Meat demand breeds rising costs
Pumping grain into the meat industry will cost consumers and the environment more than usual this year.
Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 19:03
HIGH STEAKS: Sustained demand for grain-fed meat will cost more in 2011. (Photo: Michelle Hardy)
As cereal grain shortages increase food prices and developing world hunger in 2011, it will be hard to ignore the inherently high costs of grain-fed meat.
Rising meat costs spotlight the unfortunate correlation between grain availability and meat availability. According to the World Wildlife Fund, one third of the world's cereal grain harvest is fed to farm animals. Meanwhile, cereal grain shortages around the world are squeezing family food budgets and devastating impoverished communities during this second food crisis of the past three years.
In the U.S., shortages of grain are causing livestock and poultry herds to decline. Combine America's booming meat demand with tighter supply of corn and soybeans, and the result is inflated meat prices in 2011 and beyond. While most foods prices will rise between three and four percent, pork and poultry prices will spike even higher since pig and chicken feed is primarily comprised of corn. USDA predictions claim pork prices will rise 6.5 percent and egg prices will rise 4.5 percent.
This happens in part because American agribusiness gives more grain to animals than people. The grain fed to U.S. livestock could feed roughly 840 million people on a plant-based diet. U.S. livestock currently consume more than seven times the amount of grain eaten directly by Americans. So as agribusiness pours grain into the meat industry, U.S. consumers will struggle to pay for grain-based food amid current shortages.
These figures suggest the monetary and ethical cost of meat will only continue rising in 2011. So how much meat can consumers justifiably demand this year, and at what price?
Is grass-fed the solution?
Karen Christensen of Mac Brook Farm in Argyle, N.Y., believes grass-fed cows are the solution. She and her husband run a small grass-fed-certified beef farm under the belief that the higher production cost of such cows simply indicates how much meat people should actually eat.
"We have to charge people about three times as much as the grocery store does," says Karen in regards to the beef she and her husband sell from their home. "But that's the real cost. People don't usually recognize what real meat really costs."
Cost was the reason farmers switched to corn feed in the first place; as a thriving middle class began demanding enough meat and dairy for several times a day every day, farmers had to satisfy this booming demand using cheap inputs. In result, meat prices haven't increased nearly as much as other foods during the past few decades of price inflation.
Yet as meat prices continue rising in 2011 and 2012, as the USDA predicts they will, it isn't likely these higher costs will significantly lower American demand.
For one, most other foods are seeing price increases, as well. So as breads, fruits, vegetables, coffee and even sugar get pricier, meat won't seem too extravagant a purchase. And as with many foods, demand for meat is fairly price-inelastic; the demand only decreases slightly after a very large price increase. If anything, frugal shoppers in areas already struggling to pay for groceries are likely to let low-calorie, perishable produce suffer budget cuts more often than traditional "main courses" like meat.
While excessive ethanol production and severe global weather patterns are most to blame for grain shortages, the grain fed unnaturally to cows seems utterly wasteful amid this international crisis. Current cereal commodity supply suggests it will be highly difficult to keep feeding both animals and people the same amount of grain without furthering shortages, soaring costs, or drastic increases in agricultural land use.
A helpful strategy, then, might be U.S. grass-fed beef. While grass-fed beef is notably higher priced, it might come closer to conventional beef prices as the cost of grain rises. If trends persist over the next few years, regulating factory farm feed and subsidizing grasses for cattle might be viable options for alleviating some of the grain strain.
But those actions alone can't redeem the meat industry. Ultimately, the best way to reduce animal feed — which really equates to grain, petroleum inputs, land use and often deforestation abroad — is to reduce demand for animals themselves. Fewer cattle, chickens and pigs will mean fewer grain fields devoted to animals and more grain available for people. Suppose Americans cut their meat consumption even slightly; the reduction in waste would be enormous.
Again, the chances of this happening are slim. The USDA projects that beef, pork, poultry and turkey production will actually increase in 2011 in reaction to high prices. In turn, farmers are preparing to harvest millions more acres of corn this year.
If 840 million people could be fed off the grain given to U.S. livestock, 2011 is the time to consider whether eating excessive amounts of meat is disrespectful not just to animals, but to people struggling to pay for a fraction of the grain fed to livestock. Unfortunately, it won't be the forces of economics that prompt responsible meat consumption; ethical eating comes from cultural demand.
Photo: Michelle Hardy
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