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Vegetarians cause environmental damage, but meat eaters aren’t off the hook

Grain agriculture devastates ecosystems, but who is the grain grown for? Peter Castleton

More and more, the animals we kill for food are dining at the human table. Increasingly, we feed them on grain, soybeans and fish meal.

Recently, Professor Mike Archer published an article on The Conversation which looked at the animal deaths attributable to grain production. He argued that vegetarians needed to take responsibility for these deaths, and that shifting to a diet heavier in range-fed beef and kangaroo would be the ethically responsible thing for vegetarians to do.

But are vegetarians really responsible for most of Australia’s grain consumption? Should deaths from growing and harvesting grain be laid at their door?

In 2010 the world consumed 283 million tonnes (Mt) of meat, up from only 44 Mt in 1950. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecast for 2020 is 340 Mt. In 1950 most came from range-fed animals, chiefly cattle and sheep, but today, meat production from non-ruminant pigs and poultry dominates because they convert feed to meat far more efficiently.

More and more Australian grain is going to feed meat animals, and most of the meat goes overseas. liveexportcare/Flickr

Grain provides most of the human diet, but global production per capita peaked in 1984 at 342 kg, and by 2010 had fallen to 323 kg. Only half the 2010 grain harvest of 2232 Mt was directly used for food; the other half went for animal feed or for bio-fuels. The FAO expect the share of grain used directly by humans to fall even further, as industrialising countries emulate the dietary habits of the West. Yet in 2010 the FAO estimated the number of malnourished people in the world as nearly one billion.

Soybean production has grown rapidly in recent years, with most production in the Americas. About 70% of the harvested mass of the 250 Mt soybean crop is mixed with grain for animal feedstock. In Brazil, where more land is planted to soybeans than all cereals combined, the Amazon forest is being cleared to expand production — and also for grazing the 74 million beef cattle in Amazonia.

Nor is land-clearing for beef only occurring in the Amazon. In Australia, “peak beef” per capita consumption occurred over four decades ago. Despite this, in recent decades in Queensland, 3000-7000 sq km of native woodland were cleared every year, largely for improved cattle pastures. Much of the meat produced is exported.

An increasing share of Australia’s grain crop goes to produce meat. In 2007, nearly 12 Mt of grain was so used, with 3.5 Mt being fed to beef cattle and sheep, 1.9 Mt to pigs, and 2.3 Mt for broiler poultry.

In 2007, 3.22 Mt of red meat was produced, so 1.7 kg of grain was needed for each kg of meat. For poultry, the figure was 2.85 kg/kg. Additionally, about 4 Mt of hay are cut each year from about one million hectares. Food animals are also fed other supplements, such as molasses.

In wealthy countries, the animal protein eaten is often well in excess of nutritional needs. The average Australian eats 300 grams of meat daily, but US authorities recommend only about half this amount. High-quality protein in excess of requirements is no better nutritionally than the equivalent kilojoule of grain.

The bun is made of grain, sure; but so is the meat. J Domingo

And of course, non-vegetarians don’t only eat meat: a hamburger has one layer of meat, but two layers of bun. Even allowing for somewhat lower direct cereal consumption, overall, non-vegetarians in Australia likely already consume, directly and indirectly, more grain per capita than vegetarians, and the gap will widen as beef cattle (and sheep) get more of their food from grain, as forecast.

Professor Archer, in his widely-read article, is right to stress the environmental consequences of grain production (including mice deaths) but the body count is higher for a meat than a vegetarian diet.

Professor Archer promotes the use of kangaroo meat, as these indigenous herbivores have a lower environmental impact than imported grazers, including low methane emissions. And kangaroos don’t eat grain (the ones that try it are likely to get shot). Over the past decade, around 3.5 million from the larger species of kangaroos were killed annually for meat, with the quotas based on aerial survey counts.

And what do we get from this cull? Although the industry averages about 12 kg of meat from each large kangaroo, only 1.5 kg is prime quality, so most is presently used as pet food. Roughly 20,000 tonnes of meat for human consumption are presently produced annually — and 80% of the meat is exported. Compared with the four million tonnes of meat produced annually in Australia, kangaroo meat is and will remain marginal for our overall meat production.

It sounds simple because it is: if you care about animals, eat less meat. Ben Kimball

Beyond these statistics, there is little agreement between animal welfare groups and the kangaroo industry. Points of dispute include the welfare of the animals shot (and their orphaned dependent young), the share of females killed, and the risk of at least regional species extinction.

Professor Archer says, “The challenge for the ethical eater is to choose the diet that causes the least deaths and environmental damage”. I would add that it is not only animal deaths we should worry about, but also the quality of their lives. Poultry and pigs are reared in extremely cramped conditions because it increases the efficiency of conversion of feed into meat or eggs. In effect, animal suffering lowers the prices to consumers. Chicken Little was right. The sky has fallen - for chickens.

A recent article argues that staying within globally sustainable boundaries for both greenhouse gas emissions and reactive nitrogen mobilisation could require animal product reductions per capita to about 20% of their projected levels in 2050. If shared equally among all Earth’s people, Australians would need to cut consumption by as much as 10-fold. Our own health, animal welfare, and global equity would all be served by a modest first step: halving our meat consumption.

Thanks to Geoff Lacey, fellow vegetarian, for useful discussions on this topic.

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