head feedlot is equivalent to the human waste generated in a city of 110,000 people.
Oil is used in the livestock industries for fuel for transport and tractors, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides; so much, in fact, that animal products could be considered petroleum by-products!
To produce one calorie of protein from beef takes 78 calories of fossil fuel. To produce one calorie of protein from soybeans take two calories of fossil fuel.
It is estimated that 61 percent of all herbicides used in the U.S are sprayed on corn and soybeans, which are used primarily as feed for cattle and other livestock.
Meat is the major source of pesticide residues in the Western diet. Of the 10 foods most likely to cause cancer from pesticide residues, beef is number one.
Since 1960, more than 25 percent of Central American rainforests have been cleared to create pastureland for the beef industry. By the late 1970s, two-thirds of all agricultural land in Central America was utilized for livestock, which was destined for consumption in American fast-food restaurants and at dinner tables.
While considering all the above facts, the popular 60s and 70s slogan – “The personal is political!” – takes on a whole new meaning. Just think about it: One of the most politically radical acts to do today is to adhere to a plant-based diet!
Rifkin, Jeremy, Beyond Beef, Dutton, 1992.
Durning, Alan and Holly Brough, WorldWatch paper #103, 1991.
Robbins, John, Diet for a New America, Stillpoint, 1987.