India has already seen the ‘green’ and ‘white’ revolutions in its food industry come to pass; it now seems well on its way to realizing a ‘pink revolution’ too; the modernization of meat production processes. Is going pink an environmental and health hazard in the making?
The ‘green revolution’ in India, and across the world, was brought upon by the introduction of high-yielding varieties of seeds, the use of fertilizers, as well as improving irrigation practices. The ‘white revolution’ in India was achieved through ‘Operation Flood’ designed by the late Verghese Kurien. It marked the world’s largest dairy development program and transformed India from being milk-deficient to being one of the largest producers.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has now found that India is well on its way to modernizing meat and poultry processing, thus realizing the ‘pink revolution’ too. In a report titled the ‘Indian Meat Industry Perspective’, the FAO outlined four steps that should be taken if India’s food industry is to successfully go pink. These recommended steps were: setting up state of the art meat processing plants; developing technologies to raise male buffalo calves for meat production; increasing the number of farmers rearing buffalo under contractual farming; and establishing disease-free zones for rearing animals.
India has already become quite rosy and meat production has been steadily growing over the past decade. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service, India became the largest exporter of buffalo meat in 2012, exporting approximately 1.5 million metric tons of beef. The largest importers of Indian meat are primarily countries in the Middle East and South East Asia.
The USDA also found that a record 3.2 million tons of broiler meat (i.e. chicken) had been produced in India last year. The broiler sector has seen a 30 percent growth since 2009 and is among the fastest growing sectors in the Indian economy at a rate of 8 percent. This increase has been largely attributable to growing domestic demands.
Resource Intensive Production & Environmental Effects
It cannot be denied that industrial agriculture has led to the production of enormous amounts of food, using minimal labor and significantly lowering operation costs. However many of the true costs of the industrial meat production industry are part of a flow on effect, meaning the price tag does not reflect the cost of the effects on the public’s health, rural communities, animal welfare and the environment.
Although the pink revolution has stimulated economic and production gains in India, it is important to also examine what some of the environmental and health risks associated with going ‘pink’ are. It is important to shed light on some of the often overseen, or plausibly ignored, problems associated with ‘state-of-the-art’ meat production.
In the wake of climate change, growing livestock production is a global concern. The FAO has estimated that approximately 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production. Despite its significant effect on climate change, meat production and consumption, and the food system more generally, is not always included in environmental discussions in India and elsewhere.
According to an article published in Environmental Science and Technology, titled ‘Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the US’, the United States red meat production accounts for 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions created from the US food supply chain while poultry and dairy contribute 28 percent of emissions. In viewing this information, let us remind ourselves that India is one of the largest dairy and milk producers worldwide, and last year became the biggest beef exporter as well.
To produce one calorie from animal protein, 11 times as much fossil fuel is required than to produce one calorie from plant protein. Energy is devoured by growing feed, transporting feed, transporting animals, processing animals, packaging meat, transporting meat and keeping meat cold.
The amount of water that is required to irrigate crops, or provide drinking water for animals is also vast. On a global scale, agriculture represents 70 percent of blue water use, water which is taken from surface or groundwater sources. In India, 873 liters is used to produce one kilo of chicken meat, and 1,471 liters of blue water is used to produce beef in industrial systems. One might argue that you save more water by not eating a kilo of meat, than you would by not showering for six months.
Of concern is not only what goes into producing meat, but also what comes out. The horrors of industrial food animal production facilities are known. Characteristically they confine and concentrate large animal populations in small areas who experience short-lived, poor quality lives. However beyond the ethical considerations of animal welfare, meat production facilities can also pose significant risks to human health and the environment.
The amount of excrement animals produce is far more than humans, yet their waste is even more unlikely to be treated properly. Much of the animal waste produced in the process of turning living animals into meat is used as fertilizer and applied to land, or runs off into streams and other surface water bodies.
Animal waste may be a useful as a fertilizer; however it may also be a serious source of contamination and pollution of groundwater and air. The concentration of parasites, bacteria’s and chemical contaminants in animals waste can have drastically detrimental effects on ecosystems, and communities living near waste disposals.
What does modernising meat and poultry production, and processing entail?
In short, it means industrializing the meat production process. This is achieved through specialization; different workers or tools are concentrated on completing certain tasks, mechanization; the replacement of human and animal labor with machines, and standardization of the finished product; accomplished through specialized facilities that work together more effectively by adopting uniform practice to create products of standardized size, weight and consistency. If all products are the same you can process them much more quickly and consumers know what to expect and how much to pay.
Through specialization, mechanization and standardization more can be produced and producers benefit from economies of scale, meaning the more meat they produce, the more revenue they generate. However when this economic principle informs the decision to mass produce chickens, problems relating wellbeing of the birds, as well as safety of the workers may crop up.
These changes in the production process have enabled producers to process more animals and oversee more land with fewer people. Smaller farms tend to become consolidated with larger ones, ultimately resulting in bigger, more powerful meat production companies upon which the market becomes dependent. Thus a small number of stakeholders develop significant influence over how food is produced and who produces it.
Some of the other aspects of industrializing the meat production process include new technology and inputs. For example, in the poultry industry, formulated feeds and breeding techniques are often used to help animals reach their market weight. Inputs may include hormones, antibiotics and agricultural chemicals in the feed – all of which carry their own risks to consumer health.
For the most part, Indians prefer to buy their meat from the wet market, rather than in a processed, packaged and frozen form. Much of the meat domestically consumed comes from poultry, sheep and goat, and is predominantly slaughtered in unregistered meat shops, which may not be in line with government requirements.
Most of these slaughter-houses and abattoirs which produce fresh meat may employ butchering practices which are not always hygienic and safe. They may also lack appropriate facilities like water, electricity, ventilation, drainage and waste disposal. Such smaller facilities are overseen by the local governmental authorities, which do not always enforce stringent standards on production facilities.
Modernized mass production of meat makes its case for not only producing more meat, more efficiently but also producing meat which can be better controlled, and standardized for consumers. If India is going to become a heavy weight meat producer, is the pink revolution the better direction? Will the big players be easier to control?
Monopolising the Market
The Ministry of Food Processing Industries (MOFPI) has found that a handful of large companies are already changing the Indian meat production landscape by introducing modern state-of-the-art slaughter and processing plants, as well as implementing the vertical integration management in poultry production.
India hosts between eight and twenty large integrated poultry processing units, which hold a significant share in the industry. Several of these large meat processing industries include Venkateswara Hatcheries, Godrej Agrovet, Vista Processed Food, Al Kabeer and Allanasons.
Companies which are vertically integrated in a supply chain share a common owner. The owner controls all aspects of the production process from the growth of animals to the processing of meat, ultimately improving efficiency in the supply chain and significantly lowering costs of the final product. However this approach also reduces the autonomy of individual producers in the supply chain.
This factory style of meat production is the standard system in countries like the United States, which have seen a handful of corporations, such as Tyson and Cargill, gain monopoly power over the meat sector due to the consolidation of operations.
Unfortunately their influence on the meat production industry in the United States has not always been checked or challenged, largely because of their influence. In the US a near 99% of poultry products produced come from vertically integrated corporations.
This means that their production practices, which are at times harmful to the environment or animal and human health, have not been as stringently regulated as one might expect, and have thus led to significant environmental and health concerns – problems which may be relevant to countries such as India who are adopting similar models of meat production.
Government Monitoring and Regulation
The government-backed Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), set up under the Food Safety Act and Food Safety Bill (both from 2006), aims to increase local standards of meat production. However their vision for meat production in India is largely to continue on the path of ‘modernizing’ by adopting industrial-style production facilities.
According to their website, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority of the Indian Government (APEDA), has approved 70 integrated abattoirs, slaughterhouses, and meat processing plants across the country. Some laws and regulations have been designed to guarantee the quality of exported meat from India in line with requirements set by importing countries. Whether the same standards are set and as strictly enforced for domestically consumed meat is more difficult to determine.
The National Research Centre on Meat based in Hyderabad was established to conduct basic and applied research in the area of meat quality control and regulations, and to assist the meat industry to comply with the Food Safety Act 2006 as well as international regulatory framework. Their work is aimed at improving the quality and safety requirements for both the domestic markets and the export industry. Their main concern within this mandate is managing risk in the wake of meat borne pathogens like E.coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and Yesinia, as well as other diseases of concern to public health, and the control of pesticide residues. Research centres such as these are important if India is to continue fleshing out mass meat production facilities.
But does India need more meat? Is it worth the natural resources it requires?
Food Security Concerns
Some have argued that increasing the production of meat is an important step to improving food security in India. The validity of this argument is questionable at best given how resource intensive the production of meat products is. According to the United Nations, 30 percent of the earth’s landmass is devoted to raising animals to become meat. This includes land that is used for grazing and for crop growth which is used as feed.
Livestock consume much of the same food products we consume such as grains, soybeans, oats and corn, yet to the meat, eggs and dairy products animals yield when consuming these foods is comparatively small. It takes 5kg of grain to produce less than half a kilo of meat.
Any diversion of farmland to rear livestock could have terrible consequences for India, considering it is home to the largest number of famished people worldwide, see Hunger Map 2011. It was estimated just last year that approximately one fifth of the total Indian population was eating less then was needed to be healthy.
The problems India faces in regard to food security is not only the amount of food being produced, but also the lack of access to food and different varieties of food and a lack of household income people have to afford food. Other factors which destabilize food security include instability of international trade, man-made disasters (including environmental degradation), as well as conflict, terrorism and corruption.
In 1996 the Rome Declaration found that although increases in food production are necessary, growth should be achieved in a sustainable fashion. This entails that natural resources and the development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry should be developed by meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs. The declaration also stated that unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries, should be eliminated and global populations should be stabilized.
One might question whether the use of precious natural resources to produce meat is wise when food security remains a real problem in India, and across the world.
India is said to be home to more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined with approximately 40 percent of the population favoring a vegetarian diet. This means that the resources India is devoting to meat production, which is not even domestically consumed, is high.
It is worth considering whether the environmental and health costs of meat production are worthwhile or even viable in the short and long term. How can we measure it and is it even possible to place a monetary value on human health, environmental quality and animal welfare?
Author: Kirsten Zeller/ RESET editorial
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