The high cost of cheap meat | Globalization | DW | 11.01.2013
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The high cost of cheap meat

Germans manage to eat an astonishing quantity of meat every year. According to the recently published "Meat Atlas," it's a culinary choice that has indeliberate and devastating consequences for third-world countries.

In German, "Sonntagsbraten," where a traditional "Sunday roast" was placed before eager family members, is a phrase that has almost lost its meaning. While meat used to be a special treat most people could only afford once a week, consumption has increased substantially over the past decades.

In 85 percent of German households meat appears daily on the menu - and often more than once. It begins with meat spreads in the morning, a schnitzel snack in the afternoon and finishes with sausage in the evening. The majority of meat products are eaten by men between the ages of 19 and 24 as well as women between 25 and 34.

Nor are Germans alone in their high levels of meat consumption. The average EU citizen requires a solid 93 kilograms (205 pounds) of meat in a given year. Approximately 20 percent of that meat will ultimately land in the dumpster, whether at the slaughterhouse, during transportation, in shops or at the dinner table.

These statistics are from a new pool of data compiled under the title of "Meat Atlas," put together by the politically green Heinrich-Böll foundation in Berlin, the Bonn-based BUND environmental NGO and the Parisian newspaper "Le Monde Diplomatique."

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The average German eats 1094 animals in a single lifetime

Quantity above quality

The publication of "Meat Atlas" is intended to encourage a bit of reflection, says Böll foundation board member Barbara Unmüßig. "We're eating at the expense of people in the third world," she says.

In the world's poorest countries, 10 kilos of meat per year per person is usually unaffordable. The production of feed for industrialized countries also contributes to the suffering.

Yet very few Germans consider such questions when they're at the supermarket, browsing through all stacks of shrink-wrapped ground beef, chicken breast or bratwursts. At that moment price is everything. Those prices are often cheaper than in the neighboring vegetable aisle.

A woman with short blonde hair smiles at the camera while proudly holding up a green and white book (Photo: Eva Usi)

Barbara Unmüßig, here in Berlin to present "Meat Atlas"

These meat products, however, are only superficially cheap, says BUND Chairman Hubert Weiger. Taxpayer-funded subsidies artificially lower the sales price and ultimately end up as a form of stimulus for feed farms and slaughterhouses. The environmental organization estimates that Germany saw $80 million in such subsidies in 2012 alone.

Then there's the direct environmental impact: the depletion of plant varieties, ground water contamination and the massive quantities of antibiotics used at industrial stalls. Approximately 25,000 Europeans now die per year due to antibiotic-resistant "super germs."

"We can generally assume that for every euro we spend on meat, another euro has to be set aside to pay for the direct and indirect costs," said Weiger.

A real cash cow

The BUND organization has watched with a growing sense of concern as Germany becomes one of the leading meat exporters worldwide. Germany has meat in excess, producing17 percent more than it would need for domestic consumption. Nor does any other EU country, Weinert says, offer such favorable investment conditions.

The result is that foreign feed companies, incuding many Dutch fattening farms, have now relocated to Germany. The German government has expressed little interest in stronger regulations against the implementation of antibiotics that make large-scale farming possible.

A gray-haired man with glasses smiles at the camera while walking on the sidewalk of a busy street. (Photo: Eva Usi)

Weiger has received many awards for his environmental work

And where there are animals, of course, feed must follow. Of German grain, 60 percent ends up as feed; with locally harvested oilseeds that number is 70. And yet production still cannot meet demand.

Nearly one-third of all feed has to be imported - and it's here, according to the "Meat Atlas", that German beef begins to "graze on the rainforest."

The soybean saga

When it comes to soybeans, only China imports more than the EU. When one calculates these imports in terms of the agricultural space needed to produce them, the EU imports a total of 17.5 million hectares. That's equivalent to all of Germany's farmlands.

Soybeans have been sown systematically in Brazil and Argentina primarily, says Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich-Böll foundation. "[German] meat production is empirically responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon.

A pair of cupped hands holds hundreds of yellow soybeans. (DW-Grafik: Peter Steinmetz)

Brazil produces 27 percent of soybeans to Argentina's 19

First comes logging, then the expansion of pastures - the competition here is cutthroat." When cows leave, soybeans replace their pastures.

In South America, 90 percent of soybeans used are genetically modified. As a result the plants are, for example, resistant to an herbicide called Glyphosate. In Argentina 200 million tons of Glyphosate herbicide is used each year to control weeds. It's sprayed from low-flying airplanes, a fact which, according to Unmüßig, has far-reaching consequences for people living in those regions and the water they drink.

Calls for an agro-policy turn

Appropriating land for animal feed also has disastrous social consequences, the Böll Foundation says. Barbara Unmüßig speaks of social turmoil in the third world.

"Whoever fights for environmental rights in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Cambodia or Ethiopia is increasingly on the receiving end of massive political threats and intimidation, and has to live with a reduction in his or her political rights."

Both the Böll Foundation and BUND demand urgent shifts in agricultural policy. "Get rid of subsidies for intensive meat production, prevent land-grabbing in the south, promote small-scale agriculture and finally take seriously the human right to nourishment," Unmüßig says.

BUND is committed to incorporating environmental and animal rights constraints into current EU agricultural legislature regarding 60 million euros in subsidies. Behind the scenes, however, Germany is hard at work in Brussels to counteract those changes, which were supported by the EU Commission and EU Parliament.

"In 2013 the German government has to show that it is the locomotive of EU agricultural reform, and not the brakeman," says BUND Chairman Weiger.

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