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The ecological hoofprint: The global burden of industrial livestock

Ecological Hoofprint

By Tony Weiss
Published by Zed Books
Website: www.zedbooks.co.uk
2013, 188 pp, ISBN 9-781780-320960 (Pb) £14.99

The prospect of a global food shortfall before 2050 is cause for concern as another 2 billion people are added to the current 7 billion, and dietary aspirations rise among the newly prosperous middle classes of China, India and other industrialising countries. To meet 2050 demand from more people, and more people wanting to eat 'better', it is estimated that food production must increase by nearly 50 per cent over present output. With climate uncertainties and declining water availability, many fear that this is a challenge too far. In contrast, Tony Weiss, author of The Ecological Hoofprint, believes that this shortfall is of our own making and can be readily remedied by adjusting what we choose to eat.

The average person today eats almost twice as much meat as did the average person only two generations ago in a world with more than twice as many people now as then. This amounts to a quadrupling of world meat production in the half-century 1961-2011 from 71 to 297 million tonnes. FAO projects that global meat production will rise even further, from 7 billion eating an average of 43 kg meat per person per year now to 9.3 billion eating an average of 52 kg per person in 2050. (In 1961, global population was only 3 billion and average meat consumption 23 kg). This accelerating 'meatification' of diets and its adverse impact on the planet and on human health is at the heart of this arresting analysis of what the author terms 'the industrial-grain-oilseed-livestock complex' and its several deleterious effects.

Increased meat consumption has long been accepted as an indicator of prosperity, a trend initiated by industrialising Europe and the USA and followed by more and more others. Even traditionally near-vegetarian societies, like China and India, are increasingly carnivorous. "Assumptions that there will be more meat consumed and total food production must double…are extremely dubious and dangerous," writes Weiss, if for no other reason than the cost in simple food terms: the conversion of grain and oilseed into meat is decidedly inefficient, particularly so in the context of a world striving to provide a basic diet to several billion chronically hungry. Livestock that once utilised crop residues and pasture unfit for human consumption are now fed great quantities of cereals and oilseeds, which they convert into meat with great calorific wastage. Wiess's main foci for criticism are the large industrial livestock production and processing plants.

Other costs of industrial livestock production include: the considerable demands for increasingly scarce water, both directly and as water imbedded in the grain-oilseed diet; the vast quantities of effluent produced, which all too often are a pollution hazard; the loss of family farms; the impact of high-meat diets on human health; the psychological effect on labour of working in the potentially dehumanising environments of industrial livestock units and slaughter facilities; and the contribution to climate change. "It is now recognised that livestock production is responsible for the lion's share of agriculture-related GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and ranks among the largest causes of climate change of any economic sector," writes Weiss.

This detailed but easily read critique is presented within the context of several other challenges that confront agriculture, and all those who direct policy for, and work in this industry. It also presents an accessible narrative to the general public, for we are all consumers. The author concludes that, "What this analysis makes clear is that dismantling the industrial-grain-livestock-oilseed complex is at the very center of any hopes of making world agriculture more sustainable, socially just and humane."

Tony Weiss is an associate professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario, with research in political ecology. Previous titles include 'The Global food economy' and 'The battle for the future of farming'

Date published: November 2013

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