In all likelihood I will be vilified by the Vegetarian fraternity for even posing the question of ethnics and meat eating. To them it is an oxymoron, a casus belli using their favourite weapon, the politics of rage by casting their views in melodramatic terms. Call me old-fashioned, even heartless, but I have no intention of banishing meat from my menu. This is not to say that I nonetheless face a moral dilemma. I have always concurred with the widely held view that it in spite of being bred for the pot, these animals must be treated humanely whilst being mindful of the ecological consequences of the methods in which they are farmed.
Herein lies the paradox as alluded to in the title of the blog and not the fact of eating meat.
Main picture: Caring owl feeding an injured owl with 2 broken legs and a damaged wing estimated to be 1 year old. To find out more about this incredible bird go to its very own website at http://www.thecaringowl.co.za/
Let us commence with the fabled ruminants – the cows and the sheep to the layman. Ecologically the ruminants are akin to weapons of mass destruction. They are the embodiment of a grass conversion factory like no other animal. This ability is only possible due to the work performed by bacteria and microbes in their stomachs. The function of these creatures is to digest the cellulose, the indigestible component of grass. The by-product of this process is the production of a potent greenhouse gas called methane which is 25 times more deadly than carbon dioxide. This gas is not expelled as one would expect through flatulence but rather by belching.
How does the ruminant receive its nutrients? In a deft move, after the microbes have grown fat in the gut, the ruminant displays its gratitude by digesting these microbes in their small intestines. Lest anybody is unclear about this convoluted process, the function of the grass is to fatten the microbes which are then consumed by the ruminant. The by-product of the breaking-down of the cellulose by the microbes is the production of methane within the rumen of the ruminant.
At 500 litres of methane produced per cow per day and with a population of 1.5 billion [up from 400 million a century ago], a global catastrophe is in the making. With global demand for beef steeply rising as the Chinese acquire the taste for steaks and hamburgers, this figure is expected to exceed 2 billion within 10 years.
With the only recourse being abstinence from meat eating, technological has stepped into the breach to resolve this impasse. Scientific research currently being undertaken by the University of Nebraska hopes to elucidate the process and then to devise a strategy to minimise the production of methane gas. As daunting as this challenge was, they have determined that the diet of the ruminant determines the type of microbe which ultimately dictates the quantity of methane produced.
The solution was mundane. Instead of feeding the cattle grass, their main menu is changed to corn [mielies to South Africans] which America has in abundance. This is an elegant solution in that it addresses two issues simultaneously – methane production and cattle growth rates.
Cattle ranchers in America readily embraced the solution: feedlots in the vernacular or CAFOs – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – in technical jargon. In these “farming factories”, huge numbers of cattle would be fed an admixture of cornflakes, growth hormone and antibiotics. From the outset, the intention is to fatten the cattle as rapidly as possible – they must gain 300 kgs in the process – and then be slaughtered.
The uncomfortable truth is that by any measure this is a less damaging process ecologically speaking than the common idyll of cattle wandering peacefully on the prairie. With at least a 40% reduction in methane production and a weight gain at twice of the rate of their cousins on the endless green pastures, the industrialised production process wins hands-down.
The paradox or even dilemma faced by the ethical carnivore is that the industrialised sterilised production of beef without a blade of grass in sight must be more ethical due to its reduced impact on the environment.
This line of reasoning accepts the proposition that feedlots are the panacea for the reduction of greenhouse gas production.
But is it?
Whilst conceding that this process is less harmful to the environment, the Green lobby contends that even this process is not environmentally friendly in that instead of feeding the corn directly to humans, it first has to be inefficiently converted into protein by cattle. The net effect of this production process has been the deforestation of the Amazon Rain forests and the Argentinean grasslands to produce soya and corn for cattle production in Europe. They contend that this would not be necessary if humans consumed the soya & corn destined to be consumed by cattle.
Casting further doubt upon this circuitous route of producing food, they have estimated the carbon footprint of cattle production. The tonnes of carbon dioxide produced per annum generated in the process are as follows:
|Forest destruction||700 million|
Remarkably, in total, cattle are responsible for 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
By any measure that is worryingly large and unsustainable.
The quantity of meat consumed is mainly a function of the wealth of a nation. Combined with a nation’s taste for meat, the end result is the actual meat consumption.
By a large margin the USA is the largest consumer of meat at 120 kgs per person per annum with Europe being 84 kgs pp pa. China’s consumption of meat is rising steadily as living standards are raised due to the introduction of capitalism. From a measly 11 grams per person per day under the Mao Zedong, it is now 55 kgs pp pa being mainly chicken.
A possible solution for the unrepentant carnivore is to consider the choice of one’s animal and whether it would make a material difference due to its carbon footprint.
Here we need to consider the efficiency of the conversion process from grain to protein combined with the production of CO2 gases by type of animal
|Animal/output meat||Grams of input grain per gram of output protein||Kgs of CO2 gas produced per kg of meat produced|
By any measure it is painfully clear that chicken is the most environmentally friendly source of meat protein.
The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that low world populations combined with low rates of meat consumption as in the past, the effect of the method of meat production was not a concern from an environmental perspective.
With vastly enhanced rates of meat consumption conflated with a burgeoning world population, the previous methods of meat production are unsustainable.
If mankind wishes to continue consuming meat in vast quantities, industrialised meat production methods are an ineluctable prerequisite.
Whereas that option might be more ethical considering the environmental impact, with a rapidly rising world population even that option will be insufficient. Initially it will require mankind’s meat consumption pattern to change to the consumption of chicken with beef being eaten as a treat only, a bit like a roast today.
Ultimately even that option will be insufficient. When the world’s population reaches 9 to 10 billion, the consumption of meat itself will have to be restricted to a Sunday lunch treat.
Long before that occurs many consumers would have already eschewed the consumption of meat especially in the First World resulting in the ultimate irony: the poor Third World consuming more meat than the affluent First World.
The Caring Owl: http://www.thecaringowl.co.za/
Michael Mosley/BBC: The meat that we eat