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General News    H1'ed 4/5/17

The global dangers of industrial meat

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Reprinted from www.grain.org by GRAIN and Raj Patel

The world's largest beef manufacturer is in trouble. Reports have emerged that employees in over a dozen plants knowingly packed rancid meat, covering up the smell with acid, slabs of which were then sold on to schools and Walmart.

All this happened not in the U.S., though, but in Brazil, headquarters to meatpacking giant JBS. Named for its founder, Jose Batista Sobrinho, the company turns over almost as much as the next three largest U.S. beef producers--Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef--combined.

In response, Egypt has already banned Brazilian beef, and U.S. Senator John Tester (D-Montana) recently introduced legislation to prevent Brazilian beef from entering into the country, even as JBS suspended meat production at 33 of its 36 Brazilian meatpacking plants.

But choosing "America First" for your steak misses two far larger points. The Brazilian giant is simply striving to adopt ideas from, and buy out companies in, the U.S. meat industry. Pilgrim's, Cargill's pork business and Smithfield's beef operation have been acquired by what Bloomberg once called the world's second largest packaged food company (behind Nestle').

And even if you could stop the import of dodgy sausage, you still couldn't avoid the bigger planetary impact of the beef industry, because it's airborne. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), meat and dairy production alone now generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world's transport combined.

Much of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial livestock occur indirectly, through the production of grains to feed to animals that then get fed to humans. In 2010, about one-third of all cereals on Earth went to animal feed, and the FAO predicts this figure will reach 50 percent by 2050. More feed means more land under cultivation. And feed crops like soybean, maize, and sorghum are usually grown with chemical fertilizers, themselves another potent source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, consumption is soaring, made possible by widespread marketing and producing meat that's cheap to buy--even if those low prices are made possible through dangerous and poorly paid jobs, lax environmental practices, corporate subsidies, and dreadful living conditions for animals. If current trends continue, the FAO predicts world meat consumption will grow a further 76 percent by 2050. If, on the other hand, people kept their level of meat consumption to the World Health Organization's recommended guidelines, the world could reduce 40 percent of all current greenhouse gas emissions.

Unsurprisingly, this advice hasn't been well received by the meat, fertilizer, pesticide, and processing industries. Industrial meat concerns blasted the FAO after they put out a report in 2006 on the role of livestock in the climate crisis. "You wouldn't believe how much we were attacked," said Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division this UN agency. The FAO soon buckled under the pressure and agreed to establish a partnership with the meat industry's main lobby groups and shifted the focus of its work accordingly.

Canadian academic Tony Weis has a term for what's happening here: the world's diet, food system, and food policy are being "meatified." The corporations doing it are increasingly based in the global South, where most of the world's future industrial meat eaters live, and those firms are doing roaring business.

For example, a recent report by GRAIN shows that JBS is also the world's largest poultry producer. The world's largest pork producer is the Chinese WH Group, and France's Lactalis Group is the world's largest dairy producer. These firms, together with more-established U.S. and European ones, work hard to increase their control over the market: They blunt domestic government attempts to regulate them, they spur demand across the world, and they destroy the livestock practices of small-scale farmers in the process.

Propping Up the Meat Market

When Germany drafted guidelines to reduce meat consumption, demonstrating that a 50 percent cut by 2030 would be "crucial to climate protection," the industry lobbied. Hard. By the November 2016 launch date, the country's climate change plan had been gutted, and stripped of any reference at all to greenhouse gases in the agriculture sector. Similar stories can be told of U.S. efforts and those, predictably, in Brazil.

Despite industry opposition to certain kinds of regulation, they're very happy to suck at the teat of government subsidy. In 2013, OECD countries dished out $53 billion to livestock producers, with the EU paying $731 million to its cattle industry alone The same year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid more than $500 million to just 62 producers (starting with Tyson Foods) in order to get meat and dairy on school meal trays, compared to just a fraction of that to fruit and vegetable suppliers.

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GRAIN is a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. Our support takes the form of independent research and analysis, networking at local, (more...)

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