A Meatier Story

A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on Meat Production

Marian Swain ends her survey of meat’s future with a common-sense observation: The “conventional narrative” of livestock production, she writes, “deserves an update,” one that acknowledges “the realities of demand, productivity, and environmental performance.” She’s right. The conventional story is too simplistic; it dodges, almost completely, the “realities” of meat-centric diets, especially here in the United States.

Stripped to its basics, the standard narrative goes something like this: In the wake of World War II, the search for corporate search for profits destroyed family farms and spawned a system of factory-like livestock production that was both inhumane and environmentally toxic.

Unfortunately, this story has led us astray. A more useful narrative is one anchored in a global perspective, history, and demography.

We can start by acknowledging, as Swain does, the linchpin of meat demand: Urban growth. For millennia, humanity has demonstrated its preference for the urban rather than the rural. For the comforts of centralized water and waste systems, reliable energy, jobs, ideas, opportunities, and, of course, other humans, human beings show no signs of abandoning this urban trajectory. Every year, millions of human beings leave rural areas for cities. In China, transferring people from farm to city is an official government project.

What’s this got to do with meat? By definition, urbanites don’t grow their own food (backyard chicken coops aside). Instead, they rely on farmers to produce foodstuffs. And historically, as urban populations rise, rural populations inevitably, inexorably decline, leaving fewer numbers of farmers to feed an urban majority.

The culture and economics of meat cannot be separated from this urban/rural conundrum. As Swain notes, urban growth has historically translated into rising incomes and increased demand for meats. It’s irrational to assume that humanity will abandon either cities or a meat-centric diet any time soon. A new narrative must acknowledge that reality.

But a new story line must also heed the specific role US livestock production plays in satisfying global urban demand. Here, too, history offers a guide.

For generations, American farmers have supplied meat for urban markets around the world. In the seventeenth century, for example, colonial farmers raised cattle and hogs for their own consumption; for residents of the few towns scattered along the Atlantic coast; and, most important, for the crowded cities of Europe and Britain. That’s still true today. The cattle feedlots, poultry farms, and hog confinement facilities that contemporary food activists love to hate are built in large part to feed someone other than an American.

Thus a narrative that addresses global economies, demography, and history offers a promising alternative to our conventional story of meat’s environmental impact. If we see human beings as the engine, rather than the victim, and if we admit that demand for meat isn’t going away, we might be more inclined to improve the system we have, rather than fixating on utopian alternatives.

Consider, for example, manure emissions, the fancy term for the piles of manure that accumulate when livestock is raised on a large scale. That pesky problem emerged in the 1960s. That’s when US livestock producers, beset by (global) demand on one side, and (domestic) labor shortages on the other, embraced intensive, confinement-based livestock production. Livestock yields increased, but so did “manure emissions.” All manner of techno-fixes have been suggested ever since, including one mentioned by Swain: Anaerobic digestion. Indeed, that idea’s been in play for a half century. But as she notes, “the technology is not yet in widespread use.”

For that, I blame the conventional narrative. Its flabby simplicity has lured generations of consumer, environmental, and rural activists who’ve railed against “industrial” livestock production. They’re convinced that large-scale production is the problem, and “big food” the perpetrator. As a result, they’re blinded to the long view of the big picture. They don’t see that scale is a consequence, not a cause. As a result, their proposed solutions are nostalgic projects aimed at reviving an imagined small-scale “family” farming. When it comes to the problem of meat, it’s hard to imagine a more useless idea.

Imagine, instead, a perspective that calculates demand as a given, and large-scale livestock production as a necessity. Perhaps that would inspire critics to channel their energy into projects that transform problematic necessities into environmental benefits. Maybe someone would finally figure out how to use anaerobic digestion to tame manure emissions.

As long as the conventional narrative shapes our politics (and our research dollars), meat’s environmental drawbacks will remain a plague on the land. It’s time for a new story, one rooted in the realities of human history and behavior.