Two seemingly unrelated stories—Ebola in Nigeria and a new report on the impact of global meat production—are in fact directly tied to each other. Read on to learn how.
See if you can connect the dots on these two news stories ripped from today’s headlines.
› Here is Story No. 1: Nigeria is cracking down on hunting and discouraging the use of wild animals for entertainment to stave off the spread of Ebola.
According to a report by the Voice of America, since July, when Nigeria recorded its first Ebola case, the government has been conducting a nationwide campaign to discourage interaction with animals and the consumption of “bush meat” from wild animals, which can spread the disease to people. Ahmed Maiyakim, a spokesman for the Kaduna State government in Nigeria, said the state is now enforcing existing hunting bans to keep hunters away from animals and to halt the sale of bush meat.
Nearly 1,400 people have died of Ebola since the outbreak began in February in West Africa.
As a sign of the impact of Ebola, VOA reported that six men from a remote village In Kaduna came to town with small baboons looking for an audience. “Usually, when animal trainers come to the city, people flock to watch monkeys dance in trousers or to see the baboons mimic farmers and herders,” the article stated. “But [this time] no one wanted to be near the animals.”
Musa Maibigidar, who makes his living hunting monkeys and other animals to be sold as meat at the market, told VOA that the local hunters’ union has agreed not to hunt right now, but they will go back to work when the weather is dry. Maibigidar said people aren’t currently buying bush meat for fear of Ebola. But like the hunters, he thinks people will eventually be more afraid of hunger than disease.
› Here is Story No. 2: The world is eating too much meat, and that’s bad news for the earth’s forests, arable land, and scarce water.
A new report from the Worldwatch Institute, entitled, “Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources,” noted that global production of meat hit a new high of 308.5 million tons in 2013, up 1.4% from the previous year, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
“In response to growing purchasing power, urbanization and changing diets, meat production has expanded more than fourfold over just the last five decades,” according to a news release accompanying the report.
Asia, home to the fast-growing, populous countries of China and India, has already become the world’s largest meat-producing region. In 2013, it produced 131.5 million tons of meat, about 43% of world output. Europe, by contrast, accounted for 58.5 million tons, North America, 47.2 million, and South America, 39.9 million.
Raising all that livestock requires more than two-thirds of all agricultural land being used for animal pasture, with an additional 10% used to grow feed grains consumed by livestock, according to Worldwatch. Plus, one-third of the world’s fresh water is used to grow feed grain.
“Industrial methods in the livestock sector cut down forests to expand grazing lands and use large quantities of water,” the report stated. “[Livestock] production uses grains such as corn or soybeans for animal feed and relies on heavy doses of antibiotics in animals.”
Now, the rest of the story
It would be easy to assign a negative context to both of these stories, and either dismiss them as irrelevant (Nigerian bush meat) or inaccurate (the Worldwatch report).
That would be a mistake, because in fact they are connected. Here’s how.
Rhetoric aside, the point that reports such as “Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources” are trying to make is that current global meat production is relatively inefficient. As the report noted, a significant amount of land and water are used to raise livestock around the world. But their solution is one that is most unlikely: Get people to stop eating meat, particularly beef.
That’s not going to happen, and even if consumers in Western countries in Europe and North America were to cut back on their consumption, the rising middle class in Asia and the addition of more than two billion more people on the planet by mid-century would utterly overwhelm any drop in consumption Westerners might impose on themselves.
Propagandize all you like, but urging the minority of the world’s population to change to a vegetable protein-based diet isn’t going to mitigate the (alleged) eco-impacts of current global meat production.
And as long as we’re discussing eco-impacts, does anyone else have a huge problem with reading that there’s a professional hunters’ union in Nigeria for people who hunt wildlife as a basic staple of the local diet? That’s not remotely sustainable, nor very promising for West Africa’s dwindling population of monkeys and other wildlife.
The solution to the problems posed by both of these stories is this: To lessen the environmental impact of livestock production—and feed the nine billion people expected to be alive in 2050—we don’t need to cut back on eating meat, we need to promote the implementation of modern methods of animal husbandry.
The world can no longer afford to have subsistence herders tending mixed-breed cattle wandering over semi-arid grasslands basically overgrazing the range. Nor can either government or private entrepreneurs be allowed to mow down forest land to introduce cattle or other livestock production.
And we definitely cannot tolerate the continuation of semi-pro hunters slaughtering wildlife, decimating ecosystems in the process and likely contributing to the spread of deadly Ebola or other zoonotic diseases.
To feed the world, preserve wildlife and protect forest habitat, the only answer is a dramatic expansion of modern livestock production, using genetics, nutrition and management to make meat production more efficient and productive.
That would lessen the impact on limited resources of land and water, reduce the pressure for indigenous people to kill wildlife for food and provide an alternative to the destruction of rainforests to introduce inefficient grazing operations.
Thanks for the heads-up, Worldwatch, but rather than insisting a small percentage of people give up their consumption of meat, it would be far better to focus on how we extend the efficiencies common to Europe and North America to the rest of the meat-eating world.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator