Friday, April 25, 2014

The True Cost of the Meat We Eat

A bit of a stir was made a few years ago when the claim was made that if all costs were factored in a hamburger would cost about $100. This estimate was provided by Chandran Nair

Nair is concerned that we have a growing population in the world whose needs must be satisfied. Unfortunately, one of those needs seems to be to consume like other "wealthy" people. Moving billions of people from a near subsistence level to where they can consume like a middle class European or American just cannot happen. In his view there are not enough resources for this to be possible. He expressed his views in an article in the Financial Times.

"Already resources are stretched to their limits. Since Britain started the industrial revolution, one country after another has launched itself on to the world stage by plundering the world’s land and seas while polluting its air, either in their own borders or overseas through colonies, investment and trade."

"Despite three centuries of growth based on exploitative economics as well as the underpricing or giving away of resources, governments and companies continue to refuse to talk about limits or constraints. Instead the mantra is of continuing growth through the promotion of ever more consumption. But if Asia copies this western model the 21st century will turn out to be nobody’s century."

Nair believes overconsumption could be controlled if only we included all costs in pricing our commodities.

"Companies can continue to do the things they now do – develop and produce the goods and services people need or want. But they must do so in a world where the external impact of their activities is properly priced. This means fully incorporating everything from resource extraction and waste disposal to manufacturing costs, building transport that emphasises public mobility rather than the right to car ownership. Water should no longer be seen as a free public good."

Nair discussed his outlook with regard to meat as a commercial commodity in an interview conducted by the BBC.

"….meat consumption is a particularly interesting one given the concerns about how inefficient meat production is in terms of converting grain to meat et cetera and the water intensity. But, again, here is an interesting stat. Americans today consume something like 9 billion birds per year. Asia with a population of about over 10 times that today consumes about 16 billion birds. If Asian meat consumption increases as it is projected to, Asians in 2050 will consume something like 200 billion birds. This again is not going to be possible because on that journey to these levels of consumption, we will see a huge amount of collapse in terms of the ecological systems that we are very much dependent on here."

Raising and fattening another 200 billion or so chickens per year does seem rather incredible. Actually, consuming 9 billion chickens per year is also a bit incredible.

If Nair is correct in claiming a $100 hamburger, what are the costs he is referring to? And what might these costs be in 2050 if we continue on our merry way?

Nair does not quantify his $100 price tag, but a little thought suggests how he might have arrived at his figure. What needs to be recognized is that chickens, pigs, and cows eat a lot of food and create a great amount of excrement.

Lester R. Brown introduces us to some of details of modern industrial food production in his book Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity.

"A steer in a feedlot requires 7 pounds of grain for each pound of weight gain. For pork, each pound of additional live weight requires 3.5 pounds. For poultry it is just over 2. For eggs the ratio is 2 to 1. For carp in China and India and catfish in the United States, it takes less than 2 pounds of feed for each pound of additional weight gain."

It seems that these costs of feed consumption are factored in at least in a relative sense, because growth in meat consumption has been greatest for the least grain-intensive commodities.

"Recent production trends give some sense of where the world is headed. Between 1990 and 2010, growth in beef production averaged less than 1 percent a year. Pork, meanwhile, expanded at over 2 percent annually, eggs at nearly 3 percent, and poultry at 4 percent. Acquacultural output, which sets the gold standard in grain conversion efficiency, expanded by nearly 8 percent a year…."

These growth rates in consumption of meat will require large increases in grain production in order to be maintained. Whether or not that is feasible is a story for another day. Of interest here is deducing the unaccounted for costs that Nair referred to.

Corn is the dominant grain used to feed the animals we eat. In order to produce corn as a monocrop and at high yield it is necessary to use large amounts of chemicals: fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides…. Combining chemicals with the water necessary to make plants grow means that these chemicals will end up wherever water ends up: in groundwater and in rivers and streams, and ultimately in the oceans. And don’t forget the water we drink.

Let us now move to the next stage in the food chain, the industrial sites where large numbers of animals are contained and fed the grain the farmers produce. In the old days individual animals would roam around eating and leaving their manure here and there. The manure was part of the food chain. Now cows are collected in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) and chickens into large sheds where they consume grain and an assortment of pharmaceutical compounds and other chemicals and convert that to excrement—lots of it. What happens to all this manure? It gets spread out thickly onto the ground where it is left for nature to take its course—it gets rained on and manure goes wherever the water goes.

Alex Prud’homme investigated the effects of agricultural waste on our water supplies in The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century.

"In the United States, farmed animals produce more than 1 billion tons of manure per year. As the population, and its demand for food, continues to rise, the amount of cow, pig, goat, and poultry excrement continues to grow and to infiltrate water supplies."

Prud’homme tells us that in 1970 the EPA estimated that most water contamination was coming from point sources such as factories. Those sources have been greatly diminished due to environmental regulations. Now most pollution comes from water runoff from diffuse sources.

"….The greatest source of water pollution today is the more diffuse ‘nonpoint-source’ pollution known as storm-water runoff. This term describes pollutants of many kinds, from many sources—motor oil, paint, sewage, fertilizers, insecticides, pharmaceuticals, and other contaminants—that are washed off the land by rain, snow, or mist and into water supplies."

"….according to the EPA, agricultural runoff is now the single biggest source of water pollution in America. Pathogens such as E. coli are responsible for 35 percent of the nations impaired waterways, and large ‘factory farms’ are one of the most common sources of pathogens."

"An estimated 19.5 million Americans are sickened each year from waterborne bacteria, viruses, or parasites, including those from animal and human sewage."

Pathogens aren’t the only problem. Agricultural runoff carries large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers and pesticides. These chemicals ultimately end up in our oceans where they can cause great damage. These nutrients cause algal blooms. Consider the flow from the Mississippi into the Gulf.

"When those algae die, they settle into the deeper colder salt water, where they decay and use up all the oxygen near the bottom. Down there, the algae create the Gulf dead zone….The lack of oxygen in the Gulf’s deep waters makes it impossible for fish and other aquatic life to survive."

Wikipedia provides this information on dead zones.

"In March 2004, when the recently established UN Environment Programme published its first Global Environment Outlook Year Book (GEO Year Book 2003), it reported 146 dead zones in the world's oceans where marine life could not be supported due to depleted oxygen levels. Some of these were as small as a square kilometre (0.4 square miles), but the largest dead zone covered 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles). A 2008 study counted 405 dead zones worldwide."

This chart, where red circles indicate the location and size of many of the dead zones, was also provided.

We began by considering the claim that the true cost of a hamburger would be about $100. Given that we appear to be destroying ocean life and threatening our health with waterborne pollutants in our quest for cheap meat, the $100 price tag may be conservative as an estimate. As the drive to produce ever more meat continues, things will only get worse. How do you put a price on our health—or on our oceans?

Lester Brown provides us with a final perspective.

"A startling 80 percent of oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable yield."

What do you do when you can no longer procure fish in their natural habitat? You turn to industrial fish production.

"When the oceanic fisheries collapse, we turn to fish farming. Doing this, however, takes land and water, since these fish must be fed, most often with some combination of corn and soybean meal. Thus collapsing fisheries put additional pressure on the earth’s land and water resources."

As of 2010, farmed fish consisted of about 40 percent of the total consumed—a fraction that has continued to rise.

This cannot end well.

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