Is There Such Thing as ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Humane’ Meat on a Global Scale?

Is There Such Thing as ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Humane’ Meat on a Global Scale?

Polyface Farm's Joel Salatin

Brighter Green’s Executive Director, Mia MacDonald is speaking in China this week to raise awareness about the consequences of rising meat consumption and industrial animal agriculture. The most recent issue of Yes! Magazine shines a spotlight on similar questions of humans’ relationship with animals, exploring the ethical and environmental issues surrounding animal farming and consumption.

In an interview with Joel Salatin of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. fame, the Virginia Farmer makes an argument for what he says is a sustainable and ethical approach to raising meat, stating with confidence that his system on Polyface Farms is one that could feed the world’s population if adopted globally. Salatin presents his farm as a viable alternative to the industrial feedlot model used in much of the United States and world, which tightly packs sometimes tens of thousands of animals on a proportionally small amount of land, and feeds them things like corn and animal byproducts, which they are not meant to eat. Salatin’s farm, in contrast, provides ample amounts of grassy pasture to its cows and also harnesses the ecologically symbiotic relationships between chickens, cows, pigs, pasture, and manure.

The approach of Polyface Farms is certainly more ideal than intensive animal agriculture. For this Joel Salatin should get the credit he deserves. But it is not convincing that Salatin’s approach would actually be applicable on a global scale with the world’s increasingly limited resources and simultaneously skyrocketing levels of meat consumption. Although China’s per-capita consumption is around half of that of the United States, their huge population translates that per-capita consumption into at least 159 billion pounds of meat consumed every year. This number is destined only for growth in a country with a rising middle class with an appetite for resource-intensive animal products. Whether the necessary water and land resources for grazing exist for that level of consumption in China, let alone the world at large, is questionable. What is perhaps more feasible and promising is Salatin’s argument for a more locally and regionally-focussed and sourced diet, which many sustainable food advocates also promote. But meat, no matter how ideally it is raised, may simply not be a physically possible way to feed the masses on a global scale.

Photo courtesy of Nick Ritar and Kirsten Bradley