issue 184 - June 1988
Fast food, chop chop
Bite into a hamburger and you could be chomping
up half a ton of tropical rainforest. Peter Cox
reports on the price we pay for fast food.
San Bernadino, California, the year 1954. 'San Berdoo' is a rich boom-town of oddball bikers: the end of the road, transcontinental terminus for Route 66. No jobless, no homeless. In motor city everyone drives to the shopping mall or rides the gleaming freeway, never walks. This is the town that gave you Hell's Angels, high priests of the consumer society on wheels: the town that spawned hamburgers on an unsuspecting world - fast food for fast times!
Ray Kroc, 52, kitchen paraphernalia super-salesman from Chicago, wonders why Mac and Richard McDonald buy so much equipment from his company. Flies down to San Berdoo. Meets them. Cash tills ring. 'Visions of McDonalds restaurants dotting crossroads all over the country, paraded through my brain,' he reports. 'Padding a steady flow into my pockets.' The deal is struck. The hamburger's time has come. Today McDonalds take over $12 billion every year and over 95 per cent of Americans will eat at McDonalds during any year. Jobs too: McDonalds has employed at one time or another 20 per cent of the American working public.
Thirty years ago the citizens of Hamburg, West Germany, hadn't even heard of 'hamburgers'. Now the food religion that McDonalds did so much to popularize has spread throughout the world. And still more growth potential! Seventy per cent of all consumers live in poor countries. They can't afford a car or a colour TV, but enough of those people can be persuaded to find a few cents for a burger to make the potential market extremely juicy. In India '10 per cent of the population can consume on a level with most Americans and Western Europeans,' says management guru Peter Drucker. That's 70 million people - a bigger market than any country in Europe.
And selling to Third World countries is easy too. Target the impressionable kids, the aspiring young, anyone who's prepared to believe that all things fashionably Western must be good. In Hong Kong and Manila some primary schools even have contracts with hamburger chains who sell their products on school premises. Few countries can resist the onslaught. Morocco has banned a major hamburger chain from setting up shop; Indonesia has prohibited the television advertising of fast-food establishments. But most cultures succumb eventually. Powerful stuff, this advertising. Take the latest campaign in the US featuring TV star Cybill Shepherd, who purrs seductively:
'Sometimes I wonder if people have a primal, instinctive craving for hamburgers. Something hot and juicy and so utterly simple you can eat it with your hands. I mean, I know some people who don't eat burgers. But I'm not sure I trust them.'
Got the message? If you don't eat burgers, you ain't a trustworthy American. Other commercials contrast the macho, all-American image of burgers to 'that fancy food they eat in San Francisco'. So you're not just unpatriotic if you don't eat hamburgers - you're probably homosexual too. Macho advertising is one important ingredient in a hamburger. The other is a plentiful source of cheap raw materials.
Which is where trees come in.
The tree connection
In their quest for ever-cheaper meat supplies, the international beef industry is always looking for usable tracts of grazing land - anywhere in the world. As one rancher puts it 'It boils down to $95 per cow per year in Montana, $25 in Costa Rica'. So forests are felled, land is cleared, grass planted, cheap beef is produced and consumer demand is satisfied.
But recently, a few consumers have begun to wonder how much their hamburgers really cost. Not in dollars and cents but in terms of natural resources consumed or destroyed. Then someone did a simple but very shocking calculation. They reasoned that a hectare of rainforest - the sort of land regularly cleared for ranching in remote areas - supports about 800,000 kilograms of plants and animals. When the same hectare has been felled, torched, razed and seeded with grass for grazing, it will produce at most 200 kilograms of meat a year - enough flesh to make about 1,600 hamburgers. The pasture doesn't last long however, because the land is quickly leached of its nutrients and left barren by over-grazing. In a few years it becomes useless.
By then of course, more forest has been destroyed and converted to stop-gap pasture land. This makes the true cost of a hamburger something in the region of half a tonne of rainforest for each burger - or about nine square metres of irreplaceable natural wealth, forever destroyed for the price of a quick unhealthy snack.
Some burger companies - McDonalds for example - make it clear that they never have and never will use beef from Central or South American sources. McDonalds use US domestic beef from dedicated suppliers. Other companies like Burger King, who used to buy beef from Costa Rica, have recently changed their buying policy and now no longer accept beef from Central American sources. The fact remains however, that the West's apparently insatiable desire for cheap meat (whether for burgers, pet food or processed meat products), exerts enormous market pressures on beef producers to exploit the cheapest and most available land - which is often tropical forest.
To kill a forest
A forest must be ravaged three times before it dies, for the scrub and remaining undergrowth must be burned for three consecutive years before its life-force becomes spent and the jungle is rendered barren. Then you can plant grass to graze your cattle.
A forest may be destroyed in several different ways. First, roads must be driven deep into its being. Slashing, ramming, mutilating and violating. An image of rape? Certainly. Men have always had a violent relationship with Mother Nature. Then the timber companies can extract their prizes - mahogany, tropical cedar, whatever sells on the world market. Never doubt its profitability - mahogany trades for $20 per cubic metre in Brazil and $4,000 in London when made into furniture for affluent, but unthinking consumers.
It is wrong to call this type of operation forestry, for it is quite flagrantly the plundering of a priceless natural resource. Nigeria for example, lost four per cent of its forests in the first half of the 1980s, and the best trees have long since been turned into designer furniture or toilet seats for the trend setters. Nigeria now imports 100 times more wood than it exports.
Another irresistible force pitted against the survival of the last rainforests comes from settlers. They are the jobless, the landless, the displaced and the dispossessed - those who dream of escape from grinding poverty. Such as Luis Bernardi, who journeyed penniless from Sao Paulo on Highway BR-364, a dirt track leading to the heart of virgin forest in Brazil's Rondonia state. Fourteen years later, he now owns an eight-bedroom house and 740 acres of land.
As many as 60,000 people make the same journey each month, hoping for similar wealth. 'The Bold Ones March Westwards' say the government-sponsored TV commercials. Such people are unlikely to understand Western concerns about conservation when their own survival and future prosperity is at stake.
'We have the same right to destroy our wilderness as the Americans had in the Far West,' says Adeildo Martins de Lucena, a newspaper editor from the Brazilian border town of Vilhena. The settling of forest areas is frequently the result of impossible pressure for land resources elsewhere, caused by inequitable land distribution in Latin America where 7 percent of the landowners control 93 per cent of the arable land. Under such circumstances, colonization of wildernesses can relieve pressure for land reform and promote national unity.
Although the new settlers intend to stay and prosper, it doesn't often work out like that. Sometimes they get moved out or even killed by hired gunmen working for absentee landowners who are eager to annex small-holdings into a good-sized cattle ranch. (The average price for a settler's life is $25.) Other times, the land gives out after a few years of producing cash crops. The soil beneath the rainforest canopy is poor. Without protection, it erodes and within a few years is leached of nutrients. So the settlers move on, having cleared the rain-forest for the benefit of the incoming ranchers.
While meat production increases, local meat consumption decreases. Two-thirds of Central America's arable land is now used for beef rearing, whilst domestic per-capita consumption steadily drops. In 1959 Costa Ricans ate 30 pounds of beef per year. By 1979 beef production had doubled, but its inhabitants got less than 19 pounds per annum.
Ethiopia, recently the target of much Western media attention, has suffered a similar fate. From a forest area covering 16 per cent of the land in the 1950s, less than four per cent is now left. Multinationals which were welcomed with generous tax incentives proceeded to develop the best and most fertile areas, evicting the indigenous population, who then struggled to survive on fragile upland areas. The consequent tree felling, overgrazing and land degradation has exacerbated the country's problems. Nevertheless Ethiopia still exports beef to the West: one Italian multinational has been shipping Ethiopian beef to Europe for the past two years, although the country of origin is sometime obscured on labels. 'It has been rejected in some quarters,' the UK importers are quoted as saying, 'because the emotive value makes it too hot for the retailer to handle'.
Organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Fund, the African Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have all provided loans for livestock production and meat processing in developing countries. It is essential that pressure is brought to bear on these development organizations to curtail such catastrophic loan programmes.
Some organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund are doing just that, and having a degree of success. A newly formed group, Conservation International, pulled off a coup recently when it purchased $650,000 of Bolivian debt in exchange for a promise to set aside 3.7 million acres for conservation. And after much lobbying, US Treasury Secretary James Baker ordered his representative to the African Development Bank to oppose a loan for a cattle abattoir in Botswana. Such victories are comparatively small but important in as much as they show that something can be done - if we are prepared to try. In the end of course, it is Western consumers who by producing a demand for cheap beef make the whole process economically worthwhile.
In the words of James Nations and Daniel Komer, two staff members at the Texas-based Center for Human Ecology.
'Consumers must be made aware that when they bite into a fast-food hamburger or feed their dogs, they may also be consuming toucans, tapirs and tropical rainforests.'
Have a hamburger you say? You must be choking.
Peter Cox is author of 'Why You Don't Need Meat' and 'Active Ingredients'
(soon to be released). Both are published by Thorsons.