More Than Meat

A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on Meat Production

There is probably no request that makes me more anxious than to discuss the “Future of Meat.

Not because I am concerned or unfamiliar with the issues, but because I never know what the assumptions of the discussion are going to be. Are we going to discuss all meat including those derived from monogastric chickens and pigs that can’t digest cellulose, or is meat actually a misnomer for beef? And are we going to discuss all beef, or is beef a proxy for meat from beef cattle alone, ignoring the contribution of dairy cattle? Are we going to discuss the cow/calf sector, or the feedlot sector, or grass-finished beef? Are we going to talk about the United States alone, or the developing world, or the whole world? And are we basing the discussion on greenhouse gas emissions, or land/water or energy use; and on what basis—per animal, or per kg product, or per kg protein and/or micronutrient? All of these constraints lead to differing answers, and not understanding these nuances is a recipe for conflicting, confusing, and contradictory messages—and a flock of angry Twitter tweets!

I have spent an entire career trying to understand the intricacies of agricultural production systems, of animal reproduction cycles, of economic competitive advantage and markets, of trade and the meaning of “sustainability,” and…it’s complicated. Agriculture is intrinsically complex because of environmental factors that impact what you can grow and how you grow it and because food exists in a cultural setting. It is fine to eat horse in France, dog in Korea, chicken feet in China, and corn-fed beef in the United States. US levels of marbling in beef is a market turnoff in my native country of Australia. Travel disabuses you of these cultural food norms, and “food systems” dogma. Meanwhile, we all have to eat, and the food system is necessarily global, so international trade that navigates these distinctions is essential.

To urban people in the developed world, meat is an optional food choice. But animals in agricultural production systems are so much more than food. When I go shopping I can’t help but consider the animal behind the food product, and the other services provided by that animal in addition to meat, milk and eggs. In America that might be the fact the cow-calf operation grazes on dryland range that has no other human food use, and provides ecosystem services, a working landscape, and enhanced endangered species habitat that I value. In many developing nations, animal agriculture provides not only high-quality animal protein in the diets of the rural poor, but livestock also:

  • Contribute 40% of global value of agricultural output;
  • Support livelihoods and food security of almost 1 billion people;
  • Provide food and incomes and consume non-human edible food;
  • Contribute 15% of total food energy and 25% of dietary protein;
  • Provide essential micronutrients (e.g. iron, calcium) that are more readily available in meat, milk, and eggs that in plant-based foods;
  • Are a valuable asset, serving as a store of wealth, collateral for credit, and an essential safety net during times of crisis;
  • Are central to mixed farming systems; consume agricultural waste products, help control insects and weeds, produce manure for fertilizer and waste for cooking, and provide draft power for transport;
  • Provide employment, in some cases especially for women;
  • And have a cultural significance as the basis for religious ceremonies.

One of my favorite papers on this topic is by Tara Garnett who asserts “More people need to be fed better, with less environmental impact,” a sentiment with which most people would agree, and then asks “How might this be achieved?” The answer to that question depends upon where you are living, and your perception of what constitutes a problem and a solution. The concerns of those in the developed world with food abundance are dramatically different from the problems faced by farmers and inhabitants of the developing world.

As an agricultural scientist I cringe at simple “good:bad” pronouncements about agriculture; especially as it relates to the sustainability or environmental implications of production systems or food choices. Agriculture is complicated, and an extensive, grass-fed beef production system in New Zealand may be as “sustainable” and environmentally-responsible as an intensive beef cattle feedlot in Nebraska, and a single cow producing milk and beef on an acre of a Ugandan subsistence farmer. Ultimately it is important to understand that all production systems have their unique set of environmental and other constraints. And all are associated with tradeoffs (even the production of “meat” without livestock) and they need to be considered in the context of local environmental conditions and norms, and evaluated against the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental; and social.

One thing I know with certainty: the more you think you know about animal agriculture and the future of meat, the more you will realize you don’t know.