Meeting the Meat Crisis


The Meat Crisis. Developing More Sustainable Production and Consumption . D'Silva, J. and J. Webster , editors . 2010 . Earthscan , London , U.K. 288 pp. $39.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-84407-903-2 . 
Animals as Biotechnology. Ethics, Sustainability and Critical Animal Studies . Twine, R. 2010 . Earthscan , London , U.K. 224 pp. $84.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-84407-830-1 .

Welcome to 2012, the well-publicized end-of-the-world year! What better way to get ready for the end than to review a couple of books on an emerging global environmental and conservation catastrophe—the complex, interlocking, and ultimately depressing set of problems that accompany the world's growing appetite for meat.

By now it's a familiar story to many, but here's the gist. As human population grows and global economic development continues, demand for meat grows rapidly. It takes about 1.5 kg of grain to produce 0.5 kg of chicken, and about 3.5 kg of grain to produce 0.5 kg of beef—so meeting the entire human population's minimum daily requirement of food with meat is much more land intensive and inefficient than doing so with grains. Globally, on the order of 60 billion animals a year (mostly chickens) are slaughtered for human consumption, and expectations are that global production will need to expand to 100 billion animals by 2050 to meet the expected demand. But is it possible to produce enough food to feed everybody on the planet and to do so humanely if by doing so we need to breed, feed, care for, and slaughter this many animals for human consumption?

The list of reasons to doubt that this question can be answered with a yes is long and complex and includes the negative and cumulative effects of deforestation and changing land use driven by increasing demand for rangelands and grain as feed for livestock, the disease risks of intensive livestock production (think H5N1), and of which is estimated to currently contribute about 15–20% of greenhouse-gas emissions. The two titles under review help bring the breadth and depth of the challenge into some relief.

The Meat Crisis: Developing More Sustainable Production and Consumption, edited by Joyce D'Silva and John Webster (2010), is a worthwhile introduction to these problems and contains some ideas on what can be done in response. The book is not an integrated, top-to-bottom description of the issue and does not provide a prescription for what to do about it. Instead, the divergent viewpoints expressed in this compilation of essays are both the book's strength and weakness. Despite the inevitable bit of disjointedness that accompanies any such collection, readers are likely to learn a lot from reading all of the essays. And, the book should appeal both to students studying these challenges and to the general public seeking an accessible introduction to the character of the problem.

Quite predictably, the quality of the scholarship and the prose varies, but overall the volume achieves a standard that makes rewarding reading, and a couple of the essays are a true joy. I am always grateful to discover a science writer who appreciates the value of imagination and humor in writing about complex problems, and Kate Rawles’ contribution, “Developing Ethical, Sustainable and Compassionate Food Policies,” is a gem. That her excellent synthesis appears toward the end of the volume, however, caused me to question the editors’ choices with respect to how best to group and organize the essays. Although the structure they used (five theme-based sections) is logical enough, it does not serve the cover-to-cover reader as well as one might want, putting forward rather more specific issues before grounding them in an overview of what the issue is all about.

Sociologist Richard Twine's book, Animals as Biotechnology, is an entirely different kettle of fish (and cows, pigs, chickens, and other farmed animals to boot). This is a book by a professional sociologist with a bone to pick over how a subject has been treated by other professional academics. Consequently, much of what he has to say is clearly aimed at professionals actively working in his field; thus, his writing style is likely to strike lay persons as frustratingly inaccessible. Moreover, the ambitious reach of the book would present any author with serious difficulties. Professor Twine seeks not only to examine the idea of animals (and farmed animals in particular) as biotechnology, but places his examination within even broader considerations of the evolution of Western ideas of self, other, “the ethical,” and contemporary global capitalism. So the book is ambitious, and struck me as perhaps overly so. Although it delivers a reward for those willing to pay the price of wading through, nonacademics should be forewarned. I suggest they wait for a more accessible version or head straight to the concluding chapter for most of what is best in what the author has to say.

Lacking the prerequisite expertise, I found grappling with Twine's ambitious attempt to address the complex intersection of several debates in professional sociology somewhat frustrating. I am sure the book will be more rewarding for those familiar with the writings of the French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault. To give a sense of what I mean, consider the following two sentences and what is required of the lay reader to successfully unpack the point Twine is keen to make.

“Holloway and Morris (2007) approach this problem by resorting creatively to an alternative ontological focus, one that anyhow is faithful to Foucault's relational understanding of power. Influenced by actor-network theory and posthumanism, they argue for a relational conception of biopower which situates self-regulation across species, for example between animals and breeders” (p. 89).

I am reluctant to comment on the substance here, because, to tell you the truth, I do not really understand what is being said. Where I do understand him, though, I appreciate the points he makes, and I generally agree with him.

His concluding chapter, “From the ‘Livestock Revolution’ to a Revolution in Human-Animal Relations,” is a clear summing up of the several intersecting threads of logic and scholarship that underpin his arguments, and it leads to a set of very reasonable conclusions. At the heart of Twine's arguments is a plea to reconsider our sense of self. He says, “If climate change can be understood as the failure of our technological and economic systems to comprehend the intersections of human activity with undervalued nonhuman actors, should it be any surprise that policies of redress ought to begin with a thorough questioning of both the assumptions of dualistic separation and our values toward the nonhuman?” (p. 161). His argument is that one cannot evaluate the ethics of animal biotechnology without reconsidering the much broader question of human-animal relations. To do this he prescribes “…a radical posthumanist values shift that reconceptualizes the human through the proliferation of truly sustainable eating practices” (p. 162), “a more comprehensive appreciation of the ways in which the ethical can be thought of in relation to other animals,” and “… to conceive human and animal flourishing as variously interdependent” (p. 162).

Twine argues that the economic interests of the biotechnology industry (and its relations) work against this by directly linking their narratives around animal biotechnology to much broader societal narratives regarding the “livestock revolution” and the growth of the “bio-based knowledge economy.” This, he argues, helps legitimize the reshaping and repurposing of farm-animal bodies by linking such efforts to self-serving anthropocentric narratives about delivering more “sustainable, economically efficient production” and thus overall societal progress, economic rejuvenation, and environmental salvation. Twine seeks to delegitimize the current industry narrative and argues that the industry should not be excused for overlooking the centrality of ethical concerns over animal welfare because of an unwarranted myth that we must quickly build a biotechnology-based knowledge economy to meet the environmental and sustainability challenges we currently face. I agree with him and find that his conclusions seem to dovetail nicely with my own much more simpleminded thoughts on how to handle the crisis that the last 65 years of industrial agriculture has now delivered to us.

If the current system is destroying the habitability of our planet, we may go on as is, but we won't go on for very long, and certainly we shouldn’t. We should stop production practices that are destroying the future of our world. If the current system is raising and slaughtering 58 billion animals a year under highly questionable ethical circumstances that are inhumane to them and harmful to us, we should recognize the fact and stop it. To stop it, we need to limit or end our consumption of animals and thus reduce the number of animals we need to raise for such purposes.

I agree with Twines’ conclusions and hope his readers will agree with them too. Now, all I have to do is act accordingly and maybe convince a few others to do the same. I think both these volumes may help.