Carnivore-dominant world imposes diverse palette of concerns

By Nick Voutsinos / Columnist

Cuisine has a way of defining us. It helps us expound our cultural identity in the same way music or dialect might. As French philosopher and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin put it, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. After all, deep-dish pizza versus thin crust pizza, for instance, clearly separates Chicagoans and New Yorkers on culinary borders. In this case, one’s pizza preference is distinctly associated with one city or the other, just as much as one’s accent is. People take pride in what defines them and in what they grew up with, simply because it is what makes them unique from other groups. That is where the cultural significance in food can be found.

Even though cuisine is vastly different across the world, the international community undeniably shares a love of meat. Granted, not everyone agrees on what kind or how to prepare it: Germans munch on bratwurst, the Chinese perfect roast duck and Americans love a good burger. Nonetheless, although food provides us with a sense of belonging, the shared appetite for meat, in particular, has created a global crisis.

Over the past few decades, global meat consumption has been growing at a dramatic rate. As the demand for meat continues to grow, so, too, does the industrialization of farming methods, creating health and ethical consequences that may make one want to choose vegetarian options instead.

That is not to say everyone should go vegetarian, but instead means to highlight the fact that overconsumption is a problem. And not just in the United States: Even India, a traditionally more vegetarian country, has seen their meat consumption skyrocket over the past few years.

The ramifications of a world full of carnivores are visible in the fact that 70 percent of the arable land in the world is now being used to grow food — not for humans, but for animals who will eventually be served in the form of McNuggets or Whoppers. This has exacerbated starvation and poverty in the third world, as corporate interests push subsistence farmers off their lands. Consequently, these small farmers are left with cruddy leftover grounds for their animals to graze on. This is a largely detrimental concern to the livelihoods of the 70 percent of the 880 million rural people in the world living on less than $1 per day, who are partially or completely dependent on livestock for food security.

Many nongovernmental organizations have taken notice of this. For instance, according to Paul Rainger, head of the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ Farm Animal Welfare Program, the industrialization of the meat industry is one of the “root causes” of hunger and poverty. He claims that, “Unless urgent action is taken, the UN’s No. 1 millennium goal to halve [world hunger] by 2015 will never be achieved.”

He references the use of arable land solely for animal feed to back up his assertion, “Switching just 10 to 15 percent of the world’s cereal production for animal feeds to growing crops for human consumption, instead, would make a huge impact on world hunger.”

Still, the demand for meat remains. For instance, in the United States, more than 165 pounds of meat is devoured per person every year. In Germany it’s 132 pounds per person and in China it’s 84. To keep up with demand as cheaply as possible, meat companies have resorted to pumping their animals full of antibiotics and hormones in order to make them live longer and grow larger, efficiently producing a greater yield.

The final result of this genetically modified product, however, is of course extremely unnatural and damaging to the consumer’s health. In fact, of the six growth hormones commonly used by the industry, all have been shown to significantly increase prostate and colon cancer in unsuspecting consumers. And I say “unsuspecting” because meat producers are not required to list the hormones that their product is riddled with.

They are also not required to list the antibiotics used on their industrialized meat, even though they also contribute dramatic harms to public health. And meat companies use a copious amount of the stuff. It is estimated that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are administered to factory farm animals. The constant usage of antibiotics in animals has prompted bacteria to mutate and become resistant to the medicine. This is not only bad for the animals — as factory farms are already breeding grounds for disease due to overcrowding of livestock — but it also affects humans when the bacteria strays outside of the factory farm. Consequently, the meat industry has contributed to the 90,000 Americans who die every year as a result of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections that originally spawned in factory farms.

Moreover, even if you do not eat meat and even if you are not a subsistence farmer, the meat industry still affects your life in at least one way: Factory farms are one of the world’s most prominent producers of greenhouse gases. They are also the world’s biggest producers of animal waste —producing 1 million tons of manure each day in the United States alone —which releases into the air methane and nitrous oxide, chemicals that are 25 and 300 times more efficacious than carbon dioxide, respectively. Of course, it’s not so much the animals, themselves, that are the problem, but that a great number of them are being concentrated into small areas, creating methane hotspots.

The president of the Worldwatch Institute — a nongovernmental organization dedicated to spreading awareness on humanitarian and environmental issues — stated, “The world’s super-sized appetite for meat is among the biggest reasons greenhouse gas emissions are still growing rapidly.”

However, he also states that, “properly managed and scaled meat production — like the kind pursued by small-scale pastoralists on dry grasslands — could actually sequester carbon dioxide. It’s largely a matter of rethinking meat at both ends of the production-consumption trail.”

I think he’s right, for there seems to exist a very strong correlation between meat consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as between meat consumption and poverty and public health.

Therefore, in order to curb these issues, a paradigm shift may be in order. We can still love the foods that define us, but we can do so within reason. 165 pounds of meat per person is hardly necessary. And limiting meat consumption will not only garner the thanks of the world, but of the animals that are currently crammed into filthy factory farm pens, as well.

Write Nick at [email protected].