The Environmental Effect of the Meat Industry

3858 words (15 pages) Essay

22nd May 2017 Environmental Sciences Reference this


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One of the fastest growing industries in the world today is the meat/livestock industry. Meat is considered a normal good, which means that demand for meat increases as consumer income increases. Traditionally, meat has been regarded as an expensive food item in Western countries. As world population is increasing and as economies of the developing countries are getting stronger, demand for meat is also growing (Vinnari, 2008). Meat industry is one of those sectors that are one of the biggest contributors of global gas emissions and have big environmental and social impacts. The use of land, energy, water, and various emissions and wastes are all widely recognized by people and governments (Vinnari, 2008). According to a report by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, also known as the FAO, meat production is accountable for about a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is widely accepted in the scientific world that greenhouse gases like carbon and methane are causing rapid global climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Yet, the meat industry business seems to be unperturbed by the state of the environment, inhumane treatment of animals, or the unhygienic conditions in which they are kept which leads to spread of diseases like bird flu in humans. Over the years, meat industry has adopted practices that are unethical. For example in many countries, primarily in the United States, most of the cattle are grain fed as opposed to grass fed. This is so that the cattle can grow bigger and fatter, faster. While it may very well be profitable for the industry, it is unethical in the sense that it is inhumane. There are also social implications as a large amount of grain is fed to the cattle when there are people dying from hunger all over the world. Unhygienic conditions of the feedlots question business practices of the industry. As a food industry, it owes a duty of care to its customers and has a responsibility of providing quality food that is free of bacteria or virus which can be very harmful to the human health. According to the FAO report, meat consumption is estimated to more than double by the year 2050 (McMichael, Powles & Uauy, 2007). With depleting natural resources, such as water and land cover, it will become harder to meet the demands of the growing human population. In such a scenario, the industry will most likely adopt practices that are even more unethical than the existing ones. It is therefore, not only important for businesses to take on sustainable meat production practices but also imperative for us, the consumer, to study our meat consumption habits and make certain changes in our lifestyle. Since we utilize resources from this planet, our natural environment is our responsibility. Educating ourselves and changing our meat consumption patterns will definitely slow down and to some extent get rid of the problem that the meat industry has and is creating. In this assignment, I will be discussing the environmental and social implications of the meat industry and then analyze from the perspective of various ethical theories.

Environmental Impact Analysis:

As mentioned above in the introduction, meat production and consumption has many environmental and social implications. It is imperative for businesses and consumers to recognize the problem and work towards mitigating the impacts. For the purpose of this assessment, I will be considering the environmental impacts i.e. resource usage/depletion and global warming as well as the social impacts i.e. unequal distribution of food, inhumane treatment of animals and analyzing them using different ethical theories. I will also be providing recommendations to curtail the growing impact of the industry.

Resource Depletion:

Our natural environment provides important ecosystem services like food, recreational opportunities, disease regulation that human life ultimately depends upon. Overtime, humans have changed and altered the ecosystem by depleting it in order to meet the growing human demands of freshwater, timber and food. As human population is increasing, per capita demand for ecosystem services is also growing at a fast pace and how these demands are met will determine the future of ecology and economy of our planet. Meat industry poses a major threat to the ecosystem as human activities continue to clear forests in order to grow crops that will be fed to cattle and use water to rear cattle. It is estimated that food production will need to double by the year 2030 to feed the projected global human population of around 9 billion people. Water scarcity is already a problem in many countries as around two billion people suffer from the lack of it and it is estimated that the number of people facing water scarcity will double by the year 2030 (Bennet & Balvanera, 2007). Livestock uses about a third of the world’s entire land surface which includes pastures and arable land that provides livestock feed. As Chinese, European and US farmers are running out of land to rear animals for meat and crop production, demand for meat is forcing intensive agriculture into tropical rainforests of developing countries like Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay (McMichael, Powles & Uauy, 2007).

Global Warming:

Global warming is a widely accepted phenomenon and most of the impacts of global warming can already be seen across the world. Retreating glaciers, rising sea levels, thawing tundra, hurricanes and extreme weather conditions are increasing both in frequency and intensity and animals such as penguins, polar bears are struggling to survive. Many species are finding it hard to adapt to changing weather because it is becoming very unpredictable (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008 ). Most of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (around 35 percent) are due to agriculture practices, primarily animal husbandry and land changes associated with the process of rearing animals for meat. Emissions from this sector are higher than the transport sector or the power generation sector. Two powerful greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide associated with livestock production, contribute more to global warming than carbon dioxide (McMichael, Powles & Uauy, 2007). An FAO report on the current and future effects of livestock production on the world’s environment and climate states that the livestock sector is growing faster than any other sector and most of this growth is going to happen in developing countries, i.e. in countries with low to middle incomes (McMichael, Powles & Uauy, 2007). Livestock production which includes deforestation for grazing land and producing soy feed for animals, carbon lost from soil that is grazed, energy used for growing feed crops, for processing and transporting grains and meat, nitrous oxide released from the use of nitrogenous fertilizers, and gases like methane from animal manure and enteric fermentation all contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Nine percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, 30-40 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of all nitrous oxide emissions come from this sector. Methane and nitrous oxide are known to have a greater warming potential than does carbon dioxide (McMichael, Powles & Uauy, 2007). Production of fertilizers for feed crops requires burning of fossil fuels which releases about 41 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. These fertilizers are produced in factories that depend on fossil fuel energy. Animal populations in large and confined factory like settings have significantly increased and along with it has increased methane emissions from both the animals and their manure. These factory like “landless” facilities produce more manure than can be used as fertilizer on cropland. This manure is distributed to a landmass which usually results in soil accumulation and runoff of pollutants like phosphorous and nitrogen. Half of the energy produced from fossil fuel goes into heating, cooling and ventilation of these facilities and the other half goes into producing seeds, herbicides, pesticides and in the operation of farm machinery (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). Majority of the countries in Africa and Asia currently use pasture based methods to raise animals. However this trend is likely to change as countries in Latin America and some countries in Asia are starting to favor intensive farming methods like the one seen in developed counties like the United States (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). Forests and soils act as carbon sinks as they hold much of the carbon dioxide. Deforestation and degradation of land release much of this stored carbon gas back into the atmosphere thus increasing level of the gas in the atmosphere. Animal agriculture is a major reason for conversion of wooded land into cropland for feed production or grazing land, and deforestation emits 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. A big negative impact of the meat industry can be seen in Latin America which has seen the largest net loss of forests and greatest emission of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008).

Theory Application:

Knowing the impacts of meat production on the environment, various theories can be applied in favor of changing our production and consumption patterns. Utilitarianism, a consequentialist theory, states that an action is morally right if it results in maximum benefit for all parties involved. Utilitarianism evaluates right and wrong action by considering costs and harms and weighing them against benefits (Kunkel, 1996). Since this theory advocates maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, it would support changing meat consumption patterns to curtail growing ill effects of meat production on the environment. If we compare the costs of meat production to the benefits, we will realize that the cost and harm is much greater than the limited benefits that are achieved. Limited benefits being employment, pleasures of taste, profits for industry, and harm being damage done to the environment. Intrinsic value of nature holds higher worth than all the benefits of the meat industry combined and it deserves to be protected. Our natural environment provides many important ecosystem services that cannot be replaced if our environment is destroyed or our ecosystems are altered. Everyone on this planet depends on these ecosystem services and any irreversible damage will affect each and every one of us.

Ethics of duty states that in order to be moral every person should have a realization of a sense of duty (Baron, 1985). I believe that since we use services provided by the environment and since the ecosystem services are so crucial to our existence and survival, we have a duty towards the natural world and we should preserve it to ensure live continues to flourish. However, the meat industry operates contrary to this belief. It degrades our natural environment by deforestation, water consumption, fossil fuel use, and adding to global warming through greenhouse gas emissions. If we consider the Islamic environmental ethics, it also states that humans owe a duty to the natural world. Islamic law (Shari’ah) states that conservation of the environment is based on the principle that the environment and everything it consists of is created by God and everything has a function in the natural environment. Just because humans make use of various environmental services, it does not mean that human use is the only reason for their creation. It thus states that all humans have a duty to preserve and protect it (Deen, 1990).

Social Impact Analysis:

Every business has its share of environmental and social impacts, and meat industry has some obvious impacts on the environment and the society within which it operates. As with the environment, meat industry also has numerous social impacts that are growing with time. Social impacts include humans as well as animals and contemporary methods of meat production tend to overlook these impact. Developing or poor countries are and will bear the brunt of consequences being brought about by climate change. Environmental degradation is a medium for current conflicts and instability in many areas of Sudan. With rising temperatures, and depleting water resources, farmers and herders are fighting with each other to gain access and control of these natural commodities. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that that two of the major problems in Sudan- land degradation and desertification are caused by “an explosive growth in livestock numbers”( Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). United Nations Secretary, General Ban Ki-moon also said that natural disasters caused by climate change will trigger war and conflicts around the world. As global temperatures change, infectious diseases spread more quickly and affect more people (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). Equitable distribution of food is also a major concern since half the world’s poverty stricken population goes to bed hungry every night. Excessive meat production consumes most of the crop production that could have fed millions of people around the world. It takes twenty pounds of grain to feed a cow which is to be slaughtered to produce one pound of beef protein. It only seems like a waste when those twenty pounds of grain that were fed to the cow could have been used to feed many people in that country (Shaw & Newholm, 2002). It is usually the poor countries that suffer from climactic changes. Majority of human induced global warming is caused by operations of industrialized nations, and it is the poorer nations that suffer from such operations. Global warming most affects areas that are hot and dry. These are also the regions where infectious diseases spread rapidly. When a natural disaster strikes, people in these poor nations suffer the most because they have more difficulty in moving away from changes in climate and they also experience difficulties in buying food incase crop is destroyed or its productivity is affected (Mendelsohn, Dinar & Williams, 2006).

According to FAOSTAT, around 56 billion animals are reared and slaughtered for human consumption every year and this number is only going to increase over time, primarily in the developing world (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). Inhumane treatment of animals is also a harsh reality of the meat industry. Thousands of animals are locked up in cramped, confined spaces and kept on high doses of vitamins and antibiotics to reduce the risk of diseases. In countries like the US, cattle are grain fed as so it can grow bigger faster. These unnatural conditions not only increase stress for the animal but also leads to higher occurrence of density-promoted diseases. Studies have found that crowding often includes cannibalistic attacks among poultry and pigs. Other practices that question meat industry practices include inflicting pain by castration, branding, dehorning, beak trimming, and inadequate stunning before slaughter. Deep muscle myopathy, fluid accumulation and skeletal disorders associated with accelerated muscle growth and restricted movement can be seen quite commonly in facilities where animals are mass produced for meat (Smil, 2002). Not only is the treatment of animals inhumane in most of these facilities, but also these facilities are not exactly hygienic and do not ensure that the meat produced is fit for human consumption. Waste water loaded with nitrate and animal excrement often seeps into groundwater. Mad cow disease was caused by feeding ground sheep brains to cows and unfortunately it is still widely used practice in animal husbandry. Between the years 1980-1996 over 750,000 head of cattle infected with this disease were slaughtered for human consumption in Britain. Other such cases include H5N1 avian influenza (bird flu) that spread from chicken and killed many people in Hong Kong (Smil, 2002).

Meat packing is United States’ one of most dangerous occupations. In 2002, about 25 percent of employees in meat packing factories experienced nonfatal occupational injury or illness whereas serious/fatal injuries and illness were five times the national average, and frequency of repeated physical traumas such as back problems and tendinitis is 30 times higher than the private industry mean (Smil, 2002).

Theory Application:

Utilitarianism also justifies changing meat consumption patterns when taking into consideration the social impacts of the industry. Whether it is the inhumane treatment of animals, exploitation of natural resources which often leads to social unrest in poor countries, impact of human induced global climate change, meat industry both directly and indirectly creates and facilitates a number of problems in the society. . Utilitarianism focuses on creating maximum benefit for maximum number of people. It therefore supports reducing meat consumption as not only does production of meat require more land, water and energy usage than production of crops, it leads to inequitable distribution of food around the world. Utilitarianism can be argued on the grounds of animal welfare because we don’t have a need for animal products and we can survive without. Our penchant for meat is only a matter of taste. Our interests in animals and animal products hold lesser value and cannot be more important than animal’s interest in life and freedom from suffering (George, 1994). When we compare the benefits of the industry to the amount of harm or pain it brings to the society, the harm/loss clearly outweighs the benefits/pleasure supporting the premise of this paper that meat industry has very unethical and unsustainable practices and that we as consumers should rethink our consumption patterns and the industry should also change to reduce its enormous negative impact on the environment and the society.

Ethics of rights states that every living creature is entitled to certain basic rights such as the right to life, security and freedom from harm. Just because cognitive abilities of animals are not as developed as those of humans, it does not suggest that they are incapable of feeling pleasure or pain and it doesn’t give humans any reason to inflict pain upon them. In fact, having higher cognitive ability puts greater responsibility on humans to respect other creatures because we have a sense of morality and the ability to reason. Animals also are entitled to have certain natural rights, such as the right to life (Regan, 1980). Animals are part of the moral community and failure to acknowledge that is called “speciesism.” Speciesism is wrong and unethical in the same way that racism and sexism is wrong (George, 1994). Humans and animals are similar in that they both have similar interests in not being harmed or killed, and because we share that relationship, we should show more sensitivity towards other living things. Humans and non humans are subject-of-a-life and experience pain, suffering, and various emotions. Inherent value is contrasted with instrumental value that tools and other objects have. Just like humans, animals too are subjects-f-a-life and have an intrinsic value. Therefore, they should not be regarded as means to the end of others. They should not be treated as tools but should be respected for what they are. Because animals have rights, it is unethical to exploit them and kill them for our own pleasure or economic benefit (George, 1994).

Animal welfare can also be justified on the grounds of ethics of care which states that a moral person is one who cares for others and is considerate of the other persons needs (Li, 1994). It puts an emphasis on values such as caring and advocates maintaining relationships with peace and harmony. If we consider religious ethics then Hinduism advocates practicing Ahimsa or non- violence with fellow creatures as it stresses “acting with care.” Ahimsa is quite similar to the western philosophy of ethics of care (feminist ethics) in that it also emphasizes having non-harmful intent in all actions and absence of enmity toward other people and animals. Ahimsa teaches acting with care towards others and being thoughtful of how your actions can affect those around you. It promotes love and non-hostility towards all beings and its goal is to eliminate violence from our nature (Corner, 2009). The meat industry works in contradiction to the concept of ahimsa and ethics of care. It doesn’t have any regard for the environment, nor does it show empathy for animals that are slaughtered. The concept of ahimsa and ethics of care is the antithesis of the meat industry. Meat industry doesn’t do anything to build a harmonious relationship with the environment or with the animals. We also see lack of care and concern for people who are affected by industrial practices. Most affected by the industry are poor people in developing countries who depend on resources being exploited by the meat industry’s unsustainable practices. As meat industries are buying land in the developing world to grow feed crop, local indigenous people are losing the land that they depend upon for survival (Repetto & Holmes, 1983). This again underscores the fact that practices of meat industry do not fit in with ethics of care or ahimsa.

Conclusion and Recommendation:

Meat industry has an egoistic approach in that it focuses on meeting short term interests of economic prosperity while ignoring the long term negative impact on the environment. The analysis above makes it quite clear that meat industry has severe long term environmental and social implications and that its unsustainable and callous practices are beyond the pale. It’s not possible to shut down the meat industry completely as long as there are consumers. However, the best we can do as responsible and rational beings is to educate ourselves on the impacts, make lifestyle changes and rethink our meat consumption habits to mitigate the impact of the meat industry. It is equally important for the industry to take on sustainable meat production practices. As consumers we can make certain lifestyle changes such as switching to meat analogues or mock meat, and reducing our real meat consumption. Governments can play their part by transferring agricultural production away from meat production in countries where meat production is the highest (Vinnari, 2008). Governments should also remove subsidies and place higher taxes on meat products. By doing so, consumers will have to pay more for meat which will likely decrease meat consumption (Shaw & Newholm, 2002). Technological advancements of product Ad campaigns can make a big difference by increasing consumer knowledge about animal rights, meat production, and its negative social as well as environmental impacts (Vinnari, 2008).

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