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The Meat Mob Muscles In
By: Merritt Clifton
From ANIMAL PEOPLE June 1997 edition
Reprinted by Permission - 24 April 2003
Other input is limited, for instance the amount of arable land. There may still be considerable room for both more efficiently farming the Russian steppes, and reclaiming desert as crop land. Otherwise, while the world has tripled output per cultivated acre since 1965, the amount of land under cultivation is still at 5.8 million square miles, just as it was then, as increases in some regions are offset by losses to drought, desertification, development, and warfare in others.
Multiplying the growth in meat consumption by the growth in human population has already brought unprecedentedly heavy demand on the global grain supply. As Brown noted, the world harvested more grain in 1996 than ever before, yet global grain reserves fell to 246 million tons, enough to feed everyone on earth for just 51 days.
This was the lowest per capita rate of grain saving on record. Even the Pharoahs of ancient Egypt stored more, proportionately, with domestication of the desert cat as their sole advance in biotechnology.
Indeed, the recent increase in U.S. meat consumption is already reflective of diminishing resources. For nearly two decades now, the U.S. trend has been away from consumption of ruminants, or grazing animals, toward more consumption of poultry and hogs, who require much less grain and energy investment per pound of meat. The longterm trend of declining U.S. per capita red meat consumption was reversed during the past two years. The University of Georgia Extension Service recently projected that U.S. per capita red meat consumption will rise to 217 pounds in 1997, a 2.5% increase over 1995. But this also results from diminishing resources, as rising grain prices occasioned by tightening supplies forced an unusually large number of beef and pork producers to liquidate, causing a temporary surge in meat availability that brought plunging red meat prices and a consequent demand surge.
By January 1997, even hay cost 50% more than a year earlier in drought-stricken Colorado and parts of Nebraska. National Cattlemen's Beef Association spokesperson Dan Kniffen acknowledged that the slaughter price of cattle was down as much as 75%. Beef demand is expected to subside as the slaughter glut diminishes, either because the grain supply recovers or ranchers run low on cattle to sell, enabling supermarket prices to float back toward their previous level.
Beside ecological and economic reality, exporting meat demand seems at best short-sighted. Backyard poultry and pork production enjoys some success in raising nutritional standards and generating income for women in parts of South Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which have no grain shortages and no commercial poultry or pork operations of significant scale. However, if demand for the output of the backyard producers becomes too strong, commercial growers will out compete them, not only for customers but even more importantly in bidding on grain. As the wealthier part of each society eats more meat, the poor will find it harder not only to buy the grain to feed livestock, but also--in time--to buy enough grain to feed themselves.
Seemingly altruistic Heifer Project International efforts to increase meat consumption in grain-starved North Korea could even be described as unintentionally wicked. The Heifer Project, supported chiefly by U.S. religious congregations, announced in February 1997 that it intends to send goats, chickens, and cattle to North Korea, because, as Heifer Project Asia/South Pacific director Robert Pelant explained, "Poultry feeds off bugs, and the goats and cattle are ruminants."
Supposedly, the poultry and ruminants will convert insects and grass, which humans find inedible, into meat, eggs, and milk. This begs the question of what will sustain the insects and grass. The first Heifer Project animals might forage enough insects and incidental grass and other browse to get by, but long before they breed up to sufficient numbers to significantly contribute to the North Korean diet, it will become necessary to supplement their foraged meals with regular grain rations, in a nation where the per capita food allowance through the winter of 1996-1997 was as little as 20% of the amount needed to maintain human body weight.
The catastrophic effect of encouraging hungry nations to develop meat production infrastructure they cannot afford was meanwhile horrendously evident in Romania. As elsewhere in eastern Europe, Romanians under Communism measured their poverty by meat scarcity. When Communism fell in late December 1989, the new Romanian government encouraged farmers to rapidly expand pig production by maintaining subsidies on feed grain. But Romanian government revenue was not sufficient to keep the subsidies indefinitely. On January 1, 1997, a new government dropped the grain subsidies, hoping Romanians would pay enough more for pork to sustain the industry. Instead, government advisor Adrian Ionescu acknowledged in late March, pork sales crashed. As many as 400,000 pigs were abandoned to starve. Even opening and nearly exhausting the Romanian state granary apparently couldn't prevent the manufactured disaster.
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