England (Uk): The True Cost of Meat and Dairy

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The TRUE Cost of Meat & Dairy


Before the advent of commercial farming, 85% of eastern Paraguay was forest. Now, with roughly 12% of it still standing, silence fills the air. ‘There used to be 2,000 families living here. Now there are only 30, if that,’ he continues. The story of Ramírez’s home village of Minga Porá is familiar in S. America. It is a story that starts on the dinner tables of the UK and other rich nations, where a hunger for meat and dairy products fuels an ever-rising demand for the industrial farming of animals using high-protein feed.


At the bottom of this food chain is the soya plant. Millions of hectares of intensively cultivated soya are gnawing at tropical forests and savannah – displacing farmers and communities, leading to poverty, ill-health and even violence, ruining habitats and exacerbating global warming.


A report by campaign group Friends of the Earth has been published to focus the attention of UK consumers and the government on the scale of this destruction. It will detail for the first time the cutting, burning and spraying that occurs as a consequence. The report, What’s Feeding our Food?, will start a campaign urging the government to take action, ending subsidies and other policies that encourage intensive farming and making sure public money spent on food is not propping up damaging practices.


Across the main soya-producing countries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, an area the size of California has been cleared for this one crop, which is exported around the world, mainly to the EU and China. As the third biggest customer in the EU, the UK required nearly 1.2m hectares – an area the size of Devon and Cornwall – to generate the 1.7m tonnes of soya beans and 652,000 tonnes of crushed soya meal imported in the most recent year for which figures are available, 2006-7. That was most of the soya used by UK farmers producing 850m broiler chickens, 10 billion eggs, 10m turkeys, 4.9m pigs and 10m cattle for dairy and beef.


Some of this food is exported, but imports, mostly from the EU, are also reared using soya feed, says the report. ‘Even though bacon, burgers, milk and cheese may be produced in the UK, most will have come from animals fed on crops grown on the other side of the world,’ it says. Nor is the pace of change slackening: this year official estimates judge that soya production will increase in all 3 major producers.


Although demand for meat is largely flat in the UK, it is growing in developing countries. Attracted by generous offers from Brazilian-born soya growers, Ramírez’s neighbours began selling their plots. Soon herbicides began to contaminate the land and water supplies. His own crops began to fail. Worried the chemicals would harm his family, Ramírez decided to leave. The destruction wreaked by soya has forced about 90,000 families in the neighbouring state of Caaguazú to leave their homes since the mid-Nineties, according to Javiera Rulli, a biologist for Asunción-based research group BASE, and the editor of a book on soya’s expansion in S. America. ‘The expansion of GM soya is leading to social conflict and mass migration,’ she says.


In Paraguay, in the tiny rural hamlet of San Isidro, resident Cipriano Vega says there has been a surge in diseases that were almost unknown in the community previously.  Diarrhoea, rashes, headaches, allergies, chest infections and epilepsy are all commonplace now, he alleges. The community has asked the local government to test the water supply, but to no avail. The World Health Organisation estimates that, excluding suicide, 355,000 people a year are poisoned by chemicals, and agrochemicals are a major contributor, particularly pesticides.


‘Most people don’t realise that there’s a hidden chain of events linking the meat and dairy they buy to factory farming and to climate change, deforestation and loss of livelihoods in developing countries,’ said Clare Oxborrow, FoE’s senior food campaigner.