Connecting the dots – New Meat Atlas

February 24th 2014


Erik Gerritsen

Friends of the Earth’s Meat Atlas has caused a stir in the press, and rightly so. It’s perhaps one of the most comprehensive analyses of the impact of the modern meat industry. It looks at the sector from many perspectives: from the problems animal rearing causes the climate, to concern over the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming, and the false hope a US-EU free trade deal offers.

But the biggest contribution of this hefty paper is that it connects the dots between the process of industrialisation, consolidation of farming and meat processing on one hand; and the social, economic, health and environmental issues that it influences on the other.

Most of us know that the old food chain – starting with family farming and ending with the small independent retailer – that was prominent up until the 1960’s, has been under constant attack over the past few decades. Market forces have helped create giant food production companies that rear, slaughter and supply supermarket chains across Europe. But, few of us know the scale on which they operate. Mega global corporations like JBS[1] are hardly household names, yet this company’s revenue is higher than either Unilever or Danone. In the US they’re looking at developing ranches that can hold over 100,000 head of cattle.

The Meat Atlas shows how supply chains are becoming dominated by big players at every stage. This is to the ultimate detriment of the environment, smallholder farmers and also the consumer, as the drive to lower prices reduces the safety of the product. The report is not based simply on a number of projections; it’s the here-and-now that policy makers cannot ignore.

Yet, one cannot help think that this publication misses the mark on two important points:

First of all, it offers little in usable advice to stakeholders in the food chain. While it does a good job discrediting the current food system by persuading us that industrialised meat production is bad, it seems to look back to the era of the small farmer, local processor and neighbourhood butcher as the solution. But like it or not, reversing the current trend is not going to happen anytime soon, and there’re quite a few things that can be done within the existing system


© Friends of the Earth Europe & Heinrich Boell Foundation
Caption: The MEAT ATLAS. Facts and figures about the animals we eat is a joint publication by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, Germany, and Friends of the Earth Europe, Brussels, Belgium.

Likewise, although the chapter on the European Union (EU) provides an interesting explanation for the mess the meat industry currently finds itself in, the focus on the common agriculture policy (CAP) reform comes too late. The new CAP was finalised in 2013 and radical change will have to wait another seven years. The summary paper accompanying the report introduces a more extensive list of EU policy demands, ranging from better measuring resource use, to developing sustainable diet principles to strengthening public procurement guidance[2]. Unfortunately these policy avenues don’t stand out in the report itself.

There are some glimmers of light which are highlighted in this report. We’re seeing stabilising meat consumption in some of the key Western markets and in some cases it is actually falling[3]. In addition, places like India aren’t radically increasing demand for meat with economic growth; this is largely due to their more plant based diets. Demand reduction strategies – like the promotion of sustainable diets – can help reduce the continuing growth trends. We can see the key learnings of LiveWell as practical solutions to the environmental and health challenges that lie ahead.

Erik Gerritsen                                                      

LiveWell Policy Officer – WWF European Policy Office


Find out more:

The MEAT ATLAS. Facts and figures about the animals we eat – the joint publication by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, Germany, and Friends of the Earth Europe, Brussels, Belgium

The Common Agriculture policy of the European Union

LiveWell for LIFE messages – six steps towards a sustainable diet

LiveWell for LIFE video – a 2.35 min explanatory video on adopting a sustainable diet

[1] JBS is the largest multinational food processing company in the world, producing factory processed beef, chicken and pork, and also selling by-products from the processing of these meats.

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