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November 2006
The Rise of the Global Meat Industry

The Satya Interview with Danielle Nierenberg


Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute

Worldwide, meat production has increased more than fivefold since 1950, with rates of meat consumption rising fastest in the developing world where the average person consumes nearly 30 kilograms of meat per year. In industrial countries, meat consumption is still the highest—80 kilograms a year per person. Danielle Nierenberg, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute, has been studying these trends in global meat consumption. She has traveled to Asia, Africa and Latin America, and her findings have been published in Worldwatch Paper 171, “Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry,” and the Institute’s State of the World and Vital Signs reports. A long-time vegan, Danielle also promotes sustainable agriculture and works with a local farmers’ market in Washington, DC.

Danielle Nierenberg shared with Sangamithra Iyer some thoughts on the rise of factory farms globally, the outbreak of diseases like avian flu, and a growing interest in rethinking our food supply.

Can you give a snapshot of trends in global meat consumption over the last decade both in industrialized and developing countries?
The short answer is that it has exploded. The biggest startling figure is that since 1950, meat production has expanded fivefold. Human population has also grown, so there are more people to feed. Urbanization continues to grow, and by next year, for the first time in human history, more people will be living in cities than in rural areas. Because of urbanization and growing income, more people than ever before can afford meat products.

The U.S. and western Europe are the leaders in factory style production. But, as environmental regulations in some cases have strengthened, and as animal welfare has become more of a concern, I feel there is beginning to be a shift in awareness in how meat is produced and a growing trend toward more sustainable, humane production. In the developing world however, where meat production is growing faster than anywhere else, there is no such awareness. The Cargills, Smithfields and the other big players in meat production are taking advantage of this demand for meat and lack of awareness. They are starting to build their production and processing facilities, not only in Mexico, but also in Poland, India, Thailand, the Philippines and other places, and not get much public opposition.

That is interesting, because as you say here in the U.S., there is a growing movement for “humanely” raised animal products from small producers. In the developing world, much of the meat consumed was previously on a small-scale subsistence level. How do you reconcile the growth of factory farming in the developing world, and the slow food movement in industrialized countries happening at the same time?
It’s that classic divide between rich and poor. I want to make it clear: you are in NYC, I’m in Washington DC, so we have a very jaded view of food production. But in places like Missouri, Iowa, and other parts in the Midwest, just like in Jakarta and Manila and places in the developing world, factory farms are seen as this economic boon. They give people jobs and they bring employment to places where there hasn’t been much growth. I feel like the people who are interested in food in the U.S. and where it comes from are still a really select group of individuals, wealthy and well educated for the most part. The majority of Americans worry about where their next paycheck is coming from. They just don’t know or don’t have the opportunity or the luxury to know about these issues.

You mention these factory farms in the developing world are perceived as economic opportunities, but is that the reality?
No. It makes people serfs on either their own land or land that they don’t own, but have been using for decades. It is doing the same thing to farmers there that it’s done to farmers here. In the Delmarva Peninsula, where many of the chickens in the U.S. are produced, farmers don’t own the chickens, but get pennies on the dollar for raising them in huge factory farms on their land. The same example has been set in places like Thailand, where the head of the biggest chicken producer followed the example of Tyson and did the vertical integration that has made chicken so “successful” in the U.S. He owns all the feed and processing facilities and employs a bunch of contract farmers to raise those chickens for him. It ends up being good for the big players, and not for the small or medium size poultry producers, in any of these developing countries.

And it seems they are wiping those little people out.
Even though these small farms tend to be more efficient both economically and environmentally, they are still being displaced. The big chicken and pig companies are able to come in and monopolize the market. And when avian flu, swine flu or another disease hits, these big farms—who are often the source of these diseases—can recover way more quickly than small farms. This is the case particularly in Thailand. Since avian flu hit, they can clean out their facilities, import chicks and get into production the next day. It’s very hard for [small] farmers, and some of them are forced off their land and migrate to cities. It is just wiping out a whole generation of farmers and a whole way of life in many of these countries.

What are the factors that are moving these factory farms into the developing world? Who are the big players promoting this sort of meat production?
I’ve found the biggest players unfortunately are the agriculture departments in some of these countries. They—like our own USDA—are driven by industry interest. When I visited the Philippines a few years ago, I talked to agriculture officials within the government, who basically said to me ‘This is a great thing for our country, to have big farms.’ Whether they are animals or crops, they see it as a way to spur the economy, create more jobs, and do all these things. Some of the other players are big national or multinational businesses. It looks attractive.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has also been a disappointment. They have built a reputation on saying they encourage and help promote small farming in developing countries, and while they have done some great work, since avian flu has become such a huge problem in Asia, they are now reversing that policy. Not only have they recommended that farmers cull their chickens, but one of their recommendations to control avian flu is essentially reverting to factory style production, because they feel this is the best way to prevent avian flu from spreading. These are disappointments to me. The World Bank and FAO continue to say they are in support of small farmers and small-scale livestock production, but whether they are actually helping to promote that remains to be seen.

In your paper “Happier Meals,” it mentions that meat consumption in the developing world has doubled in the last 10 years. What can we do to stop the growth of meat consumption and factory farming worldwide?
[Well] factory farms here are also exporting their products elsewhere. Cargill has a lot of factory farms in northern Missouri, southern Iowa and all over the Midwest which are now exporting products to Asia. And because U.S. consumers really don’t like dark meat in chicken, a lot of the dark meat is often dumped in Asia, where it is more popular. When you dump any product in a country you can undersell the national producers. As they are driven out of business, factory farms can move in. Stopping it there means stopping it here too.

Here, when people talk about alternatives to factory farming, they talk about individual food choices and replacing their animal products with more “sustainable” ones. Can commercial meat (vs. subsistence) really be sustainable?
I’m a vegan, and I come from a rural town in Missouri. I grew up around livestock farmers, but became a vegetarian when I was 13. My educational background is in policy and agricultural development. From a purely agricultural level, mixed farming—livestock and crops—can be done sustainably. I work at a farmer’s market here in DC. My farmer friend sells grass-fed livestock, and whenever I go out to his farm, I can see them grazing very happily on the land. I know that he uses that manure to grow the fruits he brings to market. He makes a really good living, but that’s not his only job. Small farmers in the U.S. usually have to have additional sources of income, but sustainable livestock production can nourish the land, and you can raise animals humanely.

However in the U.S., we have what Michael Pollan calls our “national eating disorder.” We eat meat three times a day. It’s cheap. We go to fast food places. For people to get away from factory style production, we need to start on our own plates. We just can’t continue to think of meat as the basis of our meals. Meat in the Middle Ages through the 1800s was a condiment. It added flavor to meals, and it was considered a luxury. Now we take it for granted. That needs to change.

We are at this sort of defining moment, I feel like with Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan’s work, people are beginning to realize the cheapness of our food doesn’t come without a cost.

I think the critical message is to reduce consumption of animal products, and encourage small-scale production. But with the growing popularity and interest in humane and organic foods, there also seems to be large-scale implementation of these standards. Can you comment on this?
The organic standards took more than a decade to finally get into place, and there was a lot of jiggling and lobbying from both the organic producers and the meat and dairy industries. I think having standards was a good thing, and still think for the most part it is. But I know a lot of farmers have a lot of trouble adhering to them, not because they aren’t doing things the right way, but that the standards are sort of rigid, and not very flexible for small farmers in particular.

Folks like Horizon and Aurora have twisted and warped the organic standards to what are essentially organic factory farms that do not treat animals any better than the big dairy companies. I find that reprehensible. Horizon and Aurora have tricked consumers, yet they can still call themselves organic. As organic, humane, free-range and whatever other name you put on these products, become more popular, you are going to have companies that are going to be able to get around the standards. And they are going to make a lot of money off tricking people.

So how do we effect change?
We need to not just rethink meat production, but also rethink our entire relationship with our food supply. How can we treat our national eating disorder? I have nieces who are five and six years old who go to McDonald’s three times a week! As I get older and the more I read about these issues, I think educating kids about food choices is really important. Eric Schlosser’s new book Chew on This, directed toward pre-teens, is of vital importance. [We need to] make agriculture something that people can touch on a daily basis. The growing farmer’s market movement, the local food movement, those are all signs, but we need to scale them up massively.

What I don’t want to see is more diseases like avian flu or mad cow disease—a direct result of inefficient and unsustainable practices like factory farming. I don’t want bodies to have to fall for people to realize that our food system is so disordered.

It seems so obvious that all of this is wrong… Why aren’t small-scale and plant-based agriculture promoted more?
It’s a good question. The people who support that kind of agriculture don’t have a lot of money or a lot of lobbyists on Capitol Hill or the parliaments of other nations. There is also a psychological component about feeding people meat that makes people think that they are well fed. For so many reasons, meat equals wealth. The whole development community is based on increasing people’s livelihoods, and what does that mean? Making more money, becoming part of the middle class and eating “well,” which often means eating meat.

But it’s not natural. As rates of colon cancer, heart disease and obesity rise, [we realize] we’re not meant to eat that much meat.

There is a growing movement of animal activists working on welfare reform. Do you think that is curbing factory farming or is it sort of just modifying it?
Obviously we can’t change everything all at once. All of these small and big steps are a step in the right direction. I think about this a lot as I work on this issue and Worldwatch is thinking about putting a book out on factory farming in the next year and a half or so. What will I say in that book about the future of livestock production? As I try to look ahead, factory farms are probably here to stay. I think there is a way to make factory farms less destructive, more environmentally efficient, more humane, and make the people who work in them be less abused. It’s not the kind of agriculture I want to see, I don’t even consider it agriculture, but I still feel they are going to be around. At the same time, we can improve the economic environment for small farmers and encourage new farmers as well.

It seems there are a lot of different areas that activists can devote their energies to and part of the struggle is figuring out which is most effective. Is it vegan outreach, welfare reform, the small farmers movement or is it campaign finance reform?
It’s all those things. It’s hitting the current system at every level. It’s consumer awareness, asking your representatives to start looking at these issues. It’s voting with your fork in any and every way you can, from going to farmer’s markets to not going to McDonald’s. All those things are vital. That’s why we have so many nonprofits who can hopefully take a segment of this issue and do that. It’s also getting into the schools. Monsanto and other big companies like ADM can provide teaching materials and lesson plans in schools. Kids are preached this stuff from the time they are in elementary school. [We need to breed] the next [generation] of concerned people who will eat vegan and vegetarian diets.

To learn more and to purchase the report, “Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry,” visit