The high price of cheap meat

In many countries, the so-called ecological vegetarianism is gaining more and more strength, which consists in the fact that people refuse to consume meat products in protest against industrial animal husbandry. Uniting in groups and movements, activists of ecological vegetarianism conduct educational work, depicting the horrors of industrial animal husbandry to consumers, explaining the harm that factory farms cause to the environment. 

Farewell to pastoral

What do you think makes the greatest contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, which are considered the main cause of global warming? If you think that cars or industrial emissions are to blame, then you are mistaken. According to the US Agricultural and Food Security Report, published in 2006, cows are the main source of greenhouse gases in the country. They, as it turned out, now “produce” greenhouse gases by 18% more than all vehicles combined. 

Although modern animal husbandry is responsible for only 9% of anthropogenic CO2, it produces 65% of nitric oxide, whose contribution to the greenhouse effect is 265 times higher than that of the same amount of CO2, and 37% of methane (the latter’s contribution is 23 times higher). Other problems associated with modern livestock production include soil degradation, water overuse, and pollution of groundwater and water bodies. How did it happen that animal husbandry, which was originally a relatively environmentally friendly area of ​​​​human activity (cows ate grass, and they also fertilized it), began to pose a threat to all life on the planet? 

Part of the reason is that meat consumption per capita has doubled over the past 50 years. And since the population also increased markedly during this time, the total consumption of meat increased 5 times. Of course, we are talking about average indicators – in fact, in some countries, meat, as it was a rare guest on the table, has remained, while in others, consumption has increased many times over. According to forecasts, in 2000-2050. world meat production will increase from 229 to 465 million tons per year. A significant proportion of this meat is beef. For example, in the United States, about 11 million tons of it are eaten annually.

No matter how appetites grow, people would never have been able to achieve such volumes of consumption if cows and other living creatures used for food continued to be raised in the old fashioned way, namely by grazing herds in water meadows and allowing the bird to run freely around the yards. The current level of meat consumption has become achievable due to the fact that in industrialized countries, farm animals have ceased to be treated as living beings, but have begun to be seen as raw materials from which it is necessary to squeeze as much profit as possible in the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost. . 

The phenomenon that will be discussed in Europe and the United States was called “factory farming” – factory-type animal husbandry. Features of the factory approach to raising animals in the West are high concentration, increased exploitation and complete disregard for elementary ethical standards. Thanks to this intensification of production, meat ceased to be a luxury and became available to the majority of the population. However, cheap meat has its own price, which cannot be measured by any money. It is paid by animals, and meat consumers, and our entire planet. 

American beef

There are so many cows in the United States that if they were all released into the fields at the same time, then there would be no place left for human settlements. But cows spend only part of their lives in the fields—usually a few months (but sometimes a few years, if you’re lucky). Then they are transported to fattening bases. At the feedlots, the situation is already different. Here, a simple and tough task is performed – in a few months to bring the meat of cows to a condition corresponding to the exacting taste of the consumer. On a fattening base that sometimes stretches for miles, cows are crowded, solid body weight, knee-deep in manure, and absorb highly concentrated feed, consisting of grain, bone and fish meal and other edible organic matter. 

Such a diet, unnaturally rich in protein and containing proteins of animal origin alien to the digestive system of cows, creates a great burden on the intestines of animals and contributes to rapid fermentation processes with the formation of the same methane that was mentioned above. Additionally, the decay of protein-enriched manure is accompanied by the release of an increased amount of nitric oxide. 

According to some estimates, 33% of the planet’s arable land is now used to grow grain for livestock feed. At the same time, 20% of existing pastures are experiencing serious soil destruction due to excessive grass eating, hoof compaction and erosion. It is estimated that it takes up to 1 kg of grain to grow 16 kg of beef in the United States. The less pastures left suitable for consumption and the more meat consumed, the more grain has to be sown not for people, but for livestock. 

Another resource that intensive animal husbandry consumes at an accelerated pace is water. If it takes 550 liters to produce a wheat loaf, then it takes 100 liters to grow and process 7000 g of beef industrially (according to UN experts on renewable resources). Approximately as much water a person who takes a shower every day spends in six months. 

An important consequence of the concentration of animals for slaughter on giant factory farms has been the problem of transportation. We have to transport feed to farms, and cows from pastures to fattening bases, and meat from slaughterhouses to meat processing plants. In particular, 70% of all meat cows in the United States are slaughtered at 22 large slaughterhouses, where animals are sometimes transported hundreds of kilometers away. There is a sad joke that American cows feed mainly on oil. Indeed, to get meat protein per calorie, you need to spend 1 calories of fuel (for comparison: 28 calorie of vegetable protein requires only 1 calories of fuel). 

Chemical helpers

It is obvious that there is no question of the health of animals with industrial content – overcrowding, unnatural nutrition, stress, unsanitary conditions, would have survived to the slaughter. But even this would be a difficult task if chemistry had not come to the aid of people. In such conditions, the only way to reduce the death of livestock from infections and parasites is the generous use of antibiotics and pesticides, which is done absolutely on all industrial farms. In addition, in the US, hormones are officially allowed, the task of which is to accelerate the “ripening” of meat, reduce its fat content and provide the required delicate texture. 

And in other areas of the US livestock sector, the picture is similar. For example, pigs are kept in cramped pens. Expectant sows in many factory farms are placed in cages measuring 0,6 × 2 m, where they cannot even turn around, and after the birth of the offspring are chained to the floor in a supine position. 

Calves destined for meat are placed from birth in cramped cages that restrict movement, which causes muscle atrophy and the meat acquires a particularly delicate texture. Chickens are “compacted” in multi-tiered cages so much that they are practically unable to move. 

In Europe, the situation of animals is somewhat better than in the USA. For example, the use of hormones and certain antibiotics is prohibited here, as well as cramped cages for calves. The UK has already phased out cramped sow cages and plans to phase them out by 2013 in continental Europe. However, both in the USA and in Europe, in the industrial production of meat (as well as milk and eggs), the main principle remains the same – to get as much product as possible from each square meter, with complete disregard for the conditions of animals.

 Under these conditions, production is completely dependent on “chemical crutches” – hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, etc., because all other ways to improve productivity and maintain animals in good health turn out to be unprofitable. 

Hormones on a plate

In the United States, six hormones are now officially allowed for beef cows. These are three natural hormones – estradiol, progesterone and testosterone, as well as three synthetic hormones – zeranol (acts as a female sex hormone), melengestrol acetate (pregnancy hormone) and trenbolone acetate (male sex hormone). All hormones, with the exception of melengestrol, which is added to feed, are injected into the ears of animals, where they remain for life, until slaughter. 

Until 1971, the hormone diethylstilbestrol was also used in the United States, however, when it turned out that it increases the risk of developing malignant tumors and can negatively affect the reproductive function of the fetus (both boys and girls), it was banned. Regarding the hormones used now, the world is divided into two camps. In the EU and Russia, they are not used and are considered harmful, while in the USA it is believed that meat with hormones can be eaten without any risk. Who is right? Are hormones in meat harmful?

It would seem that so many harmful substances now enter our body with food, is it worth being afraid of hormones? However, one must be aware that natural and synthetic hormones that are implanted in farm animals have a structure similar to human hormones and have the same activity. Therefore, all Americans, with the exception of vegetarians, have been on a kind of hormone therapy since early childhood. The Russians also get it, since Russia imports meat from the United States. Although, as already noted, in Russia, as in the EU, the use of hormones in animal husbandry is prohibited, tests for hormone levels in meat imported from abroad are carried out only selectively, and natural hormones currently used in animal husbandry are very difficult to detect, since they indistinguishable from the body’s natural hormones. 

Of course, not a lot of hormones enter the human body with meat. It is estimated that a person who eats 0,5 kg of meat per day receives an additional 0,5 μg of estradiol. Since all hormones are stored in fat and liver, those who prefer meat and fried liver receive about 2-5 times the dose of hormones. 

For comparison: one birth control pill contains about 30 micrograms of estradiol. As you can see, the doses of hormones obtained with meat are ten times less than therapeutic ones. However, as recent studies have shown, even a slight deviation from the normal concentration of hormones can affect the physiology of the body. It is especially important not to disturb the hormonal balance in childhood, since in children who have not reached puberty, the concentration of sex hormones in the body is very low (close to zero) and the slightest increase in hormone levels is already dangerous. One should also be wary of the influence of hormones on the developing fetus, since during fetal development, the growth of tissues and cells is regulated by precisely measured amounts of hormones. 

It is now known that the influence of hormones is most critical during special periods of fetal development – the so-called key points, when even an insignificant fluctuation in hormone concentration can lead to unpredictable consequences. It is significant that all hormones used in animal husbandry pass well through the placental barrier and enter the blood of the fetus. But, of course, the greatest concern is the carcinogenic effect of hormones. It is known that sex hormones stimulate the growth of many types of tumor cells, such as breast cancer in women (estradiol) and prostate cancer in men (testosterone). 

However, data from epidemiological studies that compared the incidence of cancer in vegetarians and meat eaters are quite contradictory. Some studies show a clear relationship, others do not. 

Interesting data was obtained by scientists from Boston. They found that the risk of developing hormone-dependent tumors in women is directly related to meat consumption during childhood and adolescence. The more meat the children’s diet included, the more likely they developed tumors as adults. In the United States, where the consumption of “hormonal” meat is the highest in the world, 40 women die of breast cancer every year and 180 new cases are diagnosed. 


If hormones are used only outside the EU (at least legally), then antibiotics are used everywhere. And not just to fight bacteria. Until recently, antibiotics were also widely used in Europe to stimulate the growth of animals. However, since 1997 they have been phased out and are now banned in the EU. However, therapeutic antibiotics are still used. They have to be used constantly and in large doses – otherwise, due to the high concentration of animals, there is a risk of the rapid spread of dangerous diseases.

Antibiotics that enter the environment with manure and other waste create conditions for the emergence of mutant bacteria with exceptional resistance to them. Antibiotic-resistant strains of Escherichia coli and Salmonella have now been identified that cause severe disease in humans, often with fatal outcomes. 

There is also a constant risk that the weakened immune system caused by stressful animal husbandry and constant antibiotic use will create favorable conditions for epidemics of viral diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. Two major outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease were reported in the UK in 2001 and 2007 shortly after the EU declared an FMD-free zone and farmers were allowed to stop vaccinating animals against it. 


Finally, it is necessary to mention pesticides – substances used to control agricultural pests and animal parasites. With the industrial method of meat production, all conditions are created for their accumulation in the final product. First of all, they are abundantly sprinkled on animals to cope with parasites that, like bacteria and viruses, prefer animals with a weakened immune system, living in mud and cramped conditions. Further, animals kept on factory farms are not grazing on clean grass, but are fed grain, often grown in the fields surrounding the factory farm. This grain is also obtained with the use of pesticides, and in addition, pesticides penetrate the soil with manure and sewage, from where they again fall into the fodder grain.

 Meanwhile, it has now been established that many synthetic pesticides are carcinogens and cause congenital malformations of the fetus, nervous and skin diseases. 

Poisoned Springs

It was not in vain that Hercules was credited with cleaning the Augean stables for a feat. A large number of herbivores, gathered together, produce gigantic volumes of manure. If in traditional (extensive) animal husbandry, manure serves as a valuable fertilizer (and in some countries also as fuel), then in industrial animal husbandry it is a problem. 

Now in the US, livestock produces 130 times more waste than the entire population. As a rule, manure and other waste from factory farms is collected in special containers, the bottom of which is lined with waterproof material. However, it often breaks, and during spring floods, manure enters the groundwater and rivers, and from there into the ocean. Nitrogen compounds entering the water contribute to the rapid growth of algae, intensively consuming oxygen and contributing to the creation of vast “dead zones” in the ocean, where all fish die.

For example, in the summer of 1999, in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi River flows, polluted with waste from hundreds of factory farms, a “dead zone” with an area of ​​almost 18 thousand km2 was formed. In many rivers that are in close proximity to large livestock farms and feedlots in the United States, reproductive disorders and hermaphroditism (the presence of signs of both sexes) are often observed in fish. Cases and human diseases caused by contaminated tap water have been noted. In the states where cows and pigs are the most active, people are advised not to drink tap water during spring floods. Unfortunately, fish and wild animals cannot follow these warnings. 

Is it necessary to “catch up and overtake” the West?

As the demand for meat rises, there is less hope that livestock farming will return to the good old, almost pastoral times. But positive trends are still observed. In both the US and Europe, there is a growing number of people who care what chemicals are in their food and how they affect their health. 

In many countries, the so-called ecological vegetarianism is gaining more and more strength, which consists in the fact that people refuse to consume meat products in protest against industrial animal husbandry. Uniting in groups and movements, activists of ecological vegetarianism conduct educational work, depicting the horrors of industrial animal husbandry to consumers, explaining the harm that factory farms cause to the environment. 

The attitude of doctors towards vegetarianism has also changed in recent decades. American nutritionists already recommend vegetarianism as the healthiest type of diet. For those who cannot refuse meat, but also do not want to consume the products of factory farms, there are already on sale alternative products from the meat of animals grown on small farms without hormones, antibiotics and cramped cells. 

However, in Russia everything is different. While the world is discovering that vegetarianism is not only healthy, but also more environmentally and economically viable than meat eating, Russians are trying to increase meat consumption. To meet the growing demand, meat is imported from abroad, primarily from the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia – countries where the use of hormones is legalized, and almost all animal husbandry is industrialized. At the same time, calls to “learn from the West and intensify domestic animal husbandry” are becoming louder. 

Indeed, there are all the conditions for a transition to a rigid industrial animal husbandry in Russia, including the most important thing – the willingness to consume growing volumes of animal products without thinking about how they get it. The production of milk and eggs in Russia has long been carried out according to the factory type (the word “poultry farm” is familiar to everyone from childhood), it remains only to further compact the animals and tighten the conditions for their existence. The production of broiler chickens is already being pulled up to “western standards” both in terms of compaction parameters and in terms of exploitation intensity. So it is quite possible that Russia will soon catch up and overtake the West in terms of meat production. The question is – at what cost?

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