My friend Adam recently shared a great CNN article about Bresse chicken and why they taste so good. It’s a very cheerful read: half the text is about mouth-watering food in Michelin-starred restaurants, the other half talks about the very romantic life on farms in a rural part of France. Chickens there supplement their own diet by foraging for insects, worms and snails, and they each enjoy at least 10 sqm of individual space to be able to do that.
Then, one of my friends asked me about restaurants in London that sell this kind of “good meat”. She was hardly the first person to ask me that. Nobody wants the stuff that gets produced by industrial animal agriculture. To her disappointment, I annoyingly started a conversation about vegetarian food instead. WHY?? The simple answer is: We can’t scale the ‘good meat’. Eating only ‘good meat’ also means eating a lot less meat overall.
Here is why we can’t all eat high-welfare meat all the time:
Our population has grown to nearly 8bn people and that means that our diet now affects the planet and other species, no matter what we do. That said, we could be doing a lot better: eating animals is the least efficient way to feed ourselves. We know that, but our meat consumption is predicted to keep growing.
And not only that. We have squeezed the animal products industry to make it as efficient as possible, and a lot of work is still being done to increase yields further. That’s the industrial animal agriculture we all hate so much. But to make a real difference, we’d need to change the efficiency of our diet itself.
Surveys about diets and meat tend to ask us whether we care most about our health, the environment, or animal welfare. That question is a bit misleading. Given the scale of today’s agricultural industry all of these things are directly connected.
As it stands, animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, while the rest of the food sector only causes 9%. On average, 1g of protein from beef needs 100x more land than 1g of protein from pulses. Chickens need less, but still 8x more than pulses. Consider land use in this context: at our current rate of deforestation, rainforests will be entirely gone within the next 100 years, causing yet more global warming and a huge loss of biodiversity. The main reason for deforestation is agriculture and 33% of all global croplands are currently used for livestock feed production. Another 26% is directly used for livestock grazing.
The following 5 examples show why animal welfare, the environment and our health are all connected. And why eating less meat is a very good answer if you care about any or all of them.
1. There are > 20,000,000,000 chickens in the world
We need less space and less feed if animals don’t live as long, which makes chicken very efficient protein. To make them even more efficient, 96% of chickens we eat in the UK are fast-growing breeds. They can reach their full size within about 1 month, as opposed to at least 3 months that chickens would normally need to be fully grown.
However, fast growth and unnaturally large breasts also mean that often a chicken’s legs cannot support its body weight. They quite often sit in their own sewage as a result. They don’t need outside space, because they cannot really walk. We could use slower-growing breeds again to avoid this, but that would require 3x the space and feed.
Our breeding practices have so far been focused on meat quantity (hence the extra-large breasts) and price. That has come at a cost in terms of nutrition. To get the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids that one chicken contained in 1970, today you’d need to eat 6 chickens.
Lastly, from a practical point of view, consider this: almost 3 million chickens are slaughtered in the UK every day. If they had to be fetched, killed, plucked and cut up manually, we’d need hundreds of thousands of people to do this.
2. Then there are about 1,000,000,000 cattle
You’ve probably heard that, environmentally speaking, beef is the perfect storm.
For one, cows are large animals that need more space and feed than, for example, chickens to grow to a size where we can slaughter them. They live for 12-24 months, compared to the 1 month that a chicken lives. Not only do they eat a lot more food every day, they also live for many, many more days. To feed them, we need land. A cow needs about 2 acres (roughly 8,000 sqm or 0.81 hectare) of grass land to get enough food if it lives purely on grass. To save land, we can feed them grains, but that also needs to be grown somewhere and, in addition, it needs to be processed and transported, which causes emissions. In terms of land, all this means that it takes 10x more land to produce 1g of beef protein than to produce 1g of protein from poultry.
The other issue specific to cattle and other ruminants are methane emissions from rumination. There are around 1 billion cattle alive at the moment. Their methane emissions alone cause around 5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (that’s a similar amount to all cars in the world).
We can’t do much about rumination (at least not yet), but to improve cattle’s environmental efficiency we often keep them within confined spaces where they can’t waste as much energy by moving around too much. The calories we feed them are meant to make them fat, not let them have fun in the field. We also feed them grains to fatten them faster, so they don’t have to live as long. These methods have downsides as well though: keeping cattle where they cannot move and feeding them food they haven’t evolved to eat is not good for their welfare or health. And this has a trickle down effect: grass-fed beef from healthy cows is also more nutritious for us. If we then also use growth-hormones to produce large quantities of meat, and use antibiotics to avoid the spreading of diseases in industrial animal agriculture, we make the meat even less healthy for us.
Lastly, cows produce a lot of shit! The largest dead zone in our oceans is currently in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the size of New Jersey and has been caused by agriculture in the Midwest. In those dead zones, the water doesn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain life. This happens when excessive nitrogen and phosphorus are released into the water and this is mostly caused by fertilizers, animal waste, sewage and land erosion – the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has been mainly caused by cattle.
Dairy products (milk, cheese, etc) are better than beef, environmentally speaking, because we can get more milk than beef from each animal. Animal welfare-wise it’s similar, again with a trickle-down effect to our own health.
3. BUT WHAT ABOUT FISH??
For fish, the efficiency problem is especially easy to grasp. Imagine how many people it would take to procure the fish for only one sushi shop in London if we only used good old fishing rods. We avoid that problem by using industrialized fishing methods and fish farms.
Probably because we don’t see what happens under water, our methods for catching wild fish have evolved ‘under the radar’. For one, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either exploited or depleted. Secondly, the large nets we use, catch or destroy more than the fish we mean to catch. Louise Gray says this in such a powerful way in her book The Ethical Carnivore that I’ll just steal her quote here: “If we dragged a massive weighted net over the Serengeti ploughing up the grassland and scooping up lions, elephants, antelopes, dung beetles – then throwing half of them away – there would be an outcry. Yet it is what we are doing every day to the bottom of the seabed.”
Fish farms are a solution to avoid extinction but they can cause pollution and with that they lead to the destruction of eco-systems in a different way. In addition, the fish often need to be fed antibiotics because diseases can spread easily in the very contained spaces of fish farms.
Lastly, while the plastics crisis in the last year has been discussed a lot in the context of straws, more than half of the plastic in our oceans results from leftover fishing gear. The fishing industry is the ‘real’ problem.
With fish, we can make a big difference by buying only sustainably fished fish. We can also make a difference by avoiding species that are nearly extinct, like Bluefin tuna. But, ultimately, it’s again a question of scale. We simply cannot procure wild fish for all sushi shops with good old rods.
4. WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF OUR FOOD?
We have done a phenomenal job in consistently increasing our food production, mainly by increasing agricultural yields, i.e. getting more food out of less land. However, we now understand that this has come at a bigger cost than we had bargained for. We have depleted some of our natural resources and we have polluted others like soil, water and air with fertilizers and pesticides.
We need to find less damaging ways to grow food if we want to keep our eco-systems healthy. The problem is that this goal stands in direct conflict with our current diet, because both organic agriculture and animal agriculture need a lot of land. A really interesting study, that looks at different options for using all the arable land we have, comes to the conclusion that unless we cause more deforestation, by 2050, we can have one or the other: organic food OR a meat-rich diet.
5. NO SPACE LEFT FOR WILDLIFE
The amount of land we need for our animal agriculture also affects the species we don’t eat, because we destroy their habitats (forests, rainforests, oceans) to make space for more agricultural land (see above). 80% of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests and many cannot survive deforestation.
With the size of our population, diversity and balance can also play a major role in keeping our eco-systems healthy. Currently, 75% of our food supply stems from 12 crops and 5 animal species. We could improve our nutrition, the environmental impact of diet and lots of animals lives by diversifying this again and restoring a balance.
All of us prefer to eat high-welfare meat and for all the reasons above it’s the right thing to do. However, we would argue that it won’t make much of a difference unless you eat ONLY high-welfare meat. And that, by definition, means that you’ll be eating vegetarian food a lot of the time. One, because there simply isn’t enough high-welfare meat around. And two, because you can’t just grab a random sandwich with meat in it if you care about the quality of the meat.
It’s all about scale. The reason Bresse chickens keep their quality is the very strict regulation that enforces how much space they have, what they can be fed, and where they can be grown. This naturally limits the number we can grow each year. That’s the definition of scalability.
Bibliography: We spent a lot of time to carefully select our sources. The articles and books referenced in this list provide more background for each of the arguments we make.