In recent years, there has been a growing movement against excessive meat consumption. Environmentalists point to meat production as one of the main causes of climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution; health advocates say eating too many animal products increases the risk of everything from heart disease to cancer; and animal welfare activists argue that it is wrong to be cruel to animals.
In an attempt to slow the rapid rise in meat consumption in the United States and other highly industrialized nations, the movement has deployed a variety of tactics, from education to offering the masses options plant-based like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. But some take these measures as a general “meat is bad” message, and extrapolate how pushing people to eat less meat could ultimately hurt those in low-income countries, as livestock farming is a valuable economic and food asset.
It’s a straw man argument. With rare exceptions, no one is campaigning for meat reduction in food insecure places. Virtually no environmental, health, or even animal rights activists focus their attention on small, independently owned and operated farms. And criticizing Western factory farming does not affect the availability or legitimacy of meat consumption in low-income countries. The two are, frankly, unrelated. I think few would dispute that the same advice is unlikely to apply in the United States and, say, Uganda. The nations we are comparing here have totally different economies, topographies, and social issues. It goes without saying that their problems will require different solutions.
Where activists are turning their attention are to the cases of large international agribusiness corporations operating in low-income countries, and the people and ecosystems that make them up. The establishment of American-style CAFOs – or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, large-scale industrial agricultural facilities that confine animals in torture-like conditions to produce cheap meat, eggs or milk – is doing anything but prosperity to poor people around the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, they increase the risk of zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance and contamination, as well as land degradation and deforestation. Already, international meat companies JBS and Cargill are among the biggest culprits in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and the Cerrado, destroying protected land to raise cattle.
If increasing the availability of animal protein is the best way to support people living in poverty around the world, so be it (although it may not be – Jane Goodall recently launched a campaign against animal donation programs, such as Cargill’s, which provides farm animals to families in need, on the grounds that supporting animal husbandry, even on a small scale, can lead to environmental pollution water and air, soil acidification, zoonoses and other problems). But when Western powers make decisions on behalf of these people and their nations, it is worth investigating who exactly benefits from their methods. Are they really helping, or are they simply duplicating the very systems that create food swamps and environmental toxins that harm the most vulnerable populations here in the United States?
Academic experts warn us against this. Johns Hopkins research reveals that transplanting American-style industrial food production into low- and middle-income countries will likely come at the cost of major threats to public health and the environment. Another major study, with authors from US, European and Singaporean universities, specifically highlights two things: First, reducing global consumption of animal products is important for both human health and sustainability. environmental; and second, that different countries will need different solutions.
The “Western food model,” as this study calls it, is riddled with problems that we are only beginning to understand. It’s not something we should be exporting to other parts of the world. If we really want to help, we have to offer something better. We could start by ending deforestation, reducing the climate damage caused by our food systems that are destroying agriculture around the world, and providing aid to alleviate poverty and support indigenous dietary patterns. These are just a few of the ways that cleaning our own homes can empower people around the world to continue the sustainable farming practices that have already been in place for thousands of years.
We know that growing plant foods is ultimately more efficient, per calorie, in feeding humans; Raising livestock requires not only the water and land resources of agricultural farms, but also soybeans, corn, and other crops that are grown to feed the livestock. The majority of these crops grown in the United States are for livestock and not for human consumption. (Stapal crops like rice, beans, soybeans, lentils and starchy foods already form the basis of human diets around the world – they don’t need to be turned into meat to feed people. .)
If a foreign aid program has a rigorous process that involves considering the landscape, water scarcity, existing and potential wildlife conflicts, and locally appropriate alternatives for food security, then they are not the ones the movement to end factory farming is aiming for – and shouldn’t be. But if the opposite is true, and an aid program does minimal scrutiny of the adequacy of the materials provided (livestock, seed, etc.) and is more concerned with numbers it can brag about in press releases, then it could set up the people they are ostensibly trying to help with additional hardship in the long run.
In the interest of human health and the well-being of the planet, we must dismantle the animal agriculture industry as we know it here in the United States – and we must also prevent it from interfering in countries in transition. in terms of economic and industrial development. Cutting and pasting our deeply flawed systems into other nations will only prepare them to suffer the same extreme social stratification, nutritional inequities, and environmental destruction that we have here.