Hazel Healy imagines a world without cheap meat, eggs and dairy.
The grey blocks rising out of Yaji mountain in southern China look more like offices than farms. Pigs will spend their lives inside buildings up to nine-storeys high, confined in pens under strip-lights, stacked 1,270 to a floor. Piglets are shuttled up and down in lifts, corpses disposed of by chute.
These ‘hog hotels’ are just one example of industrial-livestock operations, which produce some 50 billion animals every year. Ever since its invention in the US and Western Europe some 100 years ago, the industry has been hell-bent on producing meat with grim efficiency – faster, fatter, and at ever-lower unit cost.
But there are signs Big Livestock may be in trouble. The pandemic wreaked havoc on meat supply chains, inflicting heavy losses, as sales of plant-based meat substitutes exploded. In an ever-more resource-constrained world, Goldman Sachs thought industrial livestock’s prospects so shaky it named it the only commodity ‘as precarious as oil’.
So, let’s capitalize on this moment to imagine how we might we bring this shameful chapter in animal-human relations to a close…
Public support for a phase-out could come from any number of quarters.
Pressure might build from a new public-health scare – perhaps the emergence of a powerful pathogen in the style of salmonella, or, worse still, another zoonotic disease, which jumps from overcrowded chicken sheds.
Or the industry could be taken down by climate activists. We now know the top five meat corporations emit more greenhouse gases than the oil giant ExxonMobil. Already, campaign group Feedback Global is calling for divestment, moving to name and shame the industry’s major financial backers who channelled $126 billion into the meat and dairy industry from 2015 to 2020.
Action will have to be global – and balanced. To kick-start things a ‘factory-farming non-proliferation treaty’ and immediate end to development finance of industrial farms in the Global South would be needed to stop ‘off-shoring’.
Then, hot on its heels, a set of legally-binding targets – perhaps tied to the Paris climate deal – would provide a roadmap for reducing industrial meat production to zero within the decade. We could start by capping numbers of animals per hectare on farms in those countries where meat consumption per capita is highest – like the US, Canada, Australia, as well as Brazil and parts of Europe. And roll it out worldwide, building in loss and damage provisions for vulnerable economies.
The phase-out would reduce global meat supplies by two thirds. But the impact would be concentrated in countries such as the US where the average citizen eats over 100 kilograms (equivalent to 50 chickens) every year, 99 per cent of it factory farmed.