Curious Cook: The anthropocene diet – Part 2

  • Food News
  • Sunday, 28 Oct 2018

Filepic of a quarantine researcher checking on a chicken at a poultry farm in Xiangyang, Hubei province, China, in February last year. Photo: Reuters

Read Part 1

Chicken super-farms and Vitamin D

Large-scale commercial meat production, or factory meat farming, probably started with chickens in Delaware, United States, at a farm run by Mrs Wilmer Steele. Selling a batch of 500 broiler chickens in 1923 inspired her to devise new methods to intensify meat production – and by 1926, she had the world’s first indoor chicken super-farm with a capacity of 10,000 birds. The numbers and sizes of such large scale chicken farms expanded exponentially when Vitamin D was included in the birds’ diets – before that, chickens tended to be sluggish or even die off in winter due to lack of sunlight, but the addition of Vitamin D ensured that meat and egg production became a viable operation all year round. The rationing of beef during World War II and Howard Pierce’s competition for super-chickens colluded to make chicken the cheapest and most readily available meat in the world today. For more, read “The story of a super chicken”.

Factory farming

In Britain, factory farming started in 1947, when a new Agriculture Act provided farmers with grants to utilise new technologies in crop and animal farming. It was the period after WWII when the UN was still promoting food security by the “intensification of animal production”. Such intensification was mostly confined originally to chickens as they were the cheapest way to breed meat. However, newer techniques developed for other animals allowed the US and Europe to begin serious large-scale factory meat and dairy farming with pigs and cattle around 1966. This eventually led to practices such as CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) where huge numbers of animals are crowded together and fed with fattening grains, nutrients, antibiotics (and often growth hormones), with no opportunities to graze or exercise normally. These large-scale farms are now replicated around the world.

Clearly, such intensive methods to mass-produce meat and dairy have practically nothing to do with natural or even humane conditions for the animals involved. For example, confining hundreds of thousands of chickens in indoor factory farms is so stressful that their beaks are routinely sliced off to reduce injuries due to fighting. The birds also usually live their entire lives in a caged space smaller than a piece of writing paper.

The harsh concrete surfaces of factory farms often painfully deform the feet and skeletons of animals evolved to walk on soft soil. A sample of 34,000 pigs in the US some years ago found 65% had pneumonia-like lesions in the lungs – there is no indication whether this may be hazardous to humans. The use of growth hormones for speeding up meat production is well-known and still continues in many countries despite concerns about dangers to humans. This practice is banned in the EU. Note that almost all factory meat farms routinely ban visitors in case they take pictures or write about the conditions inside.

More worrying is over 80% of the world’s production of mammalian antibiotics (including for humans) are given to livestock – this is to ensure the animals can resist the bacteria inherent in crowded, often unhygienic conditions in factory farms. But we all know bacteria can evolve to develop resistance to such overuse of drugs, and some superbugs which affect humans now cannot be treated with conventional antibiotics.

As mentioned, most agricultural land is now used to grow feed for animals, even though cereals provide two to 10 times and legumes 10 to 20 times more protein than animals for the same land area. This anomaly is even more bizarre in developing countries where land for meat production often crowd out land for human food crops.

The growth of factory farms over the last century is staggering. Globally, around 50% of pork, 40% of beef and 70% of poultry are now derived from factory farms. In the US, the statistics are even more sobering: around 95% of pork, 78% of beef and 99% of poultry are supplied by factory farms.

The only explanation for the explosion of such a pitiless business is the expanding and seemingly insatiable human demand for meat. Such vast, inhumane factories can only exist because the meat industry keeps offering meat consistently at prices around or below consumer reference points – and hence it is all about economics, not nutrition or even common sense (because the environmental damage is not sustainable). For more about reference points, please read “What we think of (when we think of food)”.

Anthropocene Epoch – what’s next?

As stated earlier, this new epoch may end up being the shortest in Earth’s history. The damage to the planet caused by human practices (eg. global warming, desertification, ocean pollution, etc) is already potentially mortal and any immediate remedial action can only be helpful. Although many people are not aware of it, the geophysical impact of factory farming is a significant issue. The irony of course is that there is no requirement for such overwhelming meat production – it only leads to a vicious cycle of ever bigger factory farms to reap economies of scale so as to be able to sell meat at lower prices than competitors. The other irony is that over-consuming such meat is also probably detrimental to health in several ways. This may be evidenced by many of the current generation of Americans having a lower life expectancy than the previous generation.

It therefore makes sense to break away from the maddening crowd, if only because a lot of research has indicated that over-consuming animal proteins/fats can reduce human lifespans and alter the death pattern for entire populations. For example, prior to 1950, the main causes of mortality in China were measles, tuberculosis and senility (diseases related to old age). Since 1985, the main causes of death are cancers, strokes and heart disease – and as in other countries with a similar death pattern, it has been linked to an increase in meat consumption.

‘Optimal’ flexitarian

You know by now that a flexitarian diet just means reducing the amount of meat and replacing it with non-meat substitutes, with no rules attached. However, if one is really interested, then some additional comments may be added, as follows:

Humans need only a pretty small amount of daily protein, around 0.8g per kilo of body weight. So someone weighing 70kg needs only 56g of protein a day, though of course most people eat rather more than this. This is also fine as long as they do not have any chronic kidney disease.

Of this optimal amount of protein, try to limit animal proteins to 5% or less of your total calorie requirements. There is roughly four calories per gram of protein. So if your daily requirement is, say, 2,000 calories, try to limit animal protein consumption to 25g a day. The rest should be made up of non-animal proteins.

For the same daily calorie requirement, carbohydrates should be 50% to 55% of the total, so it means roughly 250g to 275g of carbohydrates.

The rest should be vegetables with lots of soluble and insoluble fibre in any proportion you like – plus of course, fats, especially those with Omega-3 fatty acids, so as to offset the Omega-6 oils normally present in most modern foods. A good balance would be four or fewer parts of Omega-6 to one part of Omega-3.

However, I confess I have personally never strictly followed the dietary suggestions above, mainly because I enjoy eating good food (and drinking wine) too much. So it is just a guideline for anyone curious. My opinion is if everyone would cut their meat consumption by 30% to 50% or more, that would already be an excellent step towards keeping the Anthropocene Epoch alive a while longer. It is also remarkably easy to do, even for meat-loving Germans, especially with ultra-modern foods – see “A modern food story – Part 3”.

Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.

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