Paying a Hefty Price for Meat

By Humza Irfan

Our carnivorous desires are harming the environment. And the problem is worse than we think. Excess consumption of meat and allied products is linked to global warming, food deprivation, water contamination, shortage of grazing land and a host of other problems which are putting our environment on its knees.

Nature has pulled out the white flag but the onslaught continues. The damage to human health is another major concern that warrants our attention. Statistics by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that one in every four Pakistani is either obese or overweight. The wolfish consumption of meat is linked to a rise in cardiovascular diseases and is also associated with a number of cancers.

But the real elephant in the room is the persistent harm to the environment that is now raging unabated. Meat was once a luxury product but rising incomes and better farming practices have led to its adoption as a mainstream food item.

Pulses – which include daal, chickpeas, among others – have traditionally been considered as a staple source of protein. Because of a minimal price difference, more people have now begun substituting chicken for pulses. Chicken offers higher protein content and greater number of calories.

According to research by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the consumption of pulses declined by 53% from 1961 to 2013 while witnessing an increased preference for animal protein. The per capita meat consumption in 2013 reached 32 kg and is expected to reach nearly 50 kg by the year 2020.

After chicken, beef is now the second preferred item on the menu. Consumption habits are also influenced by religious beliefs. During the Islamic holiday of Eid-ul-Adha, 10 million animals are slaughtered in a span of just two days. Disposing of leftovers from carcasses poses a huge challenge. Often people are unaware of how to dispose of the remains.

One cannot deny that the livestock industry is the backbone of Pakistan’s agricultural economy and occupies a large chunk of total agricultural output. The nation is often credited as the third-largest milk producing country in the world. The total livestock population as of 2011 is estimated to be 164 million out of which nearly 27% are cattle.

More demand for beef and chicken means that the livestock business is becoming more lucrative and there is potential for huge growth. But unchecked growth is an environmental disaster. Each animal is like a mini-factory. Animals require resources to function and grow. They need nourishment to give certain outputs such as meat and milk.

Each mini-factory – and there are 164 million of them – also produces chemical waste and carbon emissions. The mismanagement of manure poses a considerable threat to our rivers. Microbes entering water lead to depleting oxygen levels which harm the entire ecosystem. Dangerous pathogens sometimes find refuge on our plates and in our guts contributing to health problems especially in rural areas where people live off from these rivers.

Livestock farming is also a major culprit in contributing to greenhouse gases. As much as 18% of all such emissions are tied to animal farming. These include direct biological emissions. When animals feed on plants they belch out methane which is a 25 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

A host of other pollutants are emitted as a result of farming. These include carbon emissions associated with tractors and other vehicles. As farms become increasingly mechanized and urban population becomes more dispersed, the amount of carbon emissions is expected to considerably increase.

On land, there are many ways in which animals damage the soil. Grazing disturbs soil composition. Excess grazing leads to desertification because the soil lacks vegetation and is easily eroded by wind and water. Farmers relying on grass-feeding are often forced to move their animals to richer pastures and thus the unabated damage to soil continues. When swarms of grazing animals move on foot, they also compress the soil, damage plants, and destroy young trees.

Like any factory, every farmer needs to be concerned about the efficiency of their production line. Farming of animals for meat is considered as one of the least efficient ways of feeding the population. For example, to produce one kilogram of beef one must invest 25 kilograms of grain. In monetary terms the difference is alarming. The meat will cost you around Rs. 500 and 25 kilograms of maize will be around Rs. 1,000.

The grain used for feeding one animal over its lifetime can provide sustenance to several families for many years. Grain has many advantages over meat. It is easy to store and distribute. It does not require refrigeration. As more people switch towards meat, the demand for grain will grow exponentially. Higher demand for grain by the livestock industry will drive up its price. In poverty-stricken areas, this can lead to severe food shortages and starvation.

Technology is on its way to help reduce our reliance on the livestock industry. Research is being done on growing meat in a laboratory. In 2013 the first burger with a synthetic patty was served. It took several years of research to create the meat and several more for harvesting it in the lab. It was impractical to serve it to the mass market as the meat was worth a fortune. But it did not discourage researchers and investors from pouring in more money in a bid to save ourselves from the devastating effects of the livestock economy.

Artificial meat is created by taking stem cells from live animals and leaving it to divide in a controlled environment. These cells eventually form muscle tissue. Researchers have already succeeded in accelerating lab-grown tissue. It now takes nine weeks to create enough meat to fill a standard-sized burger bun. We can now create all kinds of meat which can include chicken, fish, beef, and goat meat. But the biggest question for Muslims will always be “Is it Halal?”.

We have plenty of time to wait for an answer. The lab-grown meat is not coming to your market any time soon. In the meantime, we should all curtail our consumption of meat. Our consumption habits alone can give some relief to the environment.

The opinions in this article are of the writer and do not represent the views of The Weekly Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at humzairfan@gmail.com

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