The meat industry in the United States has significantly changed due to the rising demand. This industry provides essential nutrients to over 318 million Americans with an estimated meat production of more than 93 billion pounds having been consumed in 2012 (North American Meat Institute n.p). In addition to providing essential nutrients, the meat industry also feeds the economy where it employs more than 482,100 workers in the packaging and processing industries. According to Cole et al (162), the poultry and meat industry’s economic ripple effect produces over $864.2 billion every year to the US economy. However, the increased demand for meat has contributed to the devastating impacts of climatic change as well as ethical issues of animal treatment.
Raising animals for food plays a significant role in the production of greenhouse gases leading to climate change. Commercial farming practices that involve confining animals indoors at high stocking densities, selective breeding through the use of hormone drugs as well as poor handling of animals in transit and in slaughter houses impacts negatively on animal welfare (Gjerris et al. 332). The global meat consumption has been estimated to double by the year 2050 which will result into massive amounts of food, land, water, and energy required in raising animals (North American Meat Institute n.p). Additionally, this will contribute to immense animal suffering. Research studies attribute a global shift towards vegetarian diet as critical in combating the adverse effects of climatic change and ethical issues in animal treatment. On the other hand, feeding the world’s population as well as economic growth relies on increased and effective animal farming methods.
This paper argues that maximizing the co-benefits of sustainability and animal welfare while avoiding the negative tradeoffs will ensure that the meat industry meets the needs of the growing population as well as mitigate the impacts of climate change. This calls for effective meat production technologies and alternative strategies for animal welfare and climatic change solutions.
According to North American Meat Institute (n.p), meat and poultry industries in the US processed over 8.6 billion, 33.2 million, 239.4 million, 2.3 million, and 112 million of chicken, cattle, turkeys, sheep, and hogs respectively. The meat industry in the country has been experiencing drastic expansion that has resulted into consolidation. Shields and Geoffrey (370) notes that the industry is now dominated by few large corporations that are involved in the processing of over 80% of the country’s total demand.
A healthy diet that contains at least 5.7 ounces of meat everyday has always been recommended by nutritionists. Shields and Geoffrey (362) note that meat provides about 160-200 calories in addition to significant amounts of other nutrients such as proteins. Other minerals contained in meat such as zinc, selenium and iron are equally essential for overall general health and growth. With the world population estimated to exceed 9 billion by 2050, meeting the needs of this ever-growing population cannot be ignored. In a study by Chulayo and Muchenje (454), high economic growth rates especially in the developing countries has seen an upsurge in the consumption of meat. Economic growth enhances the consumption power of the citizens thereby increasing the consumption of foods that would often be regarded as luxuries. Chulayo and Muchenje alludes to this notion arguing that meat and other animal products are considered superior and nutritious and act as a symbol of social status and wealth (456).
In the quest to meet this increased demand, advancement in technology has also been adopted in meat production. Gjerris et al. (335) notes that industrialization in agriculture has taken root since the World War II out of the concerns to ensure food security. More importantly automated technologies in the production of abundant and cheap food has changed the way animals are reared and processed. Shields and Geoffrey (366) posit that the country has inherited a system of agriculture that only focuses on meeting the narrow human centric goals of food production. The gains from the scientific revolution in animal agriculture have also been tremendous occasioned by the economic ripple effect. However, the intensity to produce more and cheaper food has led to deleterious and unsustainable environmental and animal welfare issues.
Animal Welfare Dilemma
The extent to which animals end up suffering due to modern farming practices presents an ethical dilemma for the consumers and the producers alike. The public concern for the animal welfare has been on the rise in the past two decades prompting animal protection registrations across different countries. According to Cole et al (362), animal welfare has primarily been understood in terms of productivity and health. However, scientific revolutions within animal farming have led to the exposure on animal feelings and mental states. This has been occasioned by the need for cheap ways of meat production that have led to animal confinement both at the farms and in the slaughterhouses.
Gjerris et al. (336), defines animal welfare as the ability of the animal to cope with different environmental conditions that contribute to its wellbeing thorough means such as diseases control and humane slaughter. Animals go through daily and other one-off routine management procedures at the farms such as physical health examinations, weighing, castrating, dehorning, and vaccinations. While these practices may contribute to the wellbeing of the animals, in other cases they may be a source of stress and pain.
The aspect of animal ethics tend to be overshadowed by the need for food security. The society is more concerned with the means of increasing output as arable land and worsening climatic conditions continue to be experienced. This has therefore led to little attention on how the food consumed is produced. The welfare of the billions of animals reared for food thus rests in jeopardy if measures are not adopted to strike a balance between ethics and meat production (Shields & Geoffrey 364).
In the US, the business mentality in meat production has been discouraged by animal rights activists noting of the need for optimal housing conditions, optimal feeds, as well as adequate levels of veterinary services. Gjerris et al. (337), argues that whereas biotechnological breeding and intensive high tech production systems can help solve ethical and food production dilemmas, the industry should also focus on the ethical aspect where animals are more than resources for use.
Chulayo and Muchenje (456), examines the animal welfare during transportation and enclosure in the abattoirs noting that the increased demand for meat has put pressure on the available transportation methods as well as slaughter houses. The animals are thus put through considerable stress, spread of diseases, noise, vibrations, prolonged standing as well as feed deprivation which not only impact negatively on their welfare but also on the quality of meat. Long hours of transportation for instance cause changes in animal behavior as well as their immune and circulatory systems. On the other hand, hot exposure to hot weather coupled with less air circulation during transportation leads to an increase in the animals’ respiratory rate. Metabolic heat and the heat from the environment are major causes of heat stress in animals and are noted to be an indicator of poor animal welfare.
Whereas debate ranges on whether animals are sentient, Shields and Geoffrey (365), argue that current research studies have led to a widespread recognition of the animal’s possession of consciousness to the extent that human beings are. Farmers and meat processors thus need to be aware of the animal welfare in order to achieve economic results on one hand and satisfying ethical and moral considerations on the other.
Climate change has become a critical environmental issue in the modern era. In particular, the widespread destructive effects occasioned by human activities have led to the threatening of the ecological systems, species survival, and people’s livelihoods (Cole et al. 162). In particular, animal agriculture has been one of the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the meat industry has increased the use of water in growing crops for feeding the animals, drinking, and cleaning farm and factory farms.
Shields and Geoffrey (380) argue that the animals raised for food in the US creates more excrement as compared to the entire human population in the country. With the country having less animal sewage processing plants, such animal waste ends up in waste lagoons, rivers, and lakes. Runoff of animal waste into the water bodies on the other hand leads to the spread of viruses and bacteria’s. The increased demand of meat products has also seen more land space being utilized to grow crops for the animal feeds. According to Cole et al. (162), the production of one pound of meat consumes more than 10 pounds of grains which has dexterous impact on the ecosystem.
Livestock farming contribute both directly and indirectly to climate change. For example, manures and enteric fermentation are associated with direct emissions, while on the other hand transportation of animals, feeds and well as their productions through the use of fossil fuels contribute to indirect greenhouse gases emissions. According to Cole et al. (163), approximately 56 billion animals are slaughtered every year. With the prospects of meat production expected to increase, the effects of GHG not only affect animal agriculture but also on people’s livelihoods. Cole et al (163) therefore note that measures to maintain a reliable source of food obtained from animals and a reduction in the GHG emissions should therefore be emphasized.
A balanced perspective on Meat production, Climate Change and Animal Welfare
Ensuring food security, reducing the impacts of climatic change, and achieving animal welfare are critical and interrelated facets whose balance will reduce human-animal impacts as well as increase sustainability. To begin with, intensification of food production has been regarded as an effective method of meeting the demands for the growing population. Gjerris et al. (340) notes that advancement in technology that leads to a higher output of food per unit can help meet both food security and environmental demands.
A simple way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires a reconsideration of the animal species being farmed. For example, a reduction of ruminants which contribute to high emissions of methane and an increase in the production of broilers, fish as well as other aquaculture products will be effective in curbing the impacts of climatic changes and food insecurity. More importantly, the country ought to result into organic farming that will lead to a reduction of dairy and meat products. Organic farming has been noted to have a higher resilience to changes in environmental factors and thus becomes more sustainable in the long run. However, with an increasing world population, organic farming methods lead to lower output as compared to conventional farming methods.
Each farming method on the other hand differs in the way animal welfare is handled. Intensification of meat production is likely to inhibit on the animal welfare as farmers and producers seek to maximize output as well as reduce costs of production. Shields and Geoffrey (380) note that from a utilitarian perspective the impact of increased food output and environmental conservation should be weighed against the effects of animal welfare. In this case, utilitarian’s argue that at a time of acute food security, the human needs ought to trump those of animals with regards to freedom of movement and enclosures sizes.
Whereas the issue of climate change, food production, and animal welfare creates a critical problem for all stakeholders, a most promising way of striking a balance will involve the improvement of efficiency and productivity of livestock production. More importantly, the meat industry should embark on ways to provide better nutrition and genetics that will lead to greater portions of energy in farm animals being directed into creation of useful products such as meat and milk. This will on the on the other hand translate to reduced methane gas emissions per unit of output.
Production efficiency due to high performing animals will also lead to a reduction in the size of animals required to produce a particular level of output. Lesser animals are thus easier to manage and cater for, due to the less constrain on the available space in the farms, transit, and at the abattoirs. More importantly, substantial emissions reductions within the industry will be achieved by adapting the current systems rather than a complete shift in the industrialized systems.
Reducing the consumption of meat products on the other hand can contribute to a balance between animal welfare, food production, and climate change. This thus call for a change in the people’s attitudes towards animal products and an increase in non-meat products. Cole et al. (367) notes that individuals can help reduce the impacts of GHG emissions by advocating for food that is organically grown. Developing a culture of lower meat consumption will thus help conserve land use, water, and pollution as well as ensure better animal protection.
The meat industry plays a vital role in meeting the growing food demand in the country and the world at large. The rising demand has therefore led to increased intensification of animal agriculture that seeks to maximize output per unit at the expense of animal welfare. Additionally, meat production leads to adverse climate changes due to direct and indirect GHG emissions. Maximizing the co-benefits of sustainability and animal welfare while at the same time reducing the negative tradeoff of climate change creates a dilemma on the best strategy in meeting all the stakeholders’ needs. Striking a balance between these conflicting issues can however be achieved by having effective meat production technologies that not only lower greenhouse gas emissions but also contribute to animal welfare. More importantly, a change in the people’s attitudes in substituting meat products for other foods can help strike a sustainable balance.
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