The recent declarations of the Minister of Consumption have opened a debate on meat that is very pertinent in the framework of the ecological transition that we are obliged to undergo. It is true that, as is usual in this country, the discussion has derived from the beginning in some defensive over-acting that has gone from the visceral to the inane without handling too many arguments. But precisely for this reason, it may be of interest to track meat consumption and its problems.
Although surely the human being was already a carnivore at the origin of the species itself, the incorporation of meat into the diet as a common element that all members of a society can have, even several times a day, is very recent. For many centuries, meat was for most people a scarce food that was consumed rather sporadically and in small quantities. Precisely because of this scarcity, the great celebrations were traditionally associated with the consumption of meat as a special delicacy that marked special moments.
Nutritional studies with a historical perspective tell us that meat consumption in the rich world has been growing slowly and very irregularly from about the end of the 19th century, and it took a spectacular turn around the 1950s. In the Spanish case, following the data provided by the FAO food balances (FAOSTAT), we see that the total food supply of meat per inhabitant has gone from about 20 kilos a year in 1961 to more than 100 kilos recently. Thus, meat has ceased to be a party to become a routine, and one might wonder if it has not ended up becoming a real excess.
The first cause that explains the explosion of meat consumption has to do with the evolution of per capita income. Historically, it is proven that the increase in per capita income in any country has been accompanied by important modifications in the diet, which imply a reduction in the consumption of more traditional foods such as bread, potatoes or legumes, and an increase in foods considered “superior” for being tastier or more nutritious, as would be the case with meat or dairy. Following this dynamic, the generalization of meat consumption occurred in rich countries throughout the second half of the twentieth century, while emerging countries such as China, India or Brazil have begun to experience it much later, and are currently experiencing it. at per capita levels much lower than ours.
But there are other causes that have been determining the evolution of consumption. The most important is the change in meat production methods, which also since the 1960s have been adopting standardized industrial systems of reproduction, fattening and slaughter of animals on a large scale that have triggered the supply. This “Fordist” production has also been combined with transformations in the processing, transportation and distribution systems, and all this has caused the price of meat to fall even below the price of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is true that there are alternative forms of meat production based on extensive and sustainable livestock farming, but in general it is large industry and large food chains that set the business guidelines and those that impose their criteria and prices.
That meat is cheap is not necessarily good news, since excessively low prices, in addition to harming the weakest actors in the process, are a fundamental factor in triggering consumption well above the limits that are advisable from a point of view nutritional and health. And, furthermore, this consumption model is the source of numerous global environmental problems.
From the point of view of the use of resources, a diet based mainly on meat is very inefficient, since it forces huge amounts of cereals and also water to be used for fattening animals that could be used directly for human consumption. Keeping this system growing on a global scale therefore requires a substantial increase in the production of cereals such as soybeans or corn, and this increase is, in turn, one of the main causes of deforestation in many tropical forests. Rich countries like Spain are not strangers to this process, since we import large quantities of cereal to feed our intensive livestock and produce meat that we then consume directly or export to third countries.
And there is, of course, the problem of emissions. Intensive livestock farming is responsible for most of the generation of methane, one of the main greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming and climate change. In addition, the concentrations of intensive farms generate huge amounts of waste that is very difficult to process. The so-called slurry present high concentrations of ammonia that contaminate soils and aquifers, damaging the neighboring agriculture itself.
An important part of the large agri-food industry, from the manufacturers of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to the large multinational meat production, processing and distribution companies, have been developing this production and consumption model without paying too much attention to the environmental and health problems that generate. It is obvious that, as has happened with other large industrial emporiums, that industry is going to resist tooth and nail a change that may harm its own interests. But the worst thing politicians could do is become exclusive spokespersons for those interests, placing them above science-based health and environmental criteria.
Demonizing the consumption of meat does not make sense, but refusing to even discuss a model that has been shown to cause serious problems does not seem acceptable. The solution may lie in establishing a much more conscious and responsible consumption, which puts quality before quantity and prioritizes sustainable forms of small and medium livestock production. To put ourselves, in short, in a moderate consumption in which eating meat stops being a routine and returns to have something festive again.