In order to demand changes to food industries that abuse and exploit workers, the environment, and our health, consumers must make conscious and informed purchasing decisions.
The public has become increasingly aware of abuses committed by corporations in the name of profit, ranging from irreparable environmental damage to the hidden practice of modern slavery in the production line. Alongside crackdowns on sweatshops and child labor for high street brands and increasing awareness of the consequences of e-waste and Western society’s disposable lifestyle, the food industry has also come under greater scrutiny.
This year, Al Jazeera investigated the use of slave labor in Thai commercial fishing operations, with international players like Nestlé implicated1. Agribusiness’ use of genetically modified organisms as well as the health issues associated with the sugar industry and fast food giants, have also been exposed in recent years to a critical consumer eye.
The meat industry has gained media attention particularly due to the popularity of the documentary “Cowspiracy”, which focuses on the environmental impact of meat and dairy.
A problematic food system
According to Berlin’s Foundation on Future Farming (Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft), due to growing global meat consumption, the meat industry has quadrupled in the past fifty years2. More consumption means more animals, which means more feed and more land to grow the feed and farm the animals. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Germany has reported that Germany’s meat heavy-diet alone accounts for “a virtual land grab of 7 million hectares”, 4.4 million of which are in South America3.
Oftentimes land is forcefully and violently stolen from local farms in the global South to accommodate mega meat business, a practice known as “meat grabbing.” A 2014 report identifies the soybean crop as “the culture that generates conflict” in Brazil, with “big farmers and ‘grilieros’ (traditional land grabbers) involving cases of threats and killings4.” It is well-known that more than 85 percent of the world’s soybean crop is used to feed livestock for the meat industry5.
Once land has been grabbed and successfully converted for use, the industry continues its malpractice by using huge amounts of freshwater, polluting water and air, and contributing massively to climate change. The methane gas produced by the billions of cows farmed each year for beef and dairy have the largest single impact on climate change. Estimates of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock vary from 14.5 to 51 percent6.
Meat industry enfostering global food shortages
The meat industry’s overuse and misuse of land directly contributes to global food shortages. In food production, one hectare of land can be used to feed two meat eaters or 40 vegans. Despite the amount of food produced tripling since 1945, there are still 840 million people in the world who do not have enough to eat7.
Factory farms have created real health risks both for the animals being farmed and for the humans consuming their meat. Overcrowded pens, animal stress, unsanitary living conditions, and the overuse of antibiotics has worsened diseases caused by E. coli, Salmonella, and MRSA, leading to hundreds of human deaths per year8.
Estimates indicate that 65 billion animals are subjected to horrible living conditions from birth to slaughter each year6. Many factory-farmed animals undergo painful surgical procedures without anaesthesia, and most never experience natural sunlight nor earth under their feet.
There is a straightforward solution which allows the public to reject industry practices and their consequences: conscious consumption.
We have the potential to demand changes through choosing a conscious dietary lifestyle which rejects the abuses of the meat industry. The seemingly mundane choices we make at the grocery store are actually the ones where our voices are heard. As consumers, our strongest power is our buying power.
Consumption for the collective good
When we consider purchasing a product, we must not think only of ourselves and how we desire it, but we should think instead of the collective effort that was put into the product – the people, animals, and other natural resources used – and the collective cost of the product, that is the environmental, social, and health costs. Is the product doing less or more collective harm or good than an alternative? Has this product been manufactured in a way that responsibly considers the resources and the people involved in its production?
We have already seen positive change through collective consumer power in the cosmetic industry. As information is made available about the harmful toxic qualities of chemicals used in the industry, there is a growing group of conscious consumers who prefer to stay away from these products. In only five years between 2005 and 2010, the U.S. market for chemical-free cosmetic products rose a massive 61 percent9.
The co-founder of the online conscious-consumption guide One Green Planet, Nil Zacharias, recently published an article which identifies “a new food movement” underway that has the potential to undermine the meat industry: innovative businesses working to create the perfect plant-based alternatives to meat10. While innovative products are essential, what is even more key is collective consumer support: a majority of consumers willing to choose the new product instead of factory-farmed meat, thus transforming the new one from an “alternative” into the norm.
1. Al Jazeera (2016) Seafood Slaves. http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/faultlines/2016/03/seafood-slaves-160308070134432.html
2. Foundation for Future Farming (date unknown) Global Agriculture. Meat and Animal Feed. http://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/meat-and-animal-feed.html
3. von Witzke, H. et al (2011) World Wildlife Fund Germany Report. Meat Eats Land. http://www.wwf.de/fileadmin/fm-wwf/Publikationen-PDF/Meat_eats_land.pdf
4. Martinez-Alier, J. et al (2014) Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade Report Number 10. The Many Faces of Land Grabbing: Cases from Africa and Latin America. http://www.ejolt.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/140305_EJOLT10.pdf
5. Flinn, A. (2011) As We Soy, So Shall We Reap. Gentle World: For the Vegan in Everyone. http://gentleworld.org/as-we-soy-so-shall-we-reap/
6. One Green Planet (date unknown) Join One Green Planet’s Eat For the Planet Movement! http://onegreenplanet.org/eatfortheplanet
7. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2014) Healthy and sustainable food systems are crucial to fight hunger and malnutrition. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/212554/icode/
8. Nickelsburg, M. (2013) The Week. 5 modern diseases grown by factory farming. http://theweek.com/articles/457135/5-modern-diseases-grown-by-factory-farming
9. Ginty, M. (2013) Women’s E News. Toxin-Free Cosmetics Expand Market-Share. http://womensenews.org/2013/02/toxin-free-cosmetics-expand-market-share/
10. Zacharias, N. (2016) One Green Planet. The Future of the Meat Industry Will Not Be Powered By Animals…Here’s Why. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/the-future-of-the-meat-industry-will-not-be-powered-by-animals