Meat production isn’t the only human activity that’s murdering the environment, but it’s one of the most impactful.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from global livestock represent 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic emissions. Some other sources give much lower tallies, yet it seems likely that the livestock sector puts more GHGs in the atmosphere than all other food-producing activities combined.
Beef and dairy cattle are responsible for almost two-thirds of global livestock GHG emissions. The problem with cows is that, because they’re ruminants, they belch out methane, a potent GHG. Land conversion is another issue. Every year in Brazil, tracts of biodiverse and carbon-sequestering forest are cleared so they can be turned into cattle ranches, or used to grow animal feed.
Photo courtesy of Green Monday Group
The environmental picture isn’t as clear as feed conversion rates (FCR) suggest. It’s true that beef cattle are far less efficient than chickens or pigs when it comes to converting what they eat into edible flesh. Yet beef has its supporters, and not merely those who think its taste justifies the environmental cost.
In her book Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat, Nicolette Hahn Niman argues that, when allowed to graze naturally, cattle can improve soil health by trampling in seeds, hay and dung. Done right, it’s claimed, cattle ranching can result in grasslands that sequester carbon.
That may be true in some parts of the world, but in a Feb. 4 blog post last year, the Oxford University-affiliated Web site Our World In Data concluded that, in terms of carbon footprint, “less meat is nearly always better than sustainable meat.”
Photo: Steven Crook
The Web site went on to say that, whether you compare different foods in terms of weight, protein content or calories, “plant-based foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint than meat and dairy.” And it can be very much smaller: The footprint of 100g of protein from peas is just 1.2 percent of that of 100g of protein from beef.
TAIWAN’S EATING HABITS
If pointing the finger at cows makes people in Taiwan — who eat beef and drink milk in far smaller quantities than North Americans or Europeans — feel better, it shouldn’t.
Photo: Steven Crook
Despite the wide availability of vegetarian food, Taiwan’s eating habits aren’t moving in the right direction. Overall meat consumption has been stable since the late 1990s, at around 80kg per person per year, but the amount of beef eaten has been steadily increasing. In the decade to 2018, annual per capita beef consumption rose from under 3.9kg to just over 6.4kg.
In the past 15 years in the US (where meat consumption has fluctuated between 107kg and 115kg per person per year), chicken has overtaken beef as the most-eaten meat, due to 26-percent growth in the consumption of the former and a 15 percent decline in the latter. In the UK, the amount of meat each person eats has fallen 17 percent since 2008, and the quantity of beef consumed has dropped by 30 percent. Since 2002, total meat consumption has been decreasing in French households.
As long ago as 2008, Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration urged citizens to fight global warming by cutting back on meat. Among public figures who’ve backed the local “Meat-free Mondays” initiative, launched in 2009, is Nobel Prize-winning Taiwanese chemist Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲). Lee has spoken of the link between meat production and climate change.
Photo: Huang Shu-li Taipei Times
Taiwanese influenced by Buddhism or I-Kuan Tao (一貫道) often follow a meat-free diet. Yet few other consumers, it seems, think beyond price, taste and health when deciding what to eat.
“The issue of animal welfare doesn’t get a look in,” laments one Taiwanese who embraced veganism while living in the UK. Asking to remain anonymous to avoid offending her meat-eating relatives, she continues, “I hear people say, ‘We should support local pig farmers,’ more often than I hear, ‘I’m skipping meat today because it’s bad for the planet.’”
Meat substitutes — like those made by Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and OmniFoods — could take a huge bite of the market for animal products, if they become cheaper, and resistance to GM foods (some substitutes contain GM soy) isn’t an issue. But price parity could be a decade or more away.
In Taiwan, OmniFoods (part of the Hong Kong-based Green Monday Group) has partnered with convenience stores 7-Eleven and Family Mart, Hsin Tung Yang, known for its meat jerky, and dumpling restaurant Bafang Yunji.
PROBLEMS WITH PORK AND CHICKEN
Problems associated with pork and chicken production in Taiwan include dependence on imported feed, air and water pollution, manure disposal and water consumption.
As recently as the 1960s, most rural households raised a pig or two, feeding the animals on sweet-potato leaves and scraps. Postwar agricultural-improvement efforts saw the introduction of American breeds used to eating corn.
In 2019, Taiwan’s pigs and chickens ate more than eight million tonnes of corn, and over seven million tonnes of soy. Local farmers supplied less than 1 percent of both commodities; most of the remainder was shipped in from the US.
Demand for animal feed drives the use of agrochemicals. According to Food, Inc (a book accompanying a 2008 documentary of the same name), feed crops account for half of North America’s synthetic fertilizer use.
The water pollution problem isn’t as bad as it used to be because Taiwan’s worst-offending hog farms have been closed down. However, scientists are still endeavoring to eliminate the foul odors that those living near pig sties often have to endure.
In 1997, Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Chih-kang (王志剛) described the hog industry as “highly polluting,” pointing out that each pig produces as much fecal matter as six humans.
According to a March 23, 2015 op-ed published in the Liberty Times (the Chinese-language sister paper of the Taipei Times), hog farmers use around 30 liters of water per animal per day. Most of the water — much of which is pumped from underground, exacerbating land subsidence — is used to flush away feces. Because the country’s pig farms are small by global standards, few have set up systems to recycle water or convert manure into biogas.
In addition to contributing to climate change and causing pollution, livestock industries are inherently precarious.
The 1997 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak resulted in the loss of two out of every five hogs (almost four million animals in all) and tens of thousands of jobs. Economic losses were estimated at US$6.6 billion. In the past three years, the authorities have been on a war footing, trying to prevent African Swine Fever from gaining a foothold on the island.
The high density of poultry farms, the existence of unregistered waterfowl flocks and the frequency with which migratory birds pass through Taiwan contribute to what one team of scholars calls the “persistent circulation of multiple highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses” among the country’s poultry farms.
The authorities ordered bird culls in 2015, 2017, 2019 and last year.
Mai Bach, founder of Ooh Cha Cha, which operates two vegan cafes in Taipei, says that, rather than emphasize a specific diet, she tries to educate people as to the impact of industrial farming and the relationship between agriculture and climate change.
“I hope that people understand the huge environmental toll and choose to reduce their consumption of animal products. We need to move toward more holistic solutions that address the systemic causes of the problems we face,” says the Californian, who’s lived in Taiwan since 2008.
“The Food Justice Movement accurately describes the future I hope to see embraced,” she adds, referring to a broad global alliance that aims to resolve issues like food insecurity and unequal access to healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods.
Bach accepts that globalization and imports are a part of the future, but argues that Taiwan needs to do more to “create food-production systems that are resilient and not reliant on outside supply chains.”
“Taiwan is not self sufficient in food, but has so much arable land and indigenous knowledge about agriculture. How do we grow and use ingredients that benefit the communities growing them and work with the local environment?” she asks.
Taiwanese now show much greater awareness of plant-based diets, Bach says. Documentaries like The Game Changers (a 2018 film focusing on vegan athletes that was criticized for overstating the case for plant-based diets) are one reason for this, she believes.
In the past, skeptics often asked Bach how it’s possible to get sufficient protein, calcium and iron if a person abstains from animal products. In the last two years, however, she says, “the most common questions I get are about places to eat, or from people wanting to adopt plant-based meals, but don’t know where to start.”
Steven Crook, the author or co-author of four books about Taiwan, has been following environmental issues since he arrived in the country in 1991. He drives a hybrid and carries his own chopsticks. The views expressed here are his own.
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