One of the most fascinating and affecting pieces of journalism I have ever read appeared in an edition of Rolling Stone magazine in early 2007. An investigation into pig farming, and more specifically the environmental impact of America’s top pork producer, Smithfield Foods, it spoke of how “500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more faecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan” and estimated that this one company alone produced more than 26m tonnes of waste annually. “A lot of pig shit is one thing,” the article’s author, Jeff Tietz, remarked. “A lot of highly toxic pig shit is another.”
It was Smithfield Foods I thought of this week, when I read of a report published in Environmental Research Letters, which advised that we reduce meat consumption by 50% over the next 40 years if we are to save ourselves from environmental catastrophe.
The author of the report, Eric Davidson of the Woods Hole Research Centre in Massachusetts, advised that with great urgency we must cut back on both portion size and the quantity of meat we eat in an effort to reduce the amount of fertiliser we currently use – particularly in the west, but also in developing nations, where increasing prosperity has also brought a rise in meat consumption.
All of this has repercussions – not only for our waistbands, or even the fact that producing clothes to fit those expanding waistbands requires the production of more fabric; and not even just for our own health, the strain on our hearts and lungs, the drain on our health services, the vast sums we spew on diet products and gym membership, the cost of building bigger aeroplane seats, cars and coffins to accommodate our growing bodies. No, our slavering greed, our lust for enormous portions, affects how much meat our farming industry is expected to produce – and not only produce, but produce quickly and cheaply; demands that increase the need for fertilisers, insecticides, antibiotics.
But if we have learned anything from the current economic crisis, it should surely be that we cannot expect to have jam today and jam tomorrow. In environmental terms, we have bought on credit, we have maxed out our cards and gone way, way over our overdrafts.
And maybe what will save us is a great scientific bailout: a grand solution of artificially created meat, or a new generation of fertilisers, or robot bees, or whatever. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time for us to exercise a little self-restraint.
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[click link above to carry on reading | words by Laura Barton]