Europeans need to more aware of the little-known environmental and social cost of their high-meat diets, green campaigners said at the launch of their global ‘Meat Atlas’ report on Thursday (9 January).
The report, published by the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth Europe and German think tank Heinrich Böll Foundation, attempts to map the hidden costs behind people’s rampant consumption of meat across the globe.
Each European currently consumes about 925 calories worth of meat each day, the report says. The figure in the world’s least developed countries is just 178 calories of meat per person, raising the prospect of ever greater levels of meat production as those economies develop.
All that production comes at a cost, which is not necessarily reflected in the end-price of the product, the NGOs say. Members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a club of 34 of the world’s richest countries, spent $18 billion (€13 billion) on direct support of the beef and veal industry, $7.3 billion (€5.4 billion) on pigmeat and $6.5 billion (€4.7 billion) on poultry in 2012.
Most of this funding goes towards support of large-scale intensive farms, the report says, which are viewed as having an integral role to play in feeding rising populations.
But Magda Stoczkiewicz, the director of Friends of the Earth Europe, thinks that the many hidden costs associated with intensive agriculture mean that it has a shelf life. “The current industrialised and corporate-led system is doomed to fail. We need a radical overhaul of food and farming if we want to feed a growing world population without destroying the planet,” she says in the report.
To the campaigners, all the costs associated with meat production need to be taken into account, as EU policymakers look to shape meat production in the 28-country bloc, and when setting prices.
“The price tag on a package of meat does not reflect the true cost of producing the contents: the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer are much higher,” the report says. “If these costs are included, livestock raising would probably make a loss.”
“The European Union offers subsidies for fodder crops and supports up to 40 percent of the cost of investing in new animal housing”, the reports says.
Heavily industrialised meat production may also saddle taxpayers with other burdens. “They pay for the costs of transport infrastructure, such as ports needed to handle the feed trade. In many countries, meat is subject to a reduced level of value added tax,” the report says.
CAP boosts ‘greening’ but still protects larger farms
The European Commission has attempted to move towards more small-scale, “greener” livestock farming, directing more payments towards environmentally-friendly practices such as land set-asides and grazing in its reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, agreed at the end of last year.
To the ‘Atlas’ authors, the move does not go far enough. “First, the European Commission could stop spending money to support the construction of intensive fattening houses,” the report says.
“Instead it should support small and medium enterprises in difficult locations that keep their animals in pasture for much of the year.”
Meat producers have tended to complain more about declining production and policy support, required to sustain the economically “fragile” sector. “Considering the issue of the food security, the reform is a missed opportunity. The EU beef and sheep meat industry is facing a severe decline in production,” Jean-Luc Mériaux, secretary general of the The European Livestock And Meat Trading Union, told EURACTIV.
‘Our kind of lifestyles’
As agricultural companies attempt to drive prices down the price of meat production, the industry has continually looked for low-cost solutions, including ways to keep worker wages to a minimum. The authors say that these low wages across the production chain, particularly in abattoirs, can be considered a subsidy “because companies can pay so little only if the state does not impose a statutory minimum wage”.
Developing countries with little money to spend on livestock production fall back on cheap labour with “slave-like” conditions to keep the market happy.
“Few countries can subsidise in this way. Instead, they tend to support them through laws that permit the exploitation of people and the environment,” the report says.
While demand for meat has stagnated in Europe and the United States, it is on the rise in Asia, with an expected 80% increase by 2022.
“People in other countries want our kind of lifestyles [with high meat consumption],” said Adrian Bebb, senior food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, said at the report’s launch in Brussels yesterday (9 January). “But we’ve only got one planet.”
A reduction in meat consumption in the western world and a push for more sustainable livestock farming are part of the solution, the report’s authors said.
“While governments in the developed world have to radically change course and struggle against the power of the agricultural lobby, developing countries can avoid repeating the mistakes made elsewhere,” said Barbara Unmüßig, the president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
“If they know about the effects of intensive meat production, they can plan for a future-oriented form of production that is socially, ethically and environmentally responsible,” she said.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a system of EU agricultural subsidies and programmes, which according to the European Commission costs each EU citizen around 30 euro cents a day.
At around €53 billion a year, The CAP is the European Union’s most expensive programme, currently representing some 40% of the EU's long-term budget for 2007-2013. This, however, compares to nearly 71% in 1984. The figure is estimated to fall to some 36% in the post 2013-reform.
The majority (over 70%) of CAP spending goes to direct payments for farmers, while some 20% of the CAP budget is spent on rural development measures. The rest is handed out as export subsidies to food companies.
The Commission's CAP proposals also place a greater emphasis on environmental measures, with up to 30% of the funding granted to farmers who diversify production, rotate their land or maintain permanent pastures.
Challenges for agriculture in Europe include the need to double world food production by 2050 to cater for population growth and wealthier consumers eating more meat – in the face of climate change impacts (loss of biodiversity, deteriorating soil and water quality).