Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler
The New York Times
, January 27, 2008
A SEA change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store
— something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil. It’s meat.
The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government.
Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn,
sends prices higher. Finally — like oil — meat is something people are encouraged to consume
less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.
Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and
nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line
meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant
greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a
dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.
Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and
cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the
government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.
The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284
million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing
world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected
to double again by 2050, which one expert, Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations, says is
resulting in a “relentless growth in livestock production.”
Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a
day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we
“process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the
Growing meat (it’s hard to use the word “raising” when applied to animals in factory farms) uses
so many resources that it’s a challenge to enumerate them all. But consider: an estimated 30
percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production,
according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that
livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than
To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel,
a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at
the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just
20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the