Eating more meat not progress, says researcher

Higher obesity rates | Professor says increased affluence has lead to more obesity and sparked more animal welfare concerns

The implications of ever-increasing global meat consumption are mostly bad, says University of Lethbridge geography professor Ian MacLachlan.

The negative outcomes include more human obesity, grain stocks diverted to livestock, higher risk of epizootic disease, environmental degradation and animal welfare concerns.

His presentation, part of the U of L’s public professor series, raised eyebrows in a room filled with people who live in Canada’s most concentrated livestock feeding area.

Hundreds of thousands of cattle are raised and finished in southern Alberta, and the industry hopes that greater exports will make up for a decline in per capita beef consumption in Canada.

“The world is eating more meat and it has been increasing its consumption of meat going back to 1961 without interruption,” said MacLachlan.

China, in particular, has increased meat consumption much higher than the global average.

Consumption in South and Central America is also increasing at rates faster than the world average.

African levels are below the world average, as are those in southern Asia.

China’s dramatic increase in meat consumption has caused a “nutritional transition,” said MacLachlan. Its percentage of overweight people is lower than that of Organization of Co-operation and Development Economic countries, but “in the last 15 years, overweight rates have doubled and obesity rates have tripled. That is one outcome of increased consumption of meat.”

However, MacLachlan said the higher rates are not exclusively be-cause of meat consumption, but also because of greater affluence and increased urbanization, which allows or causes higher consumption.

“All of the mechanisms aren’t understood,” said MacLachlan.

In a later interview, he pondered the question of whether there is an upside to increased meat consumption.

“That is a really good question. We know what the downside potential might be,” he said. “What do we know about the upside potential? I suppose that the countries that are experiencing dietary change see that as consistent with a movement towards higher levels of development and human progress, and to the extent that consumers have more choices, isn’t that a measure of the economic success of a development process that is so fraught?”

“It really comes down to what outcome will maximize our human utility, and we have to go back to the downside. Can we do this in a sustainable way? We’ve got lots of evidence that we’ve made some mistakes, embarrassing ones, and are we going to learn from those mistakes? That’s a very good question.”

During his presentation, MacLachlan said Australia ships live cattle and sheep to other countries, but slaughter methods at the end point are inhumane and abysmal. It’s a cause of concern and embarrassment for Australia. He said animal welfare will become a greater issue as global meat consumption continues to increase.

Canadian cattle producers are more aware of those implications, he added.

“I think that a lot of producers are deeply committed to the most ethical kinds of practice. They’re proud of being ethical, and they’re doing what they can to maintain their sense of pride in the occupation that defines their lives,” he said. “It’s very important to those people, so I don’t think they’ve lost their social licence, but I think that there certainly are a lot of critics out there, and we’re hearing more from those critics than ever before.”

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