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- This page: https://www.globalissues.org/article/240/beef.
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On this page:
- Diverting resources to environmentally destructive uses
- Wasteful use of resources also contributes to hunger and poverty
- Creating mass consumption of beef
- Fast food and beef industries promote each other.
- Intensive farming and shortcuts cause BSE and other Health Problems
- Farm subsidies: creating economic and environmental waste
- Industrialized meat production: shortcuts create more health and environmental problems
Diverting resources to environmentally destructive uses
Consider the following (notes for stats are at the bottom of the page):
- More than one third of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock. 1
- Breaking that down a little bit 2
- Almost all rice is consumed by people
- While corn is a staple food in many Latin American and Sub-Saharan countries,
worldwide, it is used largely as feed.
- Wheat is more evenly divided between food and feed and is a staple food in many regions such as the West, China and India.
- The total cattle population for the world is approximately 1.3 billion occupying some 24% of the land of the planet 3
- Some 70 to 80% of grain produced in the United States is fed to livestock 4
- Half the water consumed in the U.S. is used to grow grain for cattle feed. 5
- A gallon of gasoline is required to produce a pound of grain-fed beef. 6
The impact of beef covers many issues today.
Not only is land used up to grow grain to feed cattle, but additional land is of course required for pastures and grazing.
Furthermore, overgrazing leads to land degradation while top soil loss and water wastage and depletion are also extremely urgent issues.
With industrial agriculture, more petrochemicals are used. More energy is required to create fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, etc, to grow the grain that is used to feed cattle.
Deforestation of large amounts of forests, including the Amazon, has occurred due to timber industries, industrial agriculture and also meat industry/cattle grazing:
Additionally, concentrated land ownership (as also described in this site’s poverty and hunger section), leads to inefficient use of that land. With the forest clearing mentioned above, sometimes the cattle industry will not be the direct reason for forest clearing, but an indirect reason, because they displace others who then may clear resources for their survival, as Food First highlights:
Note also how deforestation is often blamed on
overpopulation which is also sometimes attributed as the cause of hunger. Yet, as shown throughout this site, and with immense detail in the above book, World Hunger, it is politics, economics and so on are affecting the use of our resources, which are more than adequate for all (for now), as well as being the causes of hunger.
(See also this February 27, 2001 radio interview on Democracy Now! for more about deforestation of Amazon for McDonald’s and more.)
Wasteful use of resources also contributes to hunger and poverty
As seen in the above statistics, a large amount of grain is used to feed livestock, while people go hungry. Of course, meat and other products from livestock are important. However, as we shall see with the example of beef, the amount of consumption of meat such as beef and its purpose (as seen in convenience such as fast foods) has raised much criticism because of the costly inputs, which could be largely used to help feed hungry people while reducing meat consumption to healthier levels.
We can see numerous issues here, for example:
- If we add these input costs, together with additional costs such as the costs of the health issues and environmental degradation and so on, we see that many resources are expended for this consumption, while at the same time, many around the world go hungry.
- As mentioned in the structural adjustment section of this web site, IMF/World Bank/US policies of structural adjustment force poor nations’ governments to cut back their expenditure of things like health and education and even food support programs for the poor.
- At the same time, the rich nations also promote an increase in production of
cash cropssuch as fruits, vegetables, grains and so on for export, while even the farmers themselves go hungry.
- In the meanwhile, much of the wealthy world protect their own farming sector and subsidize their agribusinesses making it hard for the poor countries to compete fairly.
- Today’s increased and excessive meat consumption has come about through numerous political and economic mechanisms. Beef, like sugar and many other things we consume, are a large part the result of turning luxury items into necessities, to increase profits. In addition some wealthier governments and their agribusiness lobbies have strong influences over global agricultural methods and standards as well as economic agreements (such as the above-mentioned SAPs) to favor food production that they benefit from but may not always be good for everyone. For example, their policies encourage market distortions that favor production of unhealthy products. In addition, these subsidies in wealthy nations also results in dumping of excess food on the poorer countries, which has actually increased hunger, although it is described as food aid. Some have argued that there are foreign policy objectives for this while others say it is a result of market distortion.
- Sometimes world hunger is attributed to just
over populationas it fits the observations of over-simplified Malthusian theories, where it is assumed that there are too many people and food production cannot keep up and hence we have hunger. While it is true that one day we could have so many people that we cannot feed and therefore population issues are important, it doesn’t mean that today we are reaching those limits. These examples of beef, of sugar, of SAPs that divert resource use due to economic policies rather than due to human numbers, or demands of the large number of poor in the world, are more impacting on hunger, as discussed in detail in this web site’s population section.
Creating mass consumption of beef
So how did beef consumption increase so much?
To summarize his detailed account:
- As Spanish colonization of the Americas took hold, cattle were introduced in places like Argentina, Central America etc.
- By the seventeenth century cattle was so abundant, that one could be killed for the hide and the remaining meat left to rot.
- Around the Industrial Revolution, England was the
beef-eating capital of the world.Not only to increase food for a growing population, but also to keep wages down, and due to the influence of wealthy meat industry leaders and landowners, beef consumption was made affordable to more and more people.
- The British Empire distributed much rum and meat to its military forces, thus helping to subsidize the sugar and meat industries.
- To support an increasing demand, Britain would look to its empire, its colonies and other areas for additional beef and support of grain production.
- American meat industries, eager to make profits from the British demand looked to increase their cattle production.
- However, they had to overcome problems including available rangeland and meeting the specific taste requirements of the British which, involved having fatter cows.
- But Indians and buffalo were in the lands that cattle producers needed for rangeland.
- Hence, this led to the famous near extermination of the bison, which would also
dealwith the Indian problem.
- From just 1870 to 1880, millions of buffalo were reduced to
virtual extinction.(The famous Buffalo Bill and others profited from hunting expeditions.)
- This destroyed the Indians of the Plains, to whom buffalo were central in their culture as both a major food source and spiritual power. They were moved off to reservations and other lands but no means of real chance of continued meaningful existence.
- To meet demands of fatty beef by the British, corn was increasingly fed to cattle. Furthermore, the price of grain was so cheap, it was advantageous to feed corn to cows. Thus, this formed a symbiotic relationship to the extent that even today,
the price of corn is closely linked to the demand for the price of cattle(p.227).
- After World War II, the surge in automobile use (helped by a $350 billion project to construct 41,000 miles of highways in the United States) led to the growth of the suburbs and fast-food restaurants that were making beef, and in particular, the hamburger a prime choice. (See also, for example, Eric Schossler’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), a New York Times bestseller. It provides a lot of details about the rise of the fast food industry and its various impacts.)
Fast food and beef industries promote each other.
Post World War II has seen
globalization and consumption of fast foods such as McDonald’s spread around the world, not just to the relatively wealthier West, but even in wealthy parts of the developing world. With the disastrous poverty and hunger-increasing structural adjustment policies, as well as various other trade and economic
agreements, many resources (economic as well as environmental) have been diverted to such unproductive uses.
Talking of the fast food industry and of McDonald’s, here are some interesting statistics from Eric Schossler, author of the New York Times bestseller, Fast Food Nation; The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), from p. 4:
- McDonald’s is now responsible for 90 percent of the United State’s new jobs
- It has about 28,000 restaurants world wide, opening around 2,000 new ones each year
- It provides jobs to around 1 million people in America
- It is the nation’s largest purchaser of beef, pork and potatoes, and the second largest purchaser of chicken
- It is the largest owner of retail property in the world
- It earns most of its money not from selling food, but from collecting rent
- It spends more on advertising and marketing than any other brand, replacing Coca Cola as the world’s most famous brand
- It operates more playgrounds than anyone else and is one of America’s largest toy distributor
The demands and influence of the fast food industry on the world’s food supply, its impacts on society and the environment, its interests in global economics, are therefore considerable. Amy Goodman, introducing a radio broadcast, explains:
(We will also discuss a bit later the ramifications of this on resources, capital, labor, and wealth in general.)
Intensive farming and shortcuts cause BSE and other Health Problems
Factory farming of animals is also leading to health problems in the animals when they are so closely packed together. Pressures to cut costs etc are resulting in shortcuts being taken. The increase in things like
mad cow disease and the
foot and mouth epidemic, largely starting in Britain but also seen in other places around the world (partly due to globalization too) is also a result of taking
short cuts in agriculture/food production. Eric Schossler, mentioned above is worth quoting at length:
Schossler goes on at length with many more examples, in his chapter titled
What’s in the meat. (One might recall the famous case a few years back when Oprah Winfrey commented in public after hearing some gruesome details that she would not eat a hamburger, and the industry managed to sue her for it!)
Reading the above, one could think more about reduction in meat consumption, or even becoming vegetarian!
Side note on vegetarianism and/or reduction in meat consumption
The issues here raise another perspective on things like vegetarianism, or reducing meat consumption, from practical, social, environmental and economic angles:
- Vegetarianism (or a large reduction in meat consumption) indirectly would help free up land for other uses such as growing food for others to eat as well—or in the case of beef consumption, help to reduce the pressures on natural forests such as the Amazon.
- Vegetarianism (or a reduction of meat consumption etc) in an indirect way, could be a choice for those wishing to play a part in helping combat world hunger, environmental degradation etc.
- Likewise, reducing or eliminating tobacco and alcohol consumption can also be seen as indirectly helping address world hunger and environmental issues.
- This is because as those demands decrease, those lands could be used to grow other things such as food to feed the local people etc.
- Of course, it is more complex than that, as political aspects of land control and its use still need to be addressed. (For example, there is obviously the risk of using that land to meet other demands such as drugs.)
- However, tobacco for example, is very water and nutrient-thirsty, hence less tobacco demand in theory would help stave off some environmental degradation if positive alternatives are appropriately supported, both politically and economically.
- All the support industries to promote, market and sell the consumption of such products, is, paraphrasing J.W. Smith’s book title,
wasted wealthby what he describes as wasted labor due to wasted capital. (See World’s Wasted Wealth II, Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994.)
- Of course, these alternatives cannot work in isolation. Economic alternatives also need to be addressed for the farmers and others who would lose out, and hints towards the need to address systemic and deep changes at the core, but this could be a starting point for people to research into issues of causes of world hunger, poverty, inequality, of additional anti-tobacco campaign themes and so on!
- This site’s section on the economy and trade issues has more on these concerns.
Some scoff at the notion of being vegetarian or reducing meat consumption thinking it is a sign of weakness or whatever. The point is that the correct proportions are not only good for the environment, but good for one’s health. There are also other political issues that are affected by diet choices, and it should be remembered that excessive meat consumption is not usually just a free choice, but a choice influenced (knowingly or not) by many cultural factors that have been around in some form for decades.
Towards the end of June 2003, McDonald’s acknowledged that the heavy use of growth-stimulating antibiotics by the meat industry threatens human health. It advised its poultry suppliers to phase out the practice or risk losing its business. McDonald’s is America’s largest buyer of meat products. This was detailed by William Greider for example, in The Nation magazine, who also noted that hogs and cattle are probably on notice too. Greider noted that McDonald’s tried to spin this as taking social responsibility and listening to its customers (following the adage of the
customer is always right and the supposed practice of major brands to listen to their customers). Yet, many campaign groups should probably take most of the credit for this as Greider also details.
Greider also quoted a campaign leader from the Union of Concerned Scientists who said,
It’s definitely not perfect and it’s an unfortunate substitute for law, but people do have the power to change things. In a sense, McDonald’s is playing the role of what would be the USDA inspectors. If there’s going to be a choice, I would definitely rather have the government do it, but right now we don’t have a choice.
But Greider also noted a contradiction of industrial agriculture, and the external costs associated with it:
- The antibiotics problem is widely understood though not yet candidly addressed by industry scientists or the federal government.
- Their egregious overuse encourages the development of resistant strains of bacteria that then may migrate into the environment at large, including perhaps human bodies.
- The supposed efficiency of corporatized agriculture is riddled with many such contradictions
- the company cuts costs and boosts profits by growing the chickens or hogs faster, often in brutal conditions,
- then somebody else (usually the taxpayers) pays to fight newly created strains of disease.
- Given market competition, each company typically claims it has no choice but to adopt the various practices of so-called efficiency that also produce collateral damage to society, health and the environment.
- Then they hear from their customers—not just scattered objections now and then, but in concerted, coordinated, well-informed waves.
(The note above about companies saying they have no choice but to do what their competition is doing, to avoid losing out, is prevalent in many related industries. For example, in the beginning of August, 2003, the BBC reported on a health warning about certain other foods and drinks, and amongst various interviews, an industry spokeswoman also pointed out that they take these concerns seriously but that they have to be realistic because of the pressures of competition.)
Farm subsidies: creating economic and environmental waste
Enormous farm subsidies seen in some rich nations cause predictable problems, resulting in what some describe as
privatized profits; socialized costs. For example,
- Market distortions changes price and consumption habits
- Unhealthier foods become cheaper
- Health, environmental and other costs increase, and are borne by the citizenry
- Agribusiness and related industries benefit
And so, the cycle continues. Products from the industries who benefit from this unequal arrangement are far cheaper than they should really be. Take for example the hamburger:
This truer cost of $35 per pound is only based on accounting for water. If other costs and effects were factored in, the likely cost would surely be staggering.
Industrialized meat production: shortcuts create more health and environmental problems
Schlosser, quoted above on the gruesome details of what cattle are fed, details the impacts that contaminated meat has on people’s healths, the social costs, and so on. He also gives a hint to what could be considered a costly way to deal with this all:
Hence without addressing some of the root causes of a lot of public health problems, more resources are spent dealing with the impacts of outbreaks of things like E. Coli and other pathogens. Nationwide recalls of meat products can also affect those who sell and distribute, and require use of more resources. Children and adults can suffer terribly, even die from such poisoning, to which no financial cost can be attributable. While radiation may be a good fix, the additional problems of wasteful use of resources, etc cannot be treated.
And it isn’t just beef, but industrial agriculture in general which shows this pattern of externalized costs, as summarized by the following:
The British newspaper, The Guardian also reveals the extent to which companies will exert influence and political power:
This does indeed happen in perhaps all industries, whereby those in a position to wield their influence and power will understandably try to do so.
And with fatty foods more generally, the issues involved are numerous, more than just health issues, but matters of politics, economics, and culture, and how our tastes are influenced and shaped over time:
Playing on the theme of the hit film, The Matrix, the Meatrix web site includes an animation describing how agribusiness in general, not just for beef, has led to
- Animal cruelty from factory farming
- Antibiotic resistant germs by feeding excessive antibiotics to animals keeping them alive from disease and other effects of cruel conditions animals are forced to live in
- Massive pollution (including runoffs from excrement and other wastes into nearby waters, affecting local communities)
- Destroyed communities who suffer health effects, or, as small farmers, lose out:
Beef and the related industries therefore, provides a vivid example of how our tastes are influenced, as well as giving an indication of the enormous input and
output costs that are associated with it, while the reasons for those who are so influential in this area are typically in making a profit.
In short then, this is another example of wasted wealth, by wasted capital, wasted labor and wasted resources.
As with sugar, beef related industries and its consumption at high levels has had enormous
external costs which are usually borne by others, sometimes without realizing. We now turn to yet another example of such enormous costs, but also goes further in that it creates entire economically dependent countries and regions, which means that their poverty or prosperity, or just their own economic destiny, is often largely beyond their control. That example is of the banana industry, which is on the next page.
Notes on stats:
- Lester Brown, Michael Renner, Brian Halweil Vital Signs 2000, (World Watch Institute) p. 34; Frances Lappe Moore, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset, World Hunger: 12 Myths, (Food First and Grove Press, Second Edition, 1998) pp.8, 180; Richard Robbins Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p. 220
- Vital Signs, p.34
- See for example:
- United Nations Food And Agriculture Organization statistics database on live animal numbers, last accessed March 21, 2010. These numbers have been reasonably consistent in the past 2 decades, only very slightly increasing, generally.
- Devinder Sharma also highlights an interesting point that,
Around 1.5 billion marginal farmers in the developing world live in virtual penuryand yet,
cattle in the industrialised world are reared in luxury, with a cow in the developed world receiving subsidies that amount to almost twice the annual income of an average Third World farmer.For years, many in the Third World have argued that the North heavily subsidizes and protects it agricultural industry while at the same time telling the poor to liberalize, which has resulted in poverty due to pushing down commoditiy prices and due to lack of market access for the poor. (Above link is from
Western cow vs Southern farmer: The absurdity of inequality, InfoChangeIndia.org, April 2002)
- Also see What Price Beef? by Marguerite Hampton, with a list of many, many stats, including statistics on how much land, water, energy and so on is required to support cattle, and the various effects.
- Robbins, p.220; Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000), pp. 70-71.
- Ibid Robbins, p.220
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