From the 1970s to today, livestock producers and packers consolidated into a few corporations, and those companies both helped create and profited from dramatic changes in diets across the globe. At the same time, the public and regulators started to impose environmental restrictions on livestock production.
“The march of the meat-eating Chinese” was the phrase coined by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist, to describe changes in global dietary preferences. All across the globe, Krugman noted, there was a “growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners.” That fact profoundly changed the livestock market and drove the cost of food higher. In 2008, that trend resulted in food riots.
In 1961, the world’s total meat supply amounted to 71 million tons. By 2007, it was 284 million tons, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. There are now many more people in the world, and that accounts for some of the increase in demand for meat. But each person is eating much more meat then they did before – per capita consumption of meat doubled worldwide from 1961 to 2007. The increases in the developing world were even more dramatic, doubling in the last 20 years alone.
To meet that demand (no pun intended), the world’s top livestock producers consolidated into a few, huge multinational corporations. A Brazilian company, JBS S.A., bought out the venerable American packer Swift & Co. in 2007. By then, Tyson Foods had bought out IBP to become the largest meat producer. The huge grain conglomerate Cargill owned Excel Corporation and expanded into Canada, becoming the second largest producer. Swift was third, and National Beef Packing was the smallest of the Big Four.
Boxed beef is now shipped frozen all over the world, often from packinghouses in Nebraska and the Midwest where the huge livestock feeding operations and packers are concentrated.
This demand for more and better beef, pork, chicken and other meats has meant that more and more animals are fed grain in tighter and tighter quarters. Already, the United Nations FAO estimates that 30 percent of the ice-free land in the world is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production. It would be much more if the animals were allowed to graze freely. Instead, half of the pork produced in the U.S. and three-quarters of the chickens are raised in enclosed, pre-fabricated, confinement buildings. The animals may never see the Sun until they’re loaded onto semi-trailer trucks for transport to the nearby slaughterhouse. Cattle are larger animals, so confinement buildings don’t work as well. But massive feedlots have the same effect.
The environmental impact of a concentrated confinement feeding operation is pretty easy to see as thousands of animals in one building produce tons of manure. In Iowa alone, hog factories and farms produce more than 50 million tons of excrement annually.
As urine and manure collect in “capture lagoons,” two powerful greenhouse gases – methane and nitrous oxide – are released. Cattle also belch and fart (to put it indelicately), and those gases contain methane as well.
Scientists have suggested that the trillions of farm animals around the world generate 18 percent of the greenhouse emissions that are warming the globe, according to the United Nations. That is even more greenhouse gas than produced from all the world’s cars, buses and airplanes.
Scientists are also concerned that confining thousands of animals into tight spaces makes epidemics of diseases like mad cow disease or pseudorabies much more likely. To prevent the outbreak of these diseases, farmers are routinely using antibiotics, even on healthy animals. Some scientists are concerned that we may be producing new strains of bacteria that are resistant to any of today’s antibiotics.
When the production of the grain (that is used to feed livestock) is factored into the equation, contamination from overused fertilizers and pesticides add to the pollution.
To reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by livestock, research projects are looking at ways to capture the methane from manure and burn it to produce electricity. Other research projects are searching for new feed sources that will produce less gas in the stomachs of cows.
Other critics are concerned with the impact that the livestock industry has on its workers’ health and safety, and on the impact to the communities where packing plants are located. In the late 2000s, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency raided several Midwest packing plants, found and deported illegal immigrant laborers. Those raids, in some cases, broke up families, disrupted production lines and disturbed communities.
Ultimately, the only way to reduce the environmental impacts of livestock may be to change our diets again, reducing the amount of meat we eat and replacing it with grains, vegetables and other sources of protein.
In the meantime, the industry continues to innovate. The 21st century livestock industry involves computer technology in management and marketing and increased trading opportunities in animal futures. Country auctions for small operators, video sales, new breeds, specialty breed shows, and the use of private airplanes to locate animals all had a place in this evolving industry.