Despite their discipline, all ecologists, biologists or resource economists can agree on one thing: we are in the Anthropocene. The advent of climate change fueled by the industrial revolution presents itself in several ways – and depending on where in the world we are, sometimes more than others. In the past fifty years alone, the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil has lost nearly a fifth of its forest cover. Bangladesh alone has seen close to a 100 natural disasters in the past decade alone as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions. As the generation with notable impact on the environment, and myriad options to choose our food, we are presented with an important predicament. Do some of our food choices harm the environment more than others? And what can we do about it?
Global meat consumption patterns
Consuming less meat has not yet killed anybody. After all, the consumption of meat is vastly subject to cultural influences. The global average of beef consumption is just 5.5kg, compared to a whopping 24 kg per capita in the US & a meagre 3.8kg in China. Ceteris paribus, this consumption is only going to increase, with an increase in disposable incomes, and popular food trends. Journalist, Michael Pollan, argues that a continuing disconnect with agriculture and farm life fuels this nonchalant continuance of the status quo.
FAO estimates that meat consumption in the industrialized world has risen from 61.5kg in the 1960’s to a whopping 95.7kg per capita in 2015, suggesting the increase in meat consumption as linked to wealth. And yet, India here presents an interesting alternative where beef consumption averages at about 0.5kg per capita, albeit due to a strong hold of religious conservatism.
Beef Production and the Amazon
Between 2005 and 2012, Brazil reduced forest clearance by 80 percent, mostly due to cattle-ranches and soy-bean farming on the cleared lands after. A damning report by Greenpeace (with a bloodstained cover page) called “Slaughtering of the Amazon” gave rise to an outcry against the meatpacking industry’s conduct. Four largest meatpackers then signed the Zero Deforestation Cattle Agreement preventing them from sourcing from non-compliant cattle ranchers. This matters greatly because the reduction in forest cover in the Amazon biome, a global public good through its role as a carbon sink and its role in determining climate, affects citizens across the Southern and Western hemispheres.
A trade agreement between the US & Brazil sought to expand trade between the two, and is expected to boost Brazil’s meat exports by $900 million to the US. But there is greater need for vetting ethically vs. non-ethically sourced cattle. Latin America’s third largest beef producer, JBS has been eagerly awaiting and preparing for the moment when the trade agreement kicks in. But while a larger meatpacker like JBS is subject to regular audits to ensure its ethical and fair sourcing, this agreement opens up the market to meatpackers who are not signatories to the cattle agreement, or not subject to regular audits. As an almost regular story of well-meaning top-down agreements, the reality of the bottom of the supply-chain remains murky.
Consumers’ role in determining the supply chain
There is an increasing awareness amongst European and American consumers on how meat is produced due to regular reports from civil society organizations and the changing consumption trends. Post Greenpeace’s report on the impact of soy-farming on deforestation in the Amazon, McDonald’s agreed to a soy moratorium, which put pressure on the middle-men and the traders (such as Cargill) to change the way they bought soy. In 2009, Timberland signed an agreement to not source leather from cattle-ranchers contributing to deforestation after the CEO received nearly 60,000 signatures from concerned consumers. If there ever was evidence required on how to put an end to unsustainable food supply chains, this is it. And if we did apply this to other industries, we are looking at a more just and equal world for everyone.
Consumers have more power than ever. In voting with our money, and putting our values first, we can actually determine the corporations’ attitudes on supply-chains and ethical sourcing. A concerted effort through our choices, and awareness can enable consumers to choose between ethically sourced beef, or dare I say, no beef at all.