About a 5 minute read.

By: Brecht Jonkers

Quite the contrary…

An often heard reason for people to take up a vegetarian, or even, vegan lifestyle, is the idea that meat production and preparation would contribute for a major part to the ecological footprint us humans have on the planet, and to the exhaust of carbon dioxide that causes global warming.

Now, I am not saying that this is a wrong connection to make. On the contrary, it goes without any reasonable doubt that mass production of meat, particularly when done in an economy that causes producers to cut corners everywhere in order to keep their business afloat, has several negative consequences. According to research by the United Nations, the production of meat causes up to 18% of global greenhouse gas emission.

However, the question we should ask ourselves is why this is the case. Is meat by definition a more environmentally destructive type of food? Or is the problem rather in the way in which we go about producing the steak on our plate? In 2010, a WWF study revealed shocking news about meat-replacement products such as tofu. The main problem found with tofu production, and similar often soy-based meat replacements, is that they tend to be produced in Third World areas, far away from Europe and North America where most by-choice vegans reside. The transportation and delivery, often overlooked but one of the main contributors to pollution worldwide, of the raw materials, together with the highly intensive industrial production of the meat replacement, make for quite a pollutant combination for your “green” meal.

Add to that the fact that in recent years, for a big part thanks to the ecological movement, there have been significant efforts in cattle farming to make the production more environmentally durable. Of course, as consumers, we want to ensure that the meat we eat is of acceptable quality. And cattle farmers know that.

In my native Belgium, the so-called “Belgian blue” cow is ranched locally, with a minimum of transportation required. Also, much of the food for the cows is, ironically, leftover soy remains that are a by-product of the soy oil production. This shows that, when done properly, the meat industry can become much more durable than the big corporations we know of.

Of course, this durable cooperation is not always the case. Every so often back in Belgium I would read or hear about cattle farmers, usually those in the business of pigs and dairy cattle, protesting against the terribly low prices the branded corporations would pay for their produce. In order to survive economically, farmers testified, they were all but forced to cut back on costs, making life conditions worse for the animals, and usually resulting in higher waste, higher pollution and lower quality of production. Now, bear in mind that these farmers do not willingly or maliciously torment their cows or pigs into a miserable existence. Rather, they are, as are so many of us, the victims of a merciless economic system that forces one to cut costs at all times or drown to a tidal wave of massive corporations and cheap mass production. And the animals end up being the victims’ victims.

According to the US-based Environmental Protection Agency, before 1970 the methane emission of livestock was significantly lower than it is nowadays, and it was not as if we ate less meat back then. Rather, before the mass spread of factory farming and big business ranching all over the world, cattle used to be raised in small operations, often family farms, in which their diet consisted mostly of grass growing on the meadows and prairies. Nowadays, with financial pressure and a thirst for maximum profit driving businesses to the edge, cheap mass produced soy-based cattle food is the staple for our cows and pigs alike.

Numbers from the World Resources Institute confirm this trend, and show an even more alarming rate. Whereas in the year 2000, global greenhouse gas emissions were only caused for 5% by livestock, by 2005 this had raised to 18%. A similar, connected trend is to be seen in the level of deforestation: a rise from 18% in 2000 to between 20 and 25% of all emissions being caused by the destruction of woodlands by 2005. And here is where things get tricky. We have all heard of the McDonald’s cattle ranches in Brazil being responsible for much of the deforestation in that country. Yet did you know that in provinces like Mato Grosso, up to 70% of all deforested lands are actually being used for soy plantations? And yes, much of that soy is being used for cattle food. But, as I said before, cattle does not need soy. It just happens to be cheap. And to make things even worse, there are two more booming markets for soy beans. One of them is the production of “environmentally-friendly” bio-fuel, so we can drive our fancy “green” cars around. And last but not least, you guessed it: meat replacement food products.

A booming multi-billion dollar market on which “green” corporations have thrown themselves with ferocity, destroying environments and robbing local populations of their home-grown food in order to stuff container ships full of healthy vegan food options to sell to customers half a world away who are well-off enough to afford a vegan lifestyle.
To wrap it up, there is one lesson to learn from all this. No matter how idealistic or great your idea is, no matter how life-changing or environmentally-friendly you believe it can be, big businesses will always try to find a way to screw it up. And we must be aware of this if we want to prevent it. After all, we can all cut back our meat consumption to do our little part against pollution. But as long as big business controls our soy, and as long as around 50% of all pollution is being caused by energy production that has nothing to do with food at all, our small efforts might be in vain.

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