Americans eat 235 pounds of meat annually. That’s the equivalent of roughly 470 big hamburgers a year – more than a burger a day.
The Chinese on the other hand consume a mere 120 pounds of meat per person each year. Yet with 1.35 billion people in the country, China now consumes double the amount of meat we do in the U.S..
“If everyone on the planet were to eat like Americans, we have the capacity to feed 2 billion people.” says Janet Larsen, the Director of Research at the Earth Policy Institute. “This is not a situation the world has dealt with before. Never before have so many people been trying to live so high on the hog, so to speak.”
In the U.S. beef reigns supreme, while in China, the meat of choice is pork. More than half of the 107 million tons of pork eaten world wide in 2013 were consumed in China, a clear reason Chinese company Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. bought the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, last year.
And although hogs more easily turn grain into protein – it takes only 3 pounds of grain for a pig to gain a pound of weight (chickens take only two, while beef takes seven) – all those pigs mean a lot of grain is needed. China now purchases more than 60 percent of the soybeans available for export in the world, a vital ingredient in animal feed.
Soybeans, says Larsen, help to quickly and “efficiently” fatten hogs and cattle. But soybean yields are difficult to increase, which means that as more soybeans are needed, more land must be converted to make room for the legume.
That extra land is currently found in Brazil and Argentina. Since the 1990s large monoculture soy crops have graced lands where forests once stood, and today Brazil is quickly becoming the world’s leading soy producer.
But now Brazil is also the world’s leading user of pesticide. According to a study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, herbicide use between 2003 and 2008 rose 50 percent in Brazil and average fungicide use in that same period for soybean plants rose 70 percent. 99 percent of soybean crops in Brazil are also genetically modified, as are 93 percent of U.S. soybeans and 71 percent in Argentina, and, the report found:
“This massive adoption [of genetically engineered soy] has led to excessive reliance of glyphosate for weed control in world soybean production….A major cause for the increasing use of herbicides in soybeans is the rapid evolvement of glyphosate-resistant weeds in GE glyphosate-tolerant crops….Also in Brazil, there are signs of increased use of older and more toxic herbicides in the soybean crop. For example, imports of the toxic herbicide paraquat have increased strongly the last years and there are reports of growing use of paraquat and 2,4-D in soybean regions.”
This massive use of herbicide in Brazil and the U.S. is also now affecting the water and air we breathe.
Last year glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Round Up, was found consistently in water and air samples gathered in two farm states in the U.S. And while it may be true that glyphosate is less toxic than many other pesticides, several studies have also found it toxic to fish and water microbes. The Associated Press also reported last year that communities around Argentina are now also dealing with health issues due to chemical drift, water contamination and a host of other issues related to the widespread spraying of pesticides on soybean fields.
Monsanto, the producer of most glyphosate herbicide and glyphosate-resistant seeds, reported $368 million in profits in Q1 of 2014, in large part because of Brazilian sales of their products. A new Monsanto glyphosate product called INTACTA RR2 PRO aims to also take advantage of “emerging insect pressure” which “ sets the stage for rapid penetration” into markets in Latin America and the United States.
In other words, says Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute, “ Dramatic meat consumption in China is responsible for reshaping landscapes in western hemisphere.” It is also affecting the health and well being of communities across the globe in ways we have not thought of before.
There is a lot of talk these days about how feeding antibiotics to livestock is resulting in ‘superbugs’ – bacteria resistant to drug treatment in humans and animals.
But do consumers really need to be concerned about eating meat they buy at the grocery stores?
The group analyzed 2011 data recently released by the U.S. government and found 81 percent of ground turkey and 55 percent of ground beef sold in supermarkets carried antibiotic-resistant strands of salmonella and Campylobacter. Together these bacteria cause 3.6 million cases of food poisoning a year. More than half of all chicken sampled carried antibiotic-resistant E. coli.
Almost 90 percent of all store bought meat also had signs of normal and resistant Enterococcus faecium – a bacteria that indicates the product came in contact with fecal matter at some point during or after processing.
Even if the idea of a little diarrhea or a urinary tract infection does not faze you (both of which can be caused by E. coli), the problem is that as strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria become more commonplace in our lives, the less we are able to use the drugs to treat common human diseases.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and 11 other government departments including the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health reported in 2012:
Antimicrobial resistance (AR) is not a new phenomenon; however, the current magnitude of the problem and the speed with which new resistance phenotypes have emerged elevates the public health significance of this issue….Since their discovery, antimicrobials have been used extensively in livestock and poultry for the treatment, control, and/or prevention of animal diseases, as well as for production purposes… The impact of increases in resistant bacteria in food animals on the management of human infections is an ongoing concern as many classes of antimicrobials used in food-producing animals have analogues to human therapeutics and are therefore capable of selecting for similar resistance phenotypes.
What the CDC report did not mention is that many involved in the livestock industry like the American Meat Institute, the International Egg Commission, and the Animal Health Institute (whose membership includes Bayer, Merck, and Mars) reject these concerns. They also hold enormous power over legislators and committee members.
In other words, if we continue to buy these meats, it is likely industry will continue to use antibiotics to raise animals. But by doing so, we will put our own health, and the health of the global population, at risk.
So how to stay away from these contaminated meats?
Yes, you could cook the hell out of your hamburger to keep you and your family safe from contamination.
But you could also eat better raised meat (and less of it).
An estimated 8.9 billion animals a year are raised in confinement where cramped conditions, a lack of exercise (or fresh air), and high stress environment necessitate the use of antibiotics. These animals are also fed “subtherapeutic” doses of the drugs in their feed to promote faster growth and to make them susceptible to the rampant diseases caused by jamming too many animals into one facility.
Alternately, if you purchase organic meats or those raised without antibiotics, bacteria has not had the exposure to the drugs to develop resistance. Less cramped conditions also mean less disease, and processing only a few animals at a time allows for more care and less contamination of meats. Several stores, like Whole Foods, have a great selection of meats raised without any antibiotics. (See this infographic and post for more information on where to buy meats raised without antibiotics.)
Or, you could stop eating meat.
The UK’s Guardian posted a story last weekend every meat-eating American needs to read:
Halve meat consumption, scientists urge rich world: UN study says horsemeat scandal exposed dark side of cheap meat and shows how farming practices destroy natural world
People in the rich world should become “demitarians” – eating half as much meat as usual, while stopping short of giving it up – in order to avoid severe environmental damage, scientists have urged, in the clearest picture yet of how farming practices are destroying the natural world.
They said the horsemeat scandal had uncovered the dark side of our lust for meat, which has fuelled a trade in undocumented livestock and mislabelled cheap ready meals. “There is a food chain risk,” said Prof Mark Sutton, who coined the term demitarian and is lead author of a UN Environment Programme (Unep) study published on Monday. “Now is a good time to talk to people about this.”
The quest for ever cheaper meat in the past few decades – most people even in rich countries ate significantly less meat one and two generations ago – has resulted in a massive expansion of intensively farmed livestock. This has diverted vast quantities of grain from human to animal consumption, requiring intensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and, according to the Unep report, “caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health”. The run-off from these chemicals is creating dead zones in the seas, causing toxic algal blooms and killing fish, while some are threatening bees, amphibians and sensitive ecosystems. “The attention this meat scare has drawn [highlights] poor quality meat. It shows society must think about livestock and food choices much more, for the environment and health,” said Sutton.
[Please read the rest of the article on the Guardian website]
First off, let’s set the record straight. We tried not eating meat on Mondays (Meatless Mondays) and, embarrassingly, failed. Every dish was “good, for not having meat in it,” or “could have been better, if there was meat in it.” And after a few months, I just couldn’t take the family rejection and whining, and we began serving meat again.
The cards were stacked against us. John is a butcher and has access to some of the best raised, tastiest meat there is. The boys are teens, growing like weeds and always famished. And while some of us like tofu and others nuts, one hates mushrooms and two despise eggs, all of us love bacon, chicken and hamburgers.
Yet it struck me that if we – relatively affluent foodies living in San Francisco – can’t figure out how to make Meatless Mondays work, then I’d bet my favorite shoes most people won’t even attempt it.
But can’t we just eat less meat everyday to the same affect? I wondered. Maybe in addition to limiting our intake on Mondays of “meat” (and I am including fish here, for reasons that will be discussed in this blog), mainstream Americans can learn to also eat less meat overall and to eat more sustainably every day. Maybe instead of doing the “go big” American thing and using huge chunks of meat in our recipes we can instead learn to use the minimum amount of meat in a dish that still leaves it satisfying and tasty.’
The reaction I hear from many is: Why? Why not just eat better raised, sustainable meat?
Because there is not, and will never be, enough of that meat to go around. This might come as a shock to many who like to believe they don’t need to eat less because they eat better. But it will be a topic of many blog posts, and you will see what I say is actually the truth.
Of course, the idea to promote less meat eating is not new, and most notably I want to give a shout-out to Almost Meatless, a wonderful cookbook full of information and recipes on just this topic. The Environmental Working Group has also done great work on why you should eat less meat, as has the Worldwatch Institute.
This hope is this blog will go a step further in that while it will also be a collection of recipes suggesting ways to limit the amount of meat we use in our everyday dishes, it will also be much more. The Less Meat Blog will present the latest information on “all things meat” and give you ways to learn how and why we all must eat less. In other words, the idea is that the more we all know about the topic the better. Better informed eaters make better decisions, be it to eat no meat on Mondays, to eat less everyday, or, at the very least, to buy only meats raised or fished responsibly.
Consumer’s Union (an arm of Consumer Reports) says that up to 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are administered not to humans, but are given to animals as growth promotants and to prevent disease. But many including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Consumer’s Union now say the overuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry has now led to “superbugs” with greater antibiotic resistance, increasing the risk of untreatable diseases in humans
But how did this come to be?
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) produced the infographic below outlining the history of antibiotic use in animal feed. Turns out the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved of antibiotics back in the 1950s, and the first report linking antibiotic resistance and antibiotic use in livestock followed soon after, in the 1960s. By the early 70s many European countries banned the use of certain strains of the drug for growth promotion in animals, while the FDA refused to do so in the U.S.
Today the NRDC and other groups are in a legal battle with the FDA over the continued use of antibiotics in agriculture. The FDA has asked for voluntary, non-binding principals for antibiotic use to be adopted by the livestock industry.
Which means that if you are going to successfully avoid antibiotics on your meat, you will have to buy from those who do not use them when raising animals. Buying antibiotic-free meats from small scale producers might be more expensive (although Consumer Reports found that is not always the case). But by buying less, your family can gain more peace of mind.
Click on the infographic below to learn more about the history of antibiotics in our food.
Whenever my husband tells people he is a butcher it elicits an interesting response. Either the listener is repulsed or enthralled; rarely does anyone have a reaction in between.
Those repulsed generally believe that meat is gross, that cutting meat into parts is about as disgusting of a job one could have, and being a butcher means you work with nasty dead carcasses, guts and fat.
Those who are enthralled are instead awed by the idea of working with carcasses, guts and fat. They see butchery as an art form, and a butcher as a person who has mastered a valuable hands-on skill (unlike most of us). Being a butcher is sexy because it is working with food – specifically food raised well – and, well, food is sexy.
Young farmers, I am sure, get the same reaction these days – compete disbelief or utter enchantment – just because they do something so down-to-earth, so needed, and so outside the modern lifestyle box.
Which is all to say that, particularly here in San Francisco, there is nothing humdrum about food anymore. Food elicits emotion, and in a world where the material goods we have collected feel uninspiring, food makes people again passionate and alive.
So let’s celebrate the fact that we no longer ignore our food. Let’s toast to the fact that people are beginning to care about what they eat, where it comes from, and how it was grown. (Which will mean we will have to eat less meat, but more on that later).
It is a new year, and a hearty meat stew is in order – a hearty “less meat” stew that is.
Less Meat Chicken Stew for Two
1 chicken leg and thigh
4 small peppers (a mix of red, yellow, green or orange) – cut into chunks
1/2 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 can of chickpeas
2 pounds tomatillos if available, or 1 can whole tomatoes.
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon thyme (or a few fresh sprigs)
salt and pepper
package egg noodles
1 tablespoon cilantro
crema or sour cream.
Salt and pepper chicken. Brown well in frying pan with oil. When it is mostly cooked, take it out of the pan. Add a little more oil and cook onion 2 minutes. Add peppers, lightly saute. Make a little pool of oil, heat and add garlic. Mix into peppers and onions. Add tomatillos if using, or tomatoes. Add back in the chicken and cook until tomatillos are fully cooked and/or the sauce is stewy, not soupy. Serve over egg noodles and garnish with cilantro, lime, and crema or sour cream.
Let’s be honest – meat tastes good. No matter how many recipes I see proclaiming vegetarian dishes are filling or “just as satisfying as meat,” adding meat will always make a dish taste better.
Which is the reason the world needs a blog about how and why to eat less meat (and by “meat” I mean beef, lamb, goat, chicken, fish and anything else that once crawled, walked or swam in this world).
The problem is this: there are now 7+ billion people on the planet. Most want to eat meat. Some eat way too much while others have little to no access to a steak or even some chicken bones. And the impact of raising, feeding, slaughtering and transporting all this meat – even meat raised locally or organically – is astronomical (yes, there will be blog posts about that).
So the question is – how do we fulfill our (arguably) human instinct for meat consumption while not destroying the environment? And in the U.S., Europe and other places where overeating meat has become commonplace – how can we use meat more wisely and sparingly?
The answer has two parts – better education about the meat we eat and recipes to put our learning into practice.
1. Information on all things meat
Less Meat will feature articles on everything from antibiotic use to meat buying clubs, grazing techniques to the best places in the world to eat meat. The blog will house lists of where to buy sustainably raised meat, the worst meat to buy and the most interesting meat projects around. It will also serve as a library for meaty articles, interesting data and cool infographics.
2. Less Meat Recipes
The truth is, there exists a meat critical mass – a threshold where even the most meaty of eaters will be satisfied. It is at that point where more meat is not better for the dish or the planet. This blog will feature those recipes, tried out in our very own home, with our own teen boys as the guinea pigs.
So stay tuned…