In recent years, there’s been a growing movement against eating too much meat. Environmentalists point out that meat production is one of the leading causes of climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution; health advocates assert that eating too many animal products increases one’s chances of everything from heart disease to cancer; and animal welfare activists argue it’s wrong to be cruel to animals.
In an attempt to slow the rapid rise of meat consumption in the U.S. and other highly industrialized nations, the movement has deployed a variety of tactics—everything from education to bringing plant-based options like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to the masses. But some are taking those actions as a blanket “meat is bad” message, and extrapolating how pushing people to eat less meat could ultimately harm those in low-income countries, because animal agriculture serves as a valuable economic and dietary asset.
This is a straw man argument. With rare exception, no one is campaigning for meat reduction in food-insecure places. Virtually no environmental, health, or even animal-rights activists are focusing their attention on small, independently owned and managed farms. And criticizing Western industrial animal agriculture doesn’t affect the availability or legitimacy of meat consumption in low-income countries. The two are, frankly, unrelated. I think few would contest that the same advice is unlikely to apply in both the U.S., and, say, Uganda. The nations we’re comparing here have entirely different economies, topographies, and social issues. It should go without saying that their problems will require different solutions.
Where activists do have their attention trained is on the cases of major international agribusiness corporations exploiting lower-income countries, and the people and ecosystems within them. The implementation of U.S.-style CAFOs—or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, large-scale industrial agricultural facilities that confine animals under torturous conditions to produce cheap meat, eggs, or milk—bring anything but prosperity to impoverished people around the world. They increase the risk of zoonotic disease, antibiotic resistance, and contamination, as well as land degradation and deforestation, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Already, international meat corporations JBS and Cargill are among the biggest culprits behind deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, destroying protected land to raise livestock.
If increasing the availability of animal proteins is the best way to support people living in poverty around the world, so be it (although, it may not be—Jane Goodall recently launched a campaign against animal-gifting programs, like the one operated by Cargill, which provides farm animals to families in need, on the basis that supporting animal agriculture, even on small scales, can cause water and air pollution, soil acidification, zoonotic diseases, and other problems). But when Western powers are making decisions on behalf of those people and their nations, it’s worth investigating who exactly benefits from their methods. Are they really helping, or are they just duplicating the very systems that create food swamps and environmental toxins that harm the most vulnerable populations right here in the U.S.?
Academic experts are cautioning us of exactly this. Research out of Johns Hopkins finds that transplanting U.S.-style industrial food production to low- and middle-income countries will likely come at the cost of major threats to public health and the environment. Another major study, with authors from American, European, and Singaporean universities, specifically illuminates two things: one, that reducing global consumption of animal products is important for both human health and environmental sustainability; and two, that different countries will require different solutions.
The “Western dietary pattern,” as this study calls it, is riddled with problems that we are only beginning to understand. It’s not something we should be exporting to other parts of the world. If we really want to help, we need to offer something better. We could start by ending deforestation, reducing the climate harms caused by our food systems that are destroying agriculture around the world, and providing aid to reduce poverty and support indigenous foodways. These are just a few ways that cleaning up our own house can make it possible for people around the world to continue the sustainable farming practices that are already in place and have been for thousands of years.
We know that growing plant food is ultimately more efficient, per calorie, in feeding humans; raising livestock requires not just the water and land resources of the animal ag farms, but the soybeans and corn and other crops that are grown to feed livestock. The majority of those crops grown in the U.S. are for livestock, not human consumption. (Staple crops like rice, beans, soy, lentils, and starchy vegetables already form the basis of human diets around the world—they don’t need to be transformed into meat in order to nourish people.)
If a foreign-aid program has a rigorous process that involves considering the landscape, water scarcity, existing and potential wildlife conflicts, and locally appropriate alternatives for food security, then they’re not who the movement to end factory farming is targeting—and shouldn’t be. But if the opposite is true, that an aid program does minimal screening on the appropriateness of their supplied materials (livestock, seeds, etc.) and is more concerned with numbers they can brag about in press releases, then they could be setting up the people they’re ostensibly trying to help with additional long-term hardship.
For the sake of human health, and the well-being of the planet, we need to disassemble the animal agriculture industry as we know it here in the U.S.—and we also need to prevent it from getting its hooks into nations that are in transition in terms of economic and industrial development. Cutting and pasting our deeply flawed systems into other nations will only set them up to experience the same extreme social stratification, nutritional inequality, and environmental destruction we have right here.
Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Kateman is author of Meat Me Halfway—inspired by a documentary of the same name—and editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook and The Reducetarian Solution.