Meat has become cheap to buy in the supermarket but at a cost to the environment and human health. In order to feed the world's population and stop rainforests from being cleared, while simultaneously designating land for reforestation, experts are calling for a dietary rethink: less meat and more plant-based foods which require much smaller areas.
"Industrial meat production is not only responsible for precarious working conditions, it also pushes people off their land, leads to deforestation, biodiversity loss and the use of pesticides — and is also one of the main drivers of the climate crisis." explained Barbara Unmüssig of the think tank, Heinrich Böll Foundation.
The 50 page "Meat Atlas 2021" was collaboratively published by the Foundation, Friends of the Earth Germany and the international monthly newspaper Le Monde diplomatique — outlines trends and the implications of global meat production on both human and planetary health. It highlights, for example, how the over-use of antibiotics in intensive animal farming is leading to increasingly resistant germs, thereby threatening the effectiveness of drugs used for humans.
Leading global scientists such as Johan Rockström, Director at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) suggested dietary changes that would equate to an average of 16 kilograms of meat and 33 kilograms of dairy products per person per year. Current meat consumption in North and South America as well as in Europe can be as much as seven times that amount.
Similarly, the clearing of forests for animal feed is held up as a threat to human health. As habitat loss brings animals and humans into closer proximity with one another, viruses can be transmitted more easily. This, in turn, can lead to new pandemics.
More and more animals live on ever fewer farms, further exacerbating the pollution of groundwater in those regions. Meat consumption had risen seven-fold to around 350 million metric tons — or a global average of 46 kilograms per person annually.
As global demand for meat continues to grow, so does the pressure on available arable land. As a result, huge areas of forest in countries such as Brazil are being lost to create land on which to grow animal fodder. 71% of global arable land is currently used for livestock feed. That is four times the amount required for direct food growth (18%) or other raw materials such as cotton (7%) and energy crops like corn for biogas (4%).
Besides revealing the power and global impact of the international meat industry, authors of the "Meat Atlas" also illustrate links to the global chemical industry. They write that dangerous and sometimes banned pesticides are exported by large chemical companies. Among the producers and exporters of such chemicals are European players, Bayer Crop Science, BASF, and Syngenta, as well as US companies Corteva and FMS. The use of such pesticides threatens thousands of lives.