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Acknowledging Alternatives: The Meat Industry Finally in Decline

Shaun Britton looks into the reasons behind the meat industry's recent decline.

Photo by Antonio Grosz

Humankind has always shared the planet with myriad other animals. While some animals we view as friends and family, and some as powerful statures of nobility, some we see as commodities. Those we see as such suffer enormously under human rule.

Similarly, the proven effects of animal products on us and our environment have provoked an urgent call for change and alternatives. Whether these changes occur may be of profound and irrevocable importance to our future, but some progress seems to be beginning.

The ‘Other’

Domestic animals could be referred to as the ‘other’, the downplayed and downtrodden, whose treatment in our major industries is overlooked by benefactors and concealed from the public. Phillip Wollen, a philanthropist, vegan speaker and activist, has even described animal rights as “the biggest social justice issue since the abolition of slavery.”

Every year globally, over 70 billion animals are killed for food, and that number is likely to double by 2050. It is estimated that between 2007 and 2016, 2300 billion wild fish were also killed globally for food, having a profound and startling effect on our oceans. 

At such a delicate time for our planet, with our ecological future hanging in the balance, beef production uses 15,415 litres of water per kilogram of meat. It is projected that by 2050, animal agriculture will be responsible for at least two thirds of GHGs (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), establishing the industry as one of the leading causes of environmental degradation and devastation. There is only a short time left to counteract this. 

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From Friends to Food

Most children have a positive connection with animals through beloved characters in books and films, family pets, and the animals they gaze at in wonder as they pass them in fields. A recent poll by Linda McCartney Foods interviewed 1500 children between 8 and 16. 10% of those surveyed identified as vegetarian or vegan, with 44% trying to reduce or cut meat from their diet. The reasons given were concerns for animal welfare (44%), and the environmental (31%). 

“The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?” – Jeremy Bentham, Philosopher, 1789

Given these insights and current data on environmental impact, it’s baffling that meat and dairy are still so widely consumed. The reasons perpetuated by our parents and peers - health, evolution, other animals doing the same - seem to fall into what Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs & Wear Cows, describes as the 'Three Ns' of Justification:

“There is a vast mythology surrounding meat, but all the myths are in one way or another related to what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification: eating meat is normal, natural, and necessary.”

Eating meat is common, though the argument for its normality is difficult to rationalise given its ecological impacts and health issues. It is also certainly not necessary for human wellbeing. The US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has confirmed this: “It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” 

A Healthy Appetite?

Health is an often-cited factor in people deciding to consume animal products. However, the reality may not be what we have been led to believe. Animal foods may contain nutrients - but that comes with a very big caveat.

The IARC, a World Health Organisation group, reported in 2015 that there is “sufficient evidence”to suggest that red meat and processed meats have the capacity to be carcinogenic to humans, meaning they can cause cancer. Another study also found that red meat increased the chemical TMAO in the body, which is linked to heart disease. 

It seems white meat is not a favourable alternative. A recent study found that white and red meat raise cholesterol in a near-identical fashion, as explained by researcher Dr Ronald Strauss:

When we planned this study, we expected red meat to have a more adverse effect on blood cholesterol levels than white meat, but we were surprised that this was not the case — their effects on cholesterol are identical when saturated fat levels are equivalent.”

Moving Forward

Reviewing all available evidence, and observing the intersection between our various dilemmas - ethical, environmental, health - it seems clear that for both our sakes, us and the animals, we must embrace a different future.

There is, however, already a glimmer of hope, as the meat industry has recently taken a downward turn. In 2019, global meat production and consumption dropped for the first time since 1961, and another reduction is projected for 2020 according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Two consecutive years of decreased meat-eating is unprecedented, and would suggest some real change is beginning to occur in people’s lifestyle choices.  

As author Arundhati Roy says,

“another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”


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