Industrial livestock production is the driving force behind the rapid growth in meat and egg consumption, in what are variously referred to as Intensive or Industrial Livestock Operations (ILOs), Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or factory farms and feedlots. This transformation permeates everyday life in a way that is both intimate, in the bodily encounter with food, and overwhelmingly unconscious. Rapid growth is expected to continue in the coming decades. By 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations projects that global meat production will rise to 52 kg per person in a world with 9.3 billion people, which amounts to 484 million tonnes. Put another way, if the current course continues, there will be about one third more people and two-thirds more meat produced in four decades than there is today.
This broad picture contains huge disparities. Although increasing per capita meat consumption is occurring almost everywhere, people in rich countries consume vastly more meat than do most people in the global South. To take one simple example, between 2001 and 2010, an average American consumed roughly eight times more meat than someone in Africa and over twenty times more meat than someone in South Asia. At the same time, global-scale inequalities tend to be mirrored in class disparities within poor countries, while the biggest consumption increases are occurring in the world’s fastest-growing economies – and the upper and middle classes within them – with China and Brazil in the vanguard. China, for instance, now produces and consumes roughly half of the world’s total pig meat.
When the lens moves from volume increases to individual animals consumed, the pace of growth becomes even more staggering. In a mere half-century, from 1961 to 2010, the global population of slaughtered animals leapt from roughly 8 to 64 billion, which will double again to 120 billion by 2050 if current rates of growth continue. The stunning rise in the number of individual animals slaughtered reflects the absolute growth in the volume of meat production and consumption, the quickening turnover time for livestock in industrial systems, and the increasing shift towards poultry birds, which have smaller bodies and are more efficient – or better, less inefficient – at converting feed to food than larger animals. The FAO projects that poultry consumption will increase by 2.3 times between 2010 and 2050, in comparison to an increase of between 1.4 and 1.8 times with other livestock.
This general trajectory has been termed the ‘livestock revolution’ in one frequently cited report. It is also often described in terms of a ‘nutritional transition’ towards improved diets, with the rising consumption of animal protein portrayed as a more or less inevitable aspiration, part of humans’ omnivorous nature, that gets materialized as individuals and societies become wealthier and there are increasing quantities of meat in the marketplace. This imagery might seem plain enough, as per capita meat consumption has clearly marched in step with rising affluence, but it is not nearly as simple as this. The framing of massive inequalities in consumption through the lens of a universal nutritional transition harkens to development theories about the transition to modernity, in which societies of high mass consumption such as the USA are presented as the summit that can be reached and should be aspired to by all countries. Such transitional narratives have a naturalizing effect, because if different parts of the world are seen to be located at different stages along the same course, with all moving towards an improved condition, it can serve to legitimize the course itself and make large inequalities seem less troubling.
Layered onto this is an insistence by prominent actors that further yield enhancement is the key to solving present and future world food problems, which is sometimes described in terms of closing global ‘yield gaps,’ especially in poor ‘under-yielding’ countries. Yield-centric narratives are also linked to an insistence that world food production must double by mid-century if it is to meet future demand. But the scale of chronic hunger (nearly one billion people) and malnourishment today, and expected population growth (more than two billion), still do not come close to adding up to a doubling scenario, which must also be understood to contain an uncritical expectation that meat consumption will continue climbing rapidly. These assumptions – there will be more meat consumed, total food production must double – are influential starting points for contemporary debates about agricultural futures. They are also extremely dubious and dangerous ones.
Rather than a nutritional transition, I prefer to mark the increasing and highly uneven global consumption of meat with more evocative terminology: as the ‘meatification’ of diets. First, this seeks to call attention to the pace and scale of change. For most of the 10,000-year history of agriculture, meat, eggs, and dairy were consumed periodically and in relatively small volumes, and it was not until the industrialization of livestock production that they began to shift from the periphery to the center of human diets on a world scale. Secondly, the notion of meatification seeks to dispel the imagery of a course that is natural, inevitable, or benign. Great volumes of industrial grains and oilseeds are being inefficiently cycled through soaring populations of concentrated animals, with much usable nutrition lost in the metabolic processes of animals before getting converted to meat, eggs, and dairy. The ensuing production is then highly skewed toward wealthier consumers when, as indicated, one in seven people on earth are hungry or malnourished and many more in varying states of food insecurity. Globally, livestock consume around one third of all grains and a much larger share of all oilseeds, and flows of crops through livestock are much higher in industrialized countries than in poor ones. The aim of this book is to provide a new way of understanding the momentousness of this trajectory, its multidimensional impacts, and the urgency of confronting it.
This aim should not imply that this book is stepping into a vacuum. On the contrary, there has been a great deal of important work examining the nature and impacts of industrial livestock. Three of the key foundations were Ruth Harrison’s pioneering assessment of the early stages of industrializing livestock, Frances Moore Lappé’s seminal argument about the global injustice of cycling rising volumes of grain through livestock in a world of widespread hunger, and Peter Singer’s moral-philosophical case against speciesism, which included a searing indictment of the treatment of animals in factory farms. These were followed by a number of other pivotal contributions that helped establish the major lines of critical analysis on industrial livestock, which can be broadly seen to focus on:
• human health (e.g. chronic diseases, food safety risks);
• environmental impacts (e.g. climate change, water use and pollution, biodiversity loss);
• the decline of family farms, rural life, and small towns;
• hazardous, insecure, and poorly paid labour; and,
• the suffering of farm animals.
The growing significance of these problems is reflected in the proliferation of both scholarly and more popularly oriented literature.
There has also been increasing attention to the trajectory of livestock production within key UN organizations, most notably the landmark FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow. The essential message of this report – the ‘long shadow’ – was that livestock production commands extensive amounts of land, water, and resources and entails a heavy pollution load, which loom over most major environmental problems, including making one of the greatest contributions to climate change of any economic sector. The contribution of livestock to climate change was further underlined when the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that reducing meat consumption could have a significant role in cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Concerns about industrial livestock are beginning to penetrate mainstream environmental thought and activism, a reflection of which can be seen in a selection of headlines in popular green magazines and the corporate news media. A recent spate of critical documentary films is another significant part of the rising attention to the negative impacts of industrial livestock, as are compelling visual-informational resources on the internet.
Yet while awareness of the impacts of industrial livestock production is surely growing, it should not be exaggerated. When the environmental impacts of industrial livestock are discussed, too often responses are framed in limited ways, centered mainly on individual ethics but without connection to other struggles. Such emphases can serve to diminish the interconnectedness of problems and the magnitude of the whole, and divert attention away from the system of production. But the far bigger matter remains the continuing unconsciousness with which immense volumes of pork, ham, bacon, pepperoni, hotdogs, sausages, hamburgers, steak, beef, ribs, shawarma, souvlaki, kofta, chicken balls, nuggets, wings, breasts, eggs, milk, cheese, and miscellaneous flesh, derivatives, and by-products are consumed. The clearest indication of the limits of awareness and concern lies in the fact that meatification on a world scale shows no signs of slowing while, as emphasized, the expectation that there will be continuing growth is a major part of calls for the doubling of world food production. The FAO, an agency that simultaneously influences dominant narratives about world agriculture and is an important barometer of them, exemplifies this momentum: though it reports on the ‘long shadow’ cast by livestock and warns that approaching a doubling of production would ‘place a considerable burden on already strained natural resources,’ it gives little indication that this course can or should be challenged in a major way, instead focusing much more on things like improved management, regulations, and monitoring, and more technological innovation, from facility design to enhancing the ratio at which feed is converted into flesh, eggs, and dairy.
The industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex and the ecological hoofprint
To appreciate the vector of meatification, the strength of its momentum, and the impacts of industrial livestock production, they need to be set within the dynamics of the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex. The industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex is the dominant system of agriculture across the temperate world, and is spreading to significant parts of the tropics. Its landscapes can be likened to islands of concentrated livestock within seas of grain and oilseed monocultures, with soaring populations of a few livestock species reared in high densities, disarticulated from the surrounding fields. These islands of concentrated livestock and seas of monocultures are then rearticulated by heavy flows of crops such as corn/maize, barley, sorghum, soybeans, and rapeseed/canola cycling through animals. This disarticulation and rearticulation is mediated by an array of technologies, inputs, and large corporations, and marked by the loss of large volumes of usable nutrition.
Revolutionary increases in yield and output per farmer have been fundamental to this system, which underpins world food security and has reconfigured diets in very uneven ways. On one hand, productivity increases have stoked the lopsided meatification of diets discussed earlier; on the other, they have sown a severe dependence upon cheap grain imports in many poor countries. This has also simultaneously placed intense competitive pressures on small farm livelihoods, from the world’s agro-industrial heartlands to impoverished, highly agrarian, and food import-dependent regions. But high productivity and low prices belie deep instabilities, or what I have described as a series of chronic biophysical contradictions. This implies that the biological and physical foundations of agriculture are being rapidly undermined by industrial productivity, which is in turn overridden in ways that hinge on the unsustainable use of non-renewable resources, particularly fossil energy, and generate tremendous emissions and wastes. It also means that the logic of efficiency which determines the price of cheap food – and has had an important role in shaping patterns of world food security – amounts to a giant illusion. However, this illusion is now starting to crack amid intensifying and converging problems of biodiversity loss, soil degradation, diminishing freshwater availability, declines in key non-renewable resources, and climate change. In other words, chronic biophysical contradictions are now accelerating. As this occurs, previously cheap industrial foods are bound to become more expensive, with the greatest vulnerability centered in the world’s Low Income Food Import Dependent Countries (LIFDCs). Further, many LIFDCs are located in the semi-arid tropics, where climate change is projected to affect agriculture first and worst.
Today, much critical attention given to global food imbalances is focused on the stark disparities associated with the industrial agrofuel boom and the new land grabs. Industrial agrofuels are demanding rising shares of agricultural land and crop production, with dubious energetic budgets (i.e. there is limited energy returned relative to the energy invested in production), and there is an obvious regressivity to the growing competition between people with cars and people struggling to secure enough food. Agrofuels also factor in the land grabbing unfolding across the South, especially in Africa, in which varying combinations of transnational corporations, finance capital, sovereign wealth funds, and state investment agencies are conspiring with local elites and corrupt governments to grab large tracts of land for both productive and speculative uses. Yet as important as the agrofuel boom is, it should not detract from the inequity and ecological impacts of industrial livestock production, which constitutes an older, bigger, and similarly regressive pull on world grain and oilseed harvests.
The increasing scale and industrialization of livestock production and the inherent feed conversion inefficiencies have a magnifying effect on the land area, water, energy, and other resources that must be devoted to grain and oilseed monocultures, and to the pollutants and GHG emissions ensuing from them. Added to this are the water, energy, and other inputs going into factory farms and feedlots, and the effluence pouring out of them. This means that the uneven meatification of diets is not only a reflection of global inequality but also a major factor exacerbating it, foremost through climate change.