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new internationalist
issue 215 - January 1991

On the meat-hook
Meat is food. So why does meat production create yet
more hunger in the Third World? Mark Gold explains.

Ethiopia, 1984. It was the height of the famine, the daily death toll was running into thousands. Meanwhile, shiploads of food crops were being transported from the beleaguered African country to Europe.

No, this is not a typographical error - just an account of what happened. In that year the UK alone imported more than $2.7 million worth of linseed cake, cotton-seed cake and rape-seed meal from Ethiopia to be eaten by animals in our factory farms.1

There is nothing unusual about this. Today some of the poorest and hungriest countries in the world, including Sudan, Bangladesh and Tanzania, are fuelling Western meat-eating habits. An estimated 14.6 million hectares of Third World land (an area the size of the UK, France, Aotearoa (NZ) and Italy combined) is being devoted solely to the production of animal feeds for European livestock.2

True, many animal feed crops cannot be directly eaten by humans. But as with most cash crops they are grown on some of the best Third World land - land that could have been used for growing food for the hungry local population.

True, the selling of any cash crop brings export income to impoverished countries. But the real cost is more hunger for the poorest - and long-term environmental degradation.

For example, Sudan is currently facing a famine. But it exports huge quantities of groundnuts to European factory-farming interests. The UK alone bought 1.8 million kilos in 1989. Any form of mono-culture damages the soil - but groundnuts are particularly damaging. Just two years intensive production can rob fragile sub-Saharan soils of 30 per cent of their organic matter.3

It is not as if the rich world did not grow its own animal feed. It does - lots of it. In the UK, for example, an estimated 72 per cent of land is devoted to providing cheap protein to fuel our factory farms.

But it is still not enough. The reason is simple. Making meat is a fabulously inefficient method of producing protein. Most of the protein and energy value of the crops fed to animals is wasted in their digestion, cell replacement and other functions. It is estimated that a plot of land that could feed approximately ten people on a vegetarian diet could feed only one person if the land is used to grow food for animals.

So the people who need food most are using their land in the most wasteful way possible to feed the meat-eating habits of those who have quite enough food already.

The absurdity continues. Western factory farming interests such as Ross Breeders (UK) or Arbor Acres (US) are now pushing hard to encourage intensive poultry production all across Africa and Asia.

They would argue that they are helping to provide cheap meat in the Third World. In reality they are adding to the hunger. First, the grain has to be found to feed the animals. Second, people who cannot afford grain to feed themselves are hardly going to be able to afford the comparative luxury of chicken meat. Whilst meat becomes available for a wealthy minority in the Third World, the poorest will be left to compete with chickens for grain.

Equally hard to defend is the logic of replacing human labour by capital intensive machinery in countries where labour is plentiful and cheap - and machinery has to be imported.

But this is the crux of the matter. Western agri-business wants to make sure that the Third World gets hooked on factory farming - and therefore hooked on products which only the West can supply. These products may range from special feeds and pharmaceuticals, through technology for battery systems and meat-processing plants, to genetically-bred animals themselves.

Let them eat chicken
A glance though the pages of the journal Poultry World serves to illustrate the point. In a feature on the 'great scope for growth in Africa' the praises of chicken as 'a relatively cheap way' of providing protein are sung. The article goes on to inform us that African countries are 'totally dependent for commercial table birds and egg production on directly imported stock', that the 'feed industry is dominated by two or three large commercial feed compounders ... based in Europe and America who own franchised producers'. And, to cap it all, the African industry 'is dependent on the importation of a large group of pharmaceuticals' .4

It gets worse. A spokesperson bemoaning the lack of adequate sources of chicken feed in Africa, declares that 'East and West Africa have abundant fish generally used for human consumption but quite easily diverted to animal feed use'. Sounds pretty much like starving the people to feed the chickens.5

But none of this has halted the rush towards intensive poultry production in African and Asian nations. Once again the situation in Ethiopia highlights the pervasiveness of the chicken myth - and the hopelessness of it all. Government officials have announced plans to extend the broiler chicken industry by building large-scale battery-hen units for two million birds in both Asmara and Eritrea. A spokesperson claims that the purpose behind the expansion is 'to provide minimum requirements of protein for the people'. The spokesperson goes on to say that the 'ultimate objective is to develop the production of corn and soya to feed the chickens'.5

This is not ideal, when you consider the exceptionally high mortality rate that occurs when developing countries undertake factory-farming systems. In Ethiopia 30 per cent of birds fattened die before they reach the slaughterhouse and are therefore inedible; that is five times as many as in Western countries where the system was devised.5 There are several reasons for this: factory-farmed animals are kept in such close confinement and such unhygienic conditions that disease is rife. But preventative drugs are expensive, and high temperatures make disease spread all the more quickly.

How much more sensible it would be to make use of the full potential of Soya as a source of human food rather than chicken feed! With simple technology, Soya can be processed into a whole range of nutritious foods such as milks, textured vegetable protein and traditional Far Eastern staples like tofu. Approximately 20 times as much protein would be available - and of course it would cost less.

Traditionally poorer nations have relied almost exclusively upon vegetarian food because they could not afford to throw away valuable grains on fattening farm animals. It is dishes based upon rice and lentils in India and beans and vegetables in Africa which have largely maintained Third World cultures for centuries. It must surely make sense then for agricultural development to be based on improving the food-producing potential of these and other sources of vegetable protein.

But fashion - and multinational interests - are not in favour of sense. According to the journal Nutrition and Health in Africa 'the bean is coming to be despised in the fashion for meat'.5 In India meat is now perceived as a 'virile' food and is being eaten to a greater degree by Hindus who used to favour a more vegetarian diet.

Meat mode
If this fashion becomes a permanent and escalating trend, the results will be frightening to say the least. Not only will it result in the waste of valuable food resources and the adoption of the squalor and inhumanity of factory farming throughout the world. It will also lead to the spread of diet-related diseases of affluence which have created so much ill health in industrialized nations. In the words of Professor Philip James of the UK Rowett Research Institute: 'We are already storing up a time bomb in Africa. Cases of high blood pressure in West and South Africa are now increasing at a terrifying rate. If we go on like this, by the year 2000 it will be the largest single budgeting drain on their health sector and in the West we are largely to blame, by sending the wrong kind of food aid and exporting totally inappropriate forms of agriculture.7

We can hardly blame governments in hungry nations for wishing to imitate the methods of production which have made possible supermarkets packed with what seems like an endless choice of different foods in the West. But the economic odds are clearly stacked against poor countries.

It is simple to overlook the waste, cruelty and long-term damage behind the frozen chicken, the packet of bacon. We have done it for a long time now in the West. That is why it is vital that we learn from our mistakes and begin to set an example worthy of imitation.

Responsible and sustainable land use, compassionate treatment of other living creatures and the promotion of nutritious and healthy diets must all take priority over greed and profit if we are to make any lasting impression on the horrifying problem of world hunger.

Mark Gold is the director of Animal Aid and author of Living Without Cruelty (Greenprint, 1988).

1 HM Customs and Excise Statistical Department.
2 Common Ground, A. Mayes, Oxfam (1985).
3 World Hunger: 12 Myths, F M Lappé and J Collins, Earthscan (1988).
4 World Poultry (Feb 1989)
5 Ibid (April 1985)
6 C Aubert Nutrition and health 2 (1983).
7 J Richards, The Guardian (Nov21 1986).

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