Before the Industrial Revolution, it was not common for the majority of people to eat meat on a daily basis. Most people were farmers or foragers before urbanization and technological change made other occupations more common. If these individuals did have access to meat, it was infrequent (i.e. a pig is slaughtered annually for a Christmas feast), and treated like a luxury item. This notion remains popular in comparatively less developed countries, where the consumption of meat is linked to a higher disposable income and social status.
The capitalist-consumerist doctrine that thrusted countries like the United States into wealth and global prominence provided a seemingly endless supply of meat products. The consumer quickly learned the lesson that no matter what, how much, or when they wanted it (provided they had the funds to back up their desires), the market would provide. This ushered in a frightening era of factory farmed animals – billions of animals in the U.S. alone enslaved and tortured so the industry can spend as little money as possible while maximizing profits.
Our current global population is approximately 7.7 billion, and we are straining the world’s resources as it is. One in nine people are hungry, and one in three are malnourished. Demographic projections estimate that humans will number 10 billion by 2050, with the majority of growth centered around Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Research and historical trends have shown that as the population inflates and more people are lifted out of poverty, the demand for meat will increase as well. Although we should be wary of paternalistic international policy that aims to control consumption patterns of other nations, the ongoing climate emergency demands immediate collective action. If we look to culture and ancestral dietary patterns rather than dangerous fast food propaganda, we have a much greater chance of doing better by our health, the environment, and the animals. Let us focus on encouraging and celebrating healthy plant-based foods, rather than condemning others’ choices, we can share, educate and inspire. Provide the information, and let them choose for themselves.
Our globalized economy has at least as many drawbacks as advantages. While consumers in wealthy countries may enjoy unprecedented access to food, wealth and services, this comes at a great human cost. Our clothes and smartphones are manufactured by slave labour in developing countries, most often in East and Southeast Asia. Western corporations benefit from the cheap labour while their customers clamour for the cheapest price points.
The situation with the global trade is just as bad, if not worse. Cereals are grown en masse in poorer countries and shipped to wealthier countries to feed livestock, robbing local populations of their food supply while fattening the animals that inefficiently feed the West. It takes 25 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of beef.
Animal agriculture is also hugely resource-intensive. The same kilogram of beef requires 15,000 liters of water to produce. Approximately 30% of global arable land is used for livestock farming. The livestock industry uses a third of the Earth’s freshwater. If we were to reallocate resources to feed the hungry rather than stuff the obese, our planet could actually accommodate the projected population increase. 3.5 billion more people could be fed on vegetarian diets, where grains would be consumed by humans directly, efficiently, and ethically.
Beyond the argument of pure resource efficiency, the consumption of meat impoverishes the world by straining our environment beyond its limits. 2019 has seen dire climate news come to the forefront of public awareness. Every day it becomes harder to ignore that sea levels are rising, the atmosphere is brimming with carbon dioxide, and biodiversity is declining rapidly.
The poor will be hit first and hardest by the disastrous effects of climate change. They will be poisoned by polluted water sources and further malnourished by the lack of food, dislocated from their homes, and suffer disproportionately from extreme weather events.
When our eating habits are responsible for elevated emissions and excessive use of land and water, meat consumption becomes a human rights issue. Far from putting the interests of animals ahead of humans, we can simultaneously help humans, the environment, and animals. The only losers in this scenario are those who profit off animal cruelty, and we ought to stop paying our own executioners.