Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sustainability and Meat Production

The New York Times has a great article on Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler. In the article they analyze the impact of our meat production on the world, specifically the huge resource consumption required to raise beef.  They compare meat production to oil - its subsidized by the government, demand is accelerating, and we are increasingly encouraged to consume less of it.

One interesting statistic is that between 1961 and 2007, the production has quadrupled with per capita consumption has more than doubled. It is expected to double again in the next 40 years.  The fact that meat production is intertwined with other staple food products and fuel consumption, will have significant price increase pressure on those other products which will effect all of the world. The article states specifically that while "800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feed cattle, pigs, and chickens."  Why is this important? Because it requires 2-5 times more grain to create the same number of calories in pigs and chickens, and up to 10 times more grain to produce the same calories in beef.

The article goes on to talk about the other costs of this growth in meat consumption - price pressure on other food and fuel, land required to raise the meat, pollution, increased disease risk, etc.

So what is my solution to this problem? I for one, believe that we need to decrease the subsidies. Subsidies have a market focus pressure to increase consumption which has significant ramifications through the economy.  I believe in subsidies when it relates to something we want to encourage, but do we really believe at this point we should be encouraging greater unsustainable beef consumption? Understanding the impacts, I do not. I am sure there are hundreds of arguments for continuing the subsidies as there always are, but I think we need to look at the global impacts.

The trends and the lack of sustainability only drive in one direction - toward a nasty crash.  Thus, the question - deal with it while we still can (now), or wait for the melt down. Based on our other non-sustainable decisions on oil subsidies, personal and national debt, etc, I am not optimistic in a short term course correction.

I am definitely going to check out Michael Pollan's latest book In Defense of Food. I have appreciated two of his previous books related to our food chain, The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.

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