Getting to the meat of the matter
Author of The Ecological Hoofprint to speak at Environment Haliburton AGM on April 1
by Jenn Watt
Published March 28, 2017
Our culture’s increasing reliance on meat and other animal products contributes heavily to climate change, human disease and social inequality.
Consumption of meat has increased rapidly around the globe in recent decades with the rise of industrial livestock production, creating a system that is not only unsustainable, but unhealthy, argues Tony Weis.
Weis is the author of The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock and The Global Food Economy and is associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Western Ontario. He will be the keynote speaker at Environment Haliburton’s annual general meeting on April 1.
Weis’s work examines how the rapid increase in meat consumption is affecting the planet and the animals our culture relies on – and his findings aren’t positive.
“The average person on earth today consumes 43 kilograms of meat per year, nearly twice as much meat as did the average person only two generations earlier, over a period when the human population leapt from roughly three billion people to over seven billion people. The average Canadian consumes vastly more meat – over 100 kilograms a year – than the world average,” Weis wrote in an email to the paper.
“If the current trajectory holds, there will be more than nine billion people by 2050 consuming an average of more than 50 kilograms per year of meat: so, way more than a doubling of per capita consumption, amidst a trebling of human population, both in less than a century. I make a case that challenging this trajectory is fundamental to any hopes of re-building more sustainable, equitable, and humane agro-food systems.”
Weis calls our culture’s diet change “the meatification of diets,” marking a jarring shift from humans’ early relationship with farm animals.
The way animals are consumed in Western culture is actually an inefficient way to convert crops into calories, Weis says. Crops that could feed humans go to feeding animals, that end up producing an unhealthy product for the wealthiest populations to eat – all while contributing heavily to global warming.
Weis credits Frances Moore Lappé with providing a useful explanation for the way the system now functions: “whereas livestock had once been ‘protein factories’ in the sense of producing protein in ways that didn’t compete with crops, concentrated livestock [that] fed on grains and oilseeds were like ‘reverse protein factories’ in the sense that they effectively destroy a large share of the protein and other nutrition contained in these crops, while generating great volumes of unhealthy animal fat – along with huge volumes of unusable and highly polluting biowastes.”
Large tracts of land are now dedicated to growing crops to feed animals.
“Over the past half century or so there has been an explosive growth of industrial oilseed production, especially soy on a world scale, but also canola,” he said.
“From 1961 to 2010, the total land area planted in soybeans more than quadrupled, accompanied by tremendous yield gains and tremendous input usage – water, fertilizers, pesticides. The vast majority of the world’s soybeans is not going into tofu, but is flowing into systems of industrial livestock. The U.S. is at the forefront of this dynamic, but the course was followed more recently in a vast region in the southern cone of South America that has been dubbed the ‘Republic of Soy’ – which is now flowing heavily across the Pacific to feed China’s pigs.”
Weis’s book also addresses issues of animal welfare. He said that he doesn’t study attitudes toward ethics in farming or treatment of farm animals, but that in recent history we have distanced ourselves from the animals we consume, which makes it easier to ignore their treatment.
“For the vast majority of agrarian history, people had a very good sense of how the animals whose products they consumed lived and died, and today I think very few Canadians have much sense of the conditions of production and slaughter that most farm animals face,” Weis said.
All of this leads Weis to advocate for a plant-based diet.
“There is very strong consensus in nutrition sciences that soaring levels of meat and other animal consumption is making human health much worse not better on a world scale, as it is widely recognized as a major contributing factor in rising levels of obesity and many non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, and some cancers – epidemiological patterns often tellingly described as ‘diseases of affluence’ – as indicated in the seminal Global Burden of Disease study, a massive survey of correlation between diet and nutrition with epidemiological patterns,” he said.
And despite a well supported, complex food system centred on animal products, Weis thinks there is room for change.
“There are many hopeful ‘seams’ emerging, in terms of sustainable forms of production and networks that connect them to ecologically and health conscious consumers, and one of the great challenges is finding ways to widen and connect these seams.”
Weis will be speaking Saturday, April 1, prior to the Environment Haliburton annual general meeting. His talk, Your Diet, the Industrial Meat Industry and the Climate Crisis, begins at 1 p.m. at the West Guilford Community Centre (1061 Kennisis Lake Rd., West Guilford). For more information, get in touch with Terry Moore at 705-306-9254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome. Admission is free.