A loud and powerful abstraction in world agriculture today is what I call ‘the doubling narrative’, a broad claim that global crop production must double from current levels by 2050 to feed a growing world, with a population that will be two billion or so bigger and close to one billion people already hungry or chronically malnourished. The doubling narrative gained steam in the 2000s, propelled by a number of influential agencies, foremost the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, along with some large agro-input and agro-food corporations, such as Monsanto and Nestlé. While this narrative has a range of inflections, by and large it serves to fix research and policy on high-tech means to increasing productivity, which are also often draped in notions of ‘sustainable intensification’ and ‘climate-smart’ techniques.1
The Doubling Narrative: To What Ends?
An especially jarring contradiction in the doubling narrative is that the FAO indicates there is already enough food produced today to feed a world of 10 billion people. Much as with the neoliberal refrain that a ‘rising tide will lift all boats’, the doubling narrative simultaneously washes over the centrality of inequality in both the diagnosis of current problems and in the ostensible cure. That is, instead of questioning the socio-ecological relations through which things are produced and distributed, the solution is simply to produce more. In the process, this helps to mask the unsustainable and violent ways that agricultural production is organized, and how entitlements to even the most basic human needs are increasingly determined by market forces.
A key assumption which underpins the doubling narrative is that the rising consumption of animal products on a world scale is simply unstoppable, something that tends to get blandly referred to as ‘dietary change’. Today, the average person on earth consumes about 43 kg of meat per year, nearly twice as much as in 1960, during a period when the human population leapt from 3 to 7.5 billion. This translates to a rough quadrupling in the annual volume of global meat production, and is entwined with the huge leap in the population of animals killed for food every year, from about 8 billion in 1960 to over 70 billion today (not counting fish). Further, the FAO expects that by 2050 per capita meat consumption will rise to more than 50 kg/year in a world of 9 to 10 billion people, which will entail the slaughter of about 120 billion animals every year.2
One necessary step towards clearer thinking about the future of agriculture and food is to replace the abstraction of dietary change with something more tangible and illustrative, what I call the ‘meatification’ of diets. Meatification denotes the shift of meat from the periphery to the centre of human food consumption patterns, and signals its importance in relation to global inequality. The average person in the industrialized world consumes over twice as much animal flesh per year than the average person on earth, while the average person in low income countries consumes far below the world average. This uneven picture reflects the fact that meatification has been a significant and underappreciated aspiration of development and modernity, which bears very heavily on climate change, biodiversity, human inequality, and the magnitude of animal production and suffering – implications I have explored at length elsewhere.3
Although animal advocacy is clearly attuned to many of these problems, it too often evades their political economic foundations, failing to see how the scale and nature of animal production connect to the relentless pursuit of profits, capital accumulation, and growth in the agro-food sector, and in capitalism more generally. This failure severely limits strategic horizons, including a tendency to fixate on individual consumer choices as the means to animal liberation (i.e. exhorting people to ‘vote with their fork’ and ‘go vegan’), when the most important strategic questions for animal liberation relate to the challenge of connecting demands to wider anti-capitalist struggles.
Meatification as Effective Demand
Consumer demand for meat and animal products has been nourished by a combination of palate pleasure, long held views about the superiority of animal to plant-based protein, and potent cultural attitudes about meat, including associations with masculinity and virility (which are sometimes but not always attached to claims about protein).4 The venerations of meat in different cultures is an enormous subject, far beyond the scope of a short discussion, but for here it is enough to stress that these cultural associations arose in utterly different agricultural and nutritional contexts than hold in much of the world today, and cannot ethically defuse the central political demand of the liberation of animals.
For most of the 10,000-year history of agriculture, small, mixed livestock populations did not compete for the product of arable land; rather, they fed mostly on fallowed farmland, crop stubble, and household food wastes, and by scavenging on organized pastures and unorganized grasslands and forests. Well into the 20th century, planted crops were overwhelming consumed directly by humans, save for what was needed to help livestock through the winter in temperate regions. Milk, eggs, and meat were valued for providing relatively secure sources of protein, often in contexts where it was relatively scarce, but vastly smaller animal populations meant that consumption of their products was far from a daily occurrence in most farming cultures. Rarity also tied meat to sporadic celebrations, another part of why it gained an elevated status in many cultural cuisines.5
But whatever nutritional value milk, eggs, and meat had (or still has) in contexts of protein scarcity cannot begin to explain or morally justify global patterns of meatification. This is not at all to say that we can wash over historic associations. For instance, marketing campaigns for animal-based foods frequently seek to fortify appeals to taste with claims about health benefits (e.g. as a superior form of protein) and by playing on its significance in cultural cuisines, and there can be little doubt that these contribute to consumer preferences to some degree. But the point to stress is that patterns of meatification do not rest on any objective conception of real demand, like improvements in human health, and instead pivot on uneven effective demand. Effective demand essentially implies the capacity to act on consumer preferences, which is always important to keep in mind with food because there are large numbers people around the world who have a real but ineffective demand for food, in that they are hungry but cannot afford to pay for it.
A quick glance as three basic elements of global meatification helps to drive this home. First, the fulcrum of contemporary meatification (i.e. where most of the volume growth is anticipated between now and 2050) lies in the surging upper and middle classes in rapidly industrializing economies, especially in China and parts of East and Southeast Asia. Second (and in jarring contrast to the first element), the ‘rising tide’ of global meat production in no way responds to most undeniable real demand that exists: the ache of chronic hunger and malnourishment. In fact, on the contrary, it makes matters worse, because at the same time as many poor countries have come to depend heavily upon cheap imported grains (discussed below), the massive and growing pull of industrial livestock production on the world’s grain and oilseed supplies contributes to market volatility that can destabilize their import capacity.6 Third, there is a strong consensus in nutrition sciences that heavy consumption of animal foods is contributing to a series of health problems in industrialized countries, as it is widely recognized as a major factor in rising rates of obesity and many non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver disease, and some cancers – epidemiological patterns that are tellingly described as ‘diseases of affluence’.7
Meatification in Surplus Absorption
In capitalist economies, demand and supply are dialectically related; neither causes the other in simple, unidirectional ways. Thus, while meatification is affected by uneven consumer demand, it cannot be purely understood as a response to consumer preferences, and a fuller picture emerges when increasing meat production is connected to the pursuit of profits, accumulation, and incessant growth in agriculture and food systems. This in turn requires attention to the intractable challenges that chronic surpluses pose for farmers, states, and corporations.
The rise of chronic surpluses resulted from an interlocking series of technological innovations, including the development of combustion engines, synthetic fertilizers, high-yielding seeds, pesticides, and greatly expanded irrigation capacity. Together, these changes revolutionized agricultural productivity in the 20th century across large parts of the temperate world, most of all the US. As yields soared, supply raced far ahead of the effective demand for grains, even with the dramatic human population growth that was occurring.8 For farmers, chronic surpluses deflate unit prices and contribute to the relentless competitive pressure to grow in scale and invest in labour-saving technology in order to cope with smaller margins, a treadmill that inevitably expunges many farming livelihoods (the famous ‘get big or get out’ refrain). For states and corporations, chronic surpluses threaten the prospect of continual growth in the agro-food system as a whole. This can necessitate government intervention in the short-term, but in the longer term ultimately depends upon economic mechanisms that can convert surpluses into a source of profits on an ongoing basis.9
The U.S. government began to wrestle with this challenge amidst soaring productivity in the mid-20th century, soon followed by the European Community. One route was for the government to stabilize prices for farmers was to buy and hold back a portion of annual crop production. However, this presents a serious fiscal burden for the state and fails to resolve structural pressures, and poses the question of what to do with swelling stocks.10 Another response of the US and EC in the 1950s and 1960s was to establish massive aid and subsidized trade programs, sometimes referred to as ‘dumping’, which had a profound impact transforming diets across large parts of the Global South, in particular towards wheat. But these programs were also a fiscal burden and largely gave way to commercial exports after a few decades, leaving a legacy – food security hinged to world grain markets – that remains especially problematic for what the FAO calls Low Income Food Deficit Countries.11
While state-sponsored surplus dumping-turned-trade did enhance growth prospects for high-yielding monoculture production, the bigger mechanism for profitably absorbing grain surpluses that emerged in the 20th century was to cycle them through fast-rising populations of concentrated livestock.12 The initial trigger for this was chicken production. In 1910, the average chicken flock on a US farm had about 80 birds, and almost 90 percent of farms kept at least a few chickens. This changed rapidly in the ensuing decades, sparked by an accidental experiment in the Delmarva Peninsula in the 1920s, which unleashed wave of innovations in warehouses, hatcheries, artificial incubators, feed regimes, and de-beaking machines over the next few decades, as well as the rise of some soon-to-be corporate giants like Perdue and Tyson.13 Technological innovations which were developed with chickens quickly spread to pigs.
In the early 1970s, Frances Moore Lappé first identified the increasing flow of grains through concentrated livestock as a major global environment and development problem, highlighting its nutritional inefficiency. In making this case, she stressed the radical reconfiguration of livestock from veritable ‘protein factories’, in the sense of small animal populations historically producing protein in ways that didn’t compete with crop production, to ‘reverse protein factories’, in the sense that concentrated animal populations fed on grains effectively destroy a large share of the protein and other nutrition before it is converted into flesh, eggs, and dairy (while contributing to great volumes of unhealthy animal fat).14 Lappé also stressed the need to view this dynamic through the lens of global inequality outlined above, as the smaller amount of nutrition that materializes was being consumed disproportionately by people in rich countries (who are therefore consuming an outsized share of both meat and grains), who were typically consuming far more protein than their bodies actually needed. Taken together, she insisted that patterns of agricultural production and food consumption amount to the systematization of waste, or what a recent paper in Science described as a “net drain on the world’s potential food supply.”15
This biophysical irrationality serves a very potent economic end. Because of the perceptual values that people attach to animal products, along with the failure to count an array of environmental burdens as costs, these commodities can be sold at a marginally higher price than the feed flowing through the nutritional drain. Thus, the meatification of diets coupled with the nutritional wastage that inheres in cycling feed through animals became “the lynchpin transforming chronic grain surpluses from a price-deflating millstone into a steadily growing source of low margin earnings for large farmers, processors, and traders.” Another way of putting this is that it established a mechanism for dramatically and durably increasing the effective demand for industrial grains, and the same as obviously opening a range of increasing value-added opportunities in livestock production, slaughter and packing, processed foods, and retail sectors from supermarkets to fast food restaurants.
One indication of the surplus absorbing/growth enabling function of industrial livestock is that industrial livestock production now commands nearly one-third of the world’s cropland, and a much greater share of the arable land in the temperate world. Roughly two-thirds of the great boom in grain production that occurred in the US and Europe between 1950 and 1985 went into livestock feed, and this surplus absorptive capacity also gave rise to the explosive growth of industrial oilseed monocultures. The role of livestock in profitably absorbing US grain and oilseed surpluses was also extended through the growth of feed-oriented exports, initially mainly to Europe. The pursuit of feed exporting later took off in a few other places, most spectacularly in the now famous ‘Republic of Soy’, that stretches across a vast area in the southern cone of South America. Over the past half-century, the land devoted to coarse grains and oilseeds increased by roughly 30 percent, overwhelmingly centred on maize and soybeans. From 1961 to 2013, the total area planted in maize grew by more than half and the total area planted in soybeans more than quadrupled, accompanied by tremendous yield gains (and tremendous input useage), with the result that global maize production more than quadrupled and world soybean production grew more than 8-fold. Maize and soy are also the principal feed crops in international trade, which for decades was dominated by the US, mainly to Europe, but is now also marked by rising competition from southern South America, with growing markets in China and Asia. Since 1961, world maize exports grew 7-fold and world soybean exports grew 8-fold, and more than one-third of world soybean production is now traded internationally, with the large majority of soybean imports used to feed livestock.16
While the capacity of meatification to absorb grain and oilseed surpluses relates to an inherent inefficiency – burning useable nutrition in the metabolic processes of animals – there is nevertheless a competitive discipline to reduce feed costs per unit of flesh, milk, and eggs produced. This pressure to optimize feed, along with the omnipresent pressure to reduce labour costs, is central to understanding how animal lives are organized within industrial livestock systems. These disciplines are also central to the fact that the lion’s share of meatification over the past half century (which entails production increases over and above levels of human population growth) has come from pigs and chickens, as these species convert feed to flesh more economically than ruminant animals and have been most susceptible to the innovations geared to increasing density and accelerating turnover time. Pigs and chickens now account for roughly 70 percent of the total annual volume of meat production by volume, and industrial production of these two species is expected to account for virtually all further meatification if it continues.17
Some Questions and Directions for Animal Advocacy
Animal advocates have long recognized the biophysical irrationality of cycling feed through animals, and have rightly stressed the implication that meat-centred diets require much more land and other resources than do plant-based diets,18 especially to environmentalists. But it is also important to recognize that this systematized waste is rooted in a prevailing economic rationality: the meatification of diets systematizes profitable surplus absorption and expands the scope for accumulation in agriculture and food. This rationality has flowed into vast accumulations of capital, from grain and oilseed processing (e.g. ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus, etc.), to livestock slaughter and packing (e.g. JBS, WH Group, Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, etc.), to fast-food (McDonalds, YUM Brands, Subway, Burger King, etc.), corporations which exert tremendous influence over the global agro-food system.
Given this operative logic and constellation of power, it is implausible to imagine the trajectory of meatification and industrial livestock production being reversed from above by enlightened or morally swayed governments and corporations. Rather than deliberately scaling back profitable animal commodities, it is much more likely to expect that energy expended on lobbying here – however compelling the environmental rationale or animal ethics case – might encourage some tinkering on the margins. In other words, governments might be compelled to strengthen environmental policies and welfare laws, and the livestock industry might be compelled to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution loads and mitigate the worst elements of animal suffering (as in legal victories to phase out gestation crates and battery cages in some jurisdictions), but these reforms could unfold alongside increases in aggregate production.19 At worst, as in the scientific and ethical nihilism of the Trump administration, it is fanciful to picture even the most minimal environmental and animal welfare reforms.
Where does this focus on the dialectical relation between demand (uneven meatification) and supply (profitable surplus absorption) leave animal advocacy? Does it not simply re-center the objective of demand-driven change, and a strategic focus on individual ethics and consumer choices? Further to this, is there not significant hope for change in the recent proliferation of meat, egg, and dairy substitutes? Examples of what might be seen as ‘vegan mainstreaming’ abound, and many are moving quickly beyond small-scale retailers and restaurants. Supermarkets increasingly contain small sections catering to the demand of vegans and vegetarians, especially in upscale retailers like Whole Foods.20 Hampton Creek’s ‘Eggless Egg’ mayo line has made its way into mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven. Some corporations with strong interests in meat-packing and dairy have established soy-based animal alternatives alongside their usual products. Even McDonald’s and Burger King are now offering McVeggie Burgers and Veggie Whoppers in a range of markets outside North America.
To be sure, individual consumer decisions and the development of vegan commodities matter for environments and animals at some level, and there is something undoubtedly heartening in the recent growth of meat, egg, and dairy substitutes. This growth reflects how moral convictions, including non-violence and animal liberation, can propel new commodity circuits and influence established ones, and might well indicate a broadening consciousness about the impacts of livestock production. But we must also ask: to what extent are the current dynamics of vegan mainstreaming capable of propelling meat, egg, and dairy substitutes beyond a marginal aisle or freezer box in a supermarket, and an animal-free option or two on meat-heavy menus in most restaurants?
Given how much emphasis animal advocacy has tended to place on ‘ethical’ or ‘compassionate’ consumerism as a singular – or perhaps the singular – force for social change, it is important to think critically about the extent to which this could plausibly make the system of commodity production and exchange as a whole more virtuous. The message here is not to be cynical or speculative, but to think clearly about what consumer-based activism can and cannot do.
Attempts to influence consumer behaviour can and should be part of animal advocacy. Yet at the same time, it crucial to not exaggerate their potential to affect inter-species relations. Most of all, ethical consumption does not have the power to de-stabilize the fundamentally amoral way that value is determined in commodity production and exchange, and which systematically discounts environmental impacts and the needs and interests of non-human animals. The configuration of value means that while some ethical commodities might carve out small niches for consumers who can afford them, they face impossible barriers to competing on the basis of price. For example, consider how eating a diverse, organic vegan diet typically costs far more than eating a standard, meat-centered North America diet, in spite of commanding much less land, water, and other resources, and being immeasurably better for animals. The skewed determination of price intersects with vast social inequalities to produce wildly differing degrees of agency for people to express their principles in the market, or to ‘vote with their fork’. The barriers to cost competitiveness for principles-based commodities are further compounded by the great disparities in advertising capacities associated with scale, which shroud and skew information and influence preferences.
Another concern is that while small businesses and social enterprises are often at the leading edge of ethical commodities, large corporations are rarely far behind after new markets of any size get established; across the food sector, huge corporations have repeatedly proven adept at swallowing up smaller, dynamic players after new niches have been established.21 In addition to containing competition, when large corporate actors integrate meat, egg, and dairy substitutes alongside prevailing animal products it can benefit their brands, to the extent that it fosters an appearance of concern about animals or the environment (think of vegans cheering the growing range of vegan options at Wal-Mart or products like McVeggie burgers at McDonald’s). Meanwhile, at a wider level, the mainstreaming of vegan options can present an illusion of change, serving to de-politicize some. The risk here is that as veganism becomes more convenient within popular retail outlets it can more easily slide into a narrow sort of identity politics, whereby acts of consumption double as displays of virtue and an exaggerated sense of political practice.
Banner Image: Poultry kill plant. / Shutterstock.
- Weis, T.,“Meatification and the madness of the doubling narrative,” Canadian Food Studies, 2 (2), p 296-303.
- Weis, T., “Towards 120 Billion: Beholding the trajectory of dietary change and livestock production through animal lives.” Radical Philosophy, 199 (5), p 8-13
- Weis, T., The Ecological Hoofprint: The Global Burden of Industrial Livestock. London: Zed Books, 2013
- Adams, C.,The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 1990; Rifkin, J., Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, New York: Dutton; Fiddes, N.,1992. Meat as a Natural Symbol, London: Routledge, 1992.
- Watson, J.L.,“Meat: A cultural biography in (South) China.” in Klein, J.A. and Murcott, A. (eds.) Food Consumption in Global Perspective: Essays in the anthropology of food in honour of Jack Goody. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p 25-44.; Rifkin, J. (1992) Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, New York: Dutton, 1992; Harris, M., Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The riddles of culture. New York: Vintage,1974.
- Weis, Ecological Hoofprint, op cit.
- Lim, S.S. et al, “A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990-2010: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.” The Lancet 380 (9859), p 2224-60; Popkin, B., Adair, L.S. and Ng, S.W., “Now and Then. The global nutrition transition: The pandemic of obesity in developing countries.” Nutrition Reviews, 70 (1), p 3-21; Popkin, B., “Reducing meat consumption has multiple benefits for the world’s health.” Archives of Internal Medicine, 169 (6), p 543-45; Sabate, J., “The contribution of vegetarian diets to health and disease: A paradigm shift.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78 (3S): S502-7.
- From 1950 to 2000 alone, the world’s human population leapt from around 2.5 billion to more than 6.1 billion.
- Cochrane, W.W.,The Curse of American Agricultural Abundance: A Sustainable Solution, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003
- Weis, T., The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. London: Zed Books, 2007
- Berlan, J.-P.,‘The Historical Roots of the Present Agricultural Crisis’, in W.H. Friedland, L. Busch, F.H. Buttel, and A.P. Rudy (eds), Towards a New Political Economy of Agriculture, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991, p 115-36; Winders, B. and Nibert, D.,‘Consuming the Surplus: Expanding ‘Meat’ Consumption and Animal Oppression’, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 24(9), p. 76-96.
- Mason, J. and Singer, P., Animal factories. 2nd ed. New York: Harmony Books, 1990.
- Lappé, F.M., Diet for a small planet. New York: Ballantine, 1971
- Foley, J.A., Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K.A., Cassidy, E.S., Gerber, J.S., Johnston, M., Mueller, N.D., O’Connell, C., Ray, D.K., West, P.C., Balzer, C., Bennett, E.M., Carpenter, S.R., Hill, J., Monfreda, C., Polansky, S., Rockström, J., Sheehan, J., Siebert, S., Tilman, D., and Zaks, D.P.M., “Solutions for a cultivated planet”, Nature, 478 (7369), p 337–342.
- Derived from the statistical database of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN.
- Weis, Ecological Hoofprint, op cit.
- Pimentel, D. and Pimentel, M.H., “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment.”, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3S), p. S605-33.
- And together with a range of profit-motivated innovation in genetics, technology, and industrial design, geared to optimize feed and other inputs, which is bound to unfold irrespective of pressure for environmental or welfare reforms.
- Whole Foods was led by a vegan and libertarian CEO before its recent sale, who is a noted champion on the potential of ‘conscientious capitalism’. Paumgarten, N., “Food Fighter: Does Whole Foods’ CEO know what’s best for you?”, The New Yorker, January 4 2010. Accessed on April 23, 2017 from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/01/04/food-fighter; Aschoff, N., “Whole Foods represents the failures of ‘conscious capitalism’” The Guardian, May 29 2017. Accessed on May 31, 2017 from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/29/whole-foods-failures-conscious-capitalism?CMP=share_btn_fb
- Howard, P., Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat? London: Bloomsbury, 2016