Lots of things threaten ecological destruction: deforestation, fracking, plastic straws, Charlie Sheen going on an unstoppable feeding rampage. But the thing that is perhaps worse than all others is the meat production industry. Whether it’s the 450,000 square kilometres of the Amazon cut down to make cattle pastures, the enormous amounts of methane pumped into the atmosphere, or the huge quantities of manure that poisons the local ecosystems it’s dumped in, mass farming is a terrible problem for the world. This is only set to get worse, as many countries which recently comprised poor populations living on a frugal diet have now become wealthier, and want to buy meat. Turns out even global poverty has a silver lining.
One perhaps underestimated issue is how the livestock are fed. The main feed used is soy, which is not inherently destructive but is produced in such huge quantities that it is perpetrating a minor ecocide of its own. According to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, dramatically titled “Appetite for Destruction”, the British livestock industry needs an area the size of Yorkshire to produce the soy used in feed. Most of this land is not cultivated in the UK, but in places like the Amazon, Cerrado, Congo Basin, Yangtze, Mekong, Himalayas and the Deccan Plateau forests, where a rich tapestry of wildlife is being annihilated. Most shockingly, the UK food supply alone can be linked to the extinction of 33 species around the world. A staggering 60% of global biodiversity loss is due to food production.
If this wasn’t enough of a problem, the current feeding method is actually making our food less nutritious. The synthetic nature of the livestock’s diet is producing animals which are deficient in omega-3, and overly packed with unhealthy fat. Ironically, if people just ate the soy that is fed to the livestock, they’d probably get more nutritional value. According to the report, “One study shows the difference is so profound that you’d have to eat six intensively reared chickens today to obtain the same amount of the healthy omega-3 fatty acid found in just one chicken in the 1970s. The majority of calories from chicken come from fat as opposed to protein.”
This is particularly bad, as there are already 23 billion poultry on the planet, or more than 3 for every human being. The world can’t sustain another 20 billion on top of that. This report also comes on the back of an exposé of terrible standards at 2 Sisters Food group, the UK’s largest supplier of supermarket chicken, where reports of kill dates were altered, unsold meat was repackaged, old meat was mixed with new, and basic hygiene was neglected. If the argument for eating meat is that humans are naturally omnivores and require it as part of a healthy diet, the way we are producing our meat is defeating that point entirely. Eating this meat will probably cause you catastrophic indigestion and muscular atrophy.
Fortunately, all is not lost. There are innovations in the production of feed that could potentially limit the grievous impact on the environment. The report lays it out, which is worth quoting in full:
“Microalgae and macroalgae (or seaweed) are one promising alternative. Algal growth is relatively straightforward, as they only need a basic form of energy (such as light and sugars), CO2, water and a few inorganic nutrients to grow. Trials to date have shown positive impacts on both livestock nutrition and aquatic environments. Another example is integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA), a synergistic approach to aquatic production which uses the waste products from one species to provide feed or fertiliser for another. This approach has potential benefits in terms of improving the final yield of both species with less waste and improved environmental and economic performance.
Using flies, crickets and other insects as food and feed for livestock could also reduce the mounting pressure on land and biodiversity. Insects can produce the same amount of edible protein as soy and animal products, with less land, lower greenhouse gas emissions and similar amounts of energy. Trials have shown that piglets’ gut health improved when their feed was supplemented with insect protein, while chickens fed on insect protein performed as well as those given current commercial feeds; research also shows that insect meal could replace up to 50% of fish feed without affecting animal performance.”
The way we produce our food has radically altered both the natural world and human society, and our own biology to a certain extent. We have managed to solve the problem that plagued mankind for thousands of years: scarcity. It is easy to take it for granted that we can produce enough food, but that has only been the case for less than 200 years. Between 108 BC and 1911 AD, China suffered 1828 famines, nearly one a year, killing hundreds of millions of people. In 1958, Mao introduced the “Four Pests” campaigns, where he encouraged citizens to kill pests that were causing problems, being mosquitos, rodents, flies, and sparrows. The sparrows were targeted because they ate grains that the farmers planted, resulting in a reduced crop growth. However, it was soon realised that the sparrows didn’t just eat grains; they also ate locusts. With the sparrows nearly exterminated, the locust population ballooned, and wiped out ten times the amount of crops that the sparrows had. This led to the Great Chinese Famine, which killed between 20 and 45 million people. It’s hard to know exactly how many because the government covered it up.
These days, famine is relegated to third world countries, due to advances in farming practices. We are no longer slaves to weather patterns and clouds of locusts. It’s easy to forget that it was relatively recent in history that this was not the case. There were 95 famines in Britain during the Middle Ages. In 1816 the “Year Without a Summer”, a strange climate event which caused – well, it’s in the name – led to widespread food shortages across the entire Northern Hemisphere, and totalled around 200,000 starvation deaths across Europe. Between 1878–80, over a thousand people died due to a famine in Alaska, the most recent major famine in the USA. To put that into perspective, it was only 90 years later than the USA landed a man on the Moon. The rapid advancement of industrial farming has been crucial in fighting one of the most serious problems civilisation has ever faced. However, it has caused a whole set of new ones instead. As can be seen from the story of the sparrow in China, ecological disaster can arise from far less damage than what is being done every day across the world in the name of food production. Hopefully, we can innovate our way to a more sustainable system, before we cook up a recipe for disaster.