Meat consumption: The elephant in the room

Democracy doesn’t only happen every four years. It happens three times a day everyday with what we choose to eat.

By | Tue 4 May 2021

Of all the ongoing suffering in the world: global pandemic, ruined economies, vaccine inequity, political oppression, middle east instability, and Ethiopian conflict, none has taken its toll more than “the elephant” in the room. By that I mean the cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock. Did you know that humans kill 200 million animals for food each day? That’s 73 billion animals per year, 10 times the world’s population. And that is excluding the fish and other ocean animals we harvest each year. In World War I there were a total of 40 million military and civilian casualties; in World War II about 75 million. Two World Wars’ lives perished don’t even come close to the number of animals humans slaughter daily. While the global deaths from Covid-19 is about 3.2 million, a tragedy, it is but a drop in the ocean of animals’ lives lost. That, to me, is the biggest elephant in the room.

Just as there is racism within humans there is “speciesism” where humans believe they are superior to animals, giving them moral rights to exploit the animals as they please. The Australian philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer, whose work I follow, popularised the term.

Concentration camps aren’t relics from the war. Indeed, they exist in most cities we live in today in the form of animal slaughterhouses and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

In my last article, I wrote how Thailand’s public sector could learn from Amazon’s efficiency and productivity. But when this very business-centric efficiency is used in agriculture, it is frighteningly effective. Too productive, in fact, for our own good.

For the majority of modern history after the agricultural revolution, humans were farmers. They planted and grew a variety of crops, had livestock, and were able to feed themselves with the harvest. The leftover, if any, was bartered or sold to the market. They were, in effect, small scale self-sufficient farmers unaffected by world crops’ prices. Things changed in the early 1900s, especially after the second world war, with the advent of industrialised farming and the big agribusiness, powered by fossil fuel. Ammonium nitrate, used to make bombs in the war, was turned into synthetic fertiliser for crops. It increased the output of crops such as corn and soybeans substantially. Combined genetically modified corn with monoculture crop fields, the US became the largest producer and exporter of corn in the world, producing 370 million metric tons of corn in 2019.

Here lies the problem: There is so much corn, even after export. What to do with the excess corn?

The business logic is simple: lower cost and economies of scale increase profit. Instead of feeding cows with grass, what they naturally eat, we fed them with the cheap and excess corn. Why have a dozen cows roaming freely grazing grass in a large field like the old days when you could put hundreds of them in a pen? That was exactly what we did. We forced them to live in small enclosures the equivalent of 50 asylum seekers in a detention cell. Indeed, the Hong Kong ‘shoebox-sized apartments’ seems a luxury compared to cow housing. When animals are packed into a pen, filled with manure and urine, diseases ensue. So we give them rumensin and tyrosine antibiotics. Next, to fatten them up as fast and cheaply as possible, we mixed into their food hormones (liquefied fat and protein supplements).

Specialisation logic prevails. Cows that stop milk production are turned into ground beef. Bulls are slaughtered and turned into steaks. Nothing goes to waste. The leftover edible portions are minced to make animal feed for pigs, chicken, fish, and for our pets. The rest are used to make shampoo, body soap, glue, wallpaper etc., and/or dumped into pits, the toxic of which gets into the rivers. The meat factory butchers would always say that the stench of the killing room would stay with them for days, even after showers and a change of clothing. It seeped into their clothes and skin.

Cattle have become privatised – a commodity. We breed them to our specifications – docile and large, for the expressed purpose of eating them. Corn, too, is genetically modified to withstand nature’s rough weather. In addition to using it for feeding livestock, corn is also used as fructose sweetener, maltodextrin, fuel, coatings, in antibiotics, fiberglass, and of course in the Thais’ favourite Bubble Milk Tea, in every soft drink, breakfast cereals, and potato chips at 7-11 stores. The food science industry is ingenious in devising ways to make use of the surplus corn, thanks to the pesticides, herbicides, and numerous chemicals and hormones used. Any wonder young girls are menstruating at an earlier age? It’s not the farmers heavily in debt who are feeding us. It’s the food processors and big agribusiness.

So, cheap corn input converted cattle into cheap meat for American consumers to enjoy their Big Mac, vote for Trump, and siege the US congress. What could go wrong with American style democracy? You want fries and a Coke with that?

The problem is that the industrialised meat production Westerners have enjoyed has a huge environmental cost. Cows require a ton of land and resources. It takes 16,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of beef. (6,000 liters: 1kg for pig meat; 4,500: 1kg for chicken meat). Assume we use 50 litres of water for a 5-minute shower per day. That means we have to forgo showering for 320 days to save the amount of water used for 1 kg of beef. The food system is responsible for 38% of global greenhouse gas emission.

The business efficiency and specialisation rationale have been perfected so much that during Covid-19 US dairy farmers were throwing millions of gallons of raw milk into the drain. Why? They had no refrigerated storage of that size. Dairy processors would not buy them because of the lowered demand in milk from the lockdown. Schools were closed, as were restaurants. To be sure, customers wanted to get milk from convenience stores. But the processors had no small plastic containers, as they specialised in wholesale size. Donating raw milk was not an option as the milk had not been pasteurised and sterilised from bacteria. Since there is no “on and off button” on cows’ milk production, and killing them meant milk shortage in the future, the only option left was throwing away the raw milk.

A similar thing happened in the US pig farms. Pig farmers were killing and burying pigs by thousands a day. Why? To make room for the thousands of piglets born every day, as there was a shortage of space. 200,000 piglets are born in a factory farm; that is 1.4 million piglets a week. Pig farmers were producing pigs by the forecasted demand. When Covid-19 hit, they could not stop the production immediately much like the dairy farmers could not turn off the milk production. These law-abiding farmers weren’t cruel; They were simply responding to the perverse economic system they were in.

As nations get richer, they eat more meat. Based on 2017 data, China consumed 60 kg of meat per person, Thailand 27 kg. The biggest meat eater, per capita, is none other than the US at 124 kg, more than in Europe at around 80kg. Thus, when China becomes as rich as the US and adopts a Westernised diet, it will become ecologically unsustainable. Of interest is India’s meat consumption of only 5kg due to the 40% of their 1.3 billion people being vegetarians.

Back to corn. Do you know 80% of the crops grown in northern Thailand are corn? And 90% of the corn goes to feed cows, pigs, and chickens? Thailand is the world’s top 10 chicken producers, with CP Group listed as the 6th largest broiler company in the world, killing 685 million chickens in 2019, and exporting 515,000 tons to the EU, China, and South East Asia in the first 7 months of 2020? When the Chinese or Singaporeans eat our Thai chicken, there is no label that says “This chicken is fed with corn grown in Chiang Mai, which uses slash-and-burn method causing asthma and lung cancer for the locals every year. Bon Appetite.”

There is a larger point here. An Asian diet is healthier than a Western fast-food meat-driven diet. A T-bone steak the size of my head isn’t eaten much here in Asia, fortunately. My expat friends living in Chiang Mai have lost weight from a local diet. I have stopped eating beef for 20 years. Whenever I walk past a beef noodle shophouse, I am put off by the strong odor of the meat. Worth mentioning also is my recent decision to have one vegan meal per day. There are plenty of vegetarian/vegan places in Thailand, most of which are delicious. Try the green curry mushroom.

Democracy doesn’t only happen every four years. It happens three times a day everyday with what we choose to eat.