Meatless with spine, or spineless with meat?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: May 16, 2019 21:18:50

"Where's the beef," ran a Wendy's hamburger advertisement in 1984. It capped a controversy in which Wendy accused its competitors, McDonald's, Burger King, and so forth, of bloating the hamburger bun more than the meat content. If meat was the heart of gastronomical attention then, today it shows a mixed picture: consumption in certain corners of the world, yet escalating contextual constraints elsewhere. The heart of this article, as in the last Scopus piece (May 15, 2019), is simply that we in Bangladesh must make a drastic lifestyle change if our future shadow is to glow, particularly with the next generations in mind. Just as the May 15 Scopus article advocated cutting back on Eid shopping, particularly of clothes, this one proposes minimising even the sacrificial Eid-ul-Azha rite.

Evidence is fast stacking up how detrimental meat has become for our environment. "Giving up beef," Damian Carrington once posited, "will reduce carbon footprint more than cars" (Guardian, July 21, 2014). Producing red-meat, he went on, requires 28 times more land than white-meat (chicken, pork), consumes 11 times more water, and releases 5 (five) times more climate-warming emissions. An Oxford University study of British people's diet illustrated his point: every 100 grams of daily consumption emitted 7.2kg of carbon dioxide for a meat-rich diet, 3.8kg for fish and vegetable diets, and 9.2kg for vegan. These proportions get more skewed the higher one climbs the development ladder: recall how the meat-advocacy springboard of the 1984 Wendy controversy could not be made by a large proportion of countries.

The biggest meat consuming countries today are industrialised, with Australia and the United States leading the list (at least, for the 2013 figures): they were the only countries where the annual per capita meat consumption was more than 200 pounds (205 v. 200, respectively). In the 150-199 pound meat-consumption group were Canada (155) and Israel (189), with Chile, New Zealand, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina in ascending order. Below Canada, in descending order were Malaysia (121), South Africa, and Saudi Arabia (each with 111), Russia and South Korea (110), and China (107). Developing countries charging up the meat-consumption list suggests the more money one has, not only the more the consumption, but also the greater the resort to higher-end meat-items on the menu (Netra Mittal, World Economic Forum, Newsletter, December 2017).

Bagging only 4 (four) pounds of meat-consumption annually, the average Bangladeshi's meat-consumption growth rate may be faster than in the United States, or in any of the industrialised countries. Yet, even as this is being written, Bangladesh is facing many of those same diseases plaguing the developed countries, particularly the explosive growth of health problems, with diabetes leading the list, but coronary problems, stroke, even cancer not far behind. With health costs of gluttony beginning to take its toll, red-meat attraction may blacken.

Perhaps the one area of health threats in industrialised countries Bangladesh must beware of is antibiotic usage on livestock. Driven by the commercial need to fatten cows, a bulk of the antibiotics sold in the United States goes into livestock injection, in turn breeding antibiotic resistance in human consumers (Conversation, April 2017).

On the flip side, though it inflicts much more pain on the animal, halal meat requires the avoidance of meat-preserving chemicals: the kill must be clean, humanly conducted, and the meat to be consumed to be as fresh as possible, making halal practice difficult to avoid even in the more sanitised industrial countries.

Perhaps the greatest cattle-farming constraint in Bangladesh is its sheer lack of ample space for an industry to evolve. This should be seen as a blessing in disguise. Given the consumption might have skyrocketed beyond the ceiling.

Cattle-farming is not only environmental unfriendly, but agriculture in general is a significant contributor to climate change concerns: 15 per cent of carbon dioxide emission can be traced to this sector. Cattle-feed, for instance, is beginning to threaten human grain consumption by its sheer size: over 1.3 billion tons of grains go into livestock feed (Brian Walsh, Ecocentric, December 2013). Though much of it also goes into white-meat production, imagine what that means in precisely the developing countries where red-meat consumption is soaring: it is jacking up food prices, widening the income-gap, and keeping the perpetually poor permanently locked into an impoverished state. By keeping the poor from ascending the social ladder, it is also shifting them to poorer grain varieties even as their cattle find diminishing grass to feed on. Deficiencies on the farm translate into sub-optimal intake of vitally needed ingredients (protein) on the dining table.

It is not by chance, then, that commercial cattle-farming has remained an industrial-world practice, with Argentina, North America, and West Europe dominating. Almost 60 million tons of red meat (and nearly four times as much white-meat), get produced annually, indicating the staggering size of this industry. With spectacular improvements in shipping, export windows to developing countries have spiralled beyond comprehension.

At stake, again, is the environment. Water supplies get heavily taxed, as it takes 15,000 liters to produce one kilogram of beef, not just for cattle consumption, but also grain cultivation, again, forcing cattle-farming price-hikes far into the future as demand grows. In some countries, especially Latin America, cattle-farming has been aggressively pushed at the cost of forestland, thus exposing more of the land to climate-changing forces. With cattle-farming accounting for almost one-third of the earth's land-mass, human climate-change concerns boil down to what is on the plate we dine from, a chain harder to trace, or explain, the lower the per capita income one scrutinises.

As we practice the religious rite of animal sacrifice at Eid-ul-Azha we should abstain from meat-consumption for most of the rest of the year, including particularly such meat-concentrated festivities as weddings and the like. Divorcing polao from korma cuts deep into cultural inheritances, but to not do so would leave us having to cut deep into our fragile pocketbooks and the future to face the mounting direct and indirect costs of our consumption.

Training would have to be an intrinsic part and parcel of any meatless campaign, as too generating our innovative juices. That training must begin in school classes to shape the forthcoming adult's mindset, then enhanced through several complementary actions, such as raising meat prices, discouraging (or taxing even further), meat-anchored advertisements, as restaurants often indulge in. Simultaneously, environmental-friendly alternatives must be cultivated, circulated, and commercialized more aggressively.

Though Bangladeshis have an enormous faith in the future, given how meticulously they treat their children, the future hangs by a thread. Building upon this very trait, however, they may find augmenting their future faith by clipping meat consumption might just do the trick. Climbing into a developed country, after all, depends on nothing less than taking drastic steps.


Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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