by Chrystal Lee
Chicken mee goreng. Beef satay. Hainanese chicken rice, roasted, not white. Nasi lemak, add sausage, with heaps of sambal chilli on the side. Roti prata dipped into mutton curry. Wanton mee, jia mian, chi de. Some of our best-loved dishes share one thing in common: meat.
With Singapore’s endless obsession with food, meat has become part and parcel of our national identity. Splayed across the table with brilliant colours, fragrant flavours, and sizzling spices, many of us hold the above foods (and more) close to our hearts as they bear witness to endearing dinner conversations and heartwarming family reunions.
The meat we know is meat displayed in its best, tantalising form. That’s not surprising, given that Singapore has never had the agrarian roots of our ASEAN neighbours. We never deeply understood the makings of meat in the absence of fertile pastures and countless cattle. We know beef and pork by the pound – not cows and pigs by their personalities.
That’s not to say that we should remain blind to the litany of issues in relation to the meat industry, which has been thrown into the spotlight of late. The headlines are varied, but they spell bad news.
For starters, climate change rears its ugly head once again, face-to-face with the gargantuan meat industry. Emissions from livestock make up about 14.5% of global emissions — that’s more than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined. Beef and dairy alone make up 65% of all livestock emissions, which includes methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Curiously, a survey by Ipsos MORI finds twice as many people think transport is the bigger contributor to global warming. I bet you would also be surprised to find out that the world’s five largest meat and dairy companies emit more greenhouse gases combined than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP.
There are other disastrous environmental impacts too, such as the destruction of native ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. It was found that livestock farms in the United States generate about 70% of national ammonia emissions, which acidifies land and water. Manure and fertilizer runoff from poultry farming often leads to pollution and dead zones in waterways. The Gulf of Mexico now houses one of its largest deadzones ever, a lifeless region of oxygen-starved waters unable to sustain life. In 2018, the toxin runoff into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf, amounted to nearly 220 million tons, a whopping 500 times more than New York City’s raw sewage that year. When mega meat producers fell forests to make way for industrial farms, climate change is exacerbated through the removal of carbon sinks.
More recently, it appears the coronavirus pandemic has not spared the meat industry as well. Or rather, the meat industry did not spare humanity from the pandemic. Meat processing plants and slaughterhouses in Europe and the United States have been flagged out as coronavirus hotspots. Staggering numbers of COVID-19 infections were reported in US meat processing companies. As of June 8 2020, there were 7,185 cases in Tyson Foods, with 2,642 cases in JBS and 1,705 cases in Smithfield Foods. Germany, famous for bratswurt and pork knuckle, was the worst-hit of the European meat industries. More than 1,500 labourers at meat processing giant Tönnies tested positive for the virus. Runner-up Ireland saw 950 COVID-positive meat workers across nine plants, yet none of the plants were shut down. In an industry made up of foreign sub-contracted labour crammed into unsanitary dormitories, it almost seems easy for the virus to wreak havoc. (Sounds familiar?)
In June 2020, the European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism sectors released a report detailing the “appalling working, employment and housing conditions” of workers in the meat industry. Europe’s meat workers, which largely hail from developing regions such as Eastern Europe, Africa and South America, are typically employed by sub-contractors. This means that the companies operating the slaughterhouses often take no responsibility for the workers. The meat workers are thus faced with little choice: put up with long hours of piecework with few breaks and return to crammed dormitories, or lose their livelihood. The coronavirus may have been a recent pandemic, but these appalling conditions most certainly are not.
Yet the meat industry’s exploitative nature is arguably at its worst for a different category altogether: animals.
We have heard many a story about the inhumanity of shark-finning and the horrors of geese overfed to produce foie gras. These are rare delicacies that many of us can forego. But the stories don’t stop there. Your everyday meat probably comes from industrial or “factory farms”, which churns out slab after slab of meat to meet booming consumer demand while maximizing profits. This form of farming is the most intensive and, often, the cruelest too. Animals are crammed into small and often unsanitary crates and cages, leaving them unable to turn or move around freely. Oftentimes, they are mutilated to even fit those crates and cages. As author Jonathan Safran Foer has written: “We cannot claim to care about the humane treatment of animals while continuing to eat meat regularly. The farming system we rely on is woven through with misery.”
Such overcrowded factory farms have become a breeding ground for diseases. Needless to say, factory farming brings about significant global health risks which have materialized in the H5N1 virus outbreak of 2005 (avian flu) and the H1N1 outbreaks of 2009 and 2016 (swine flu). At present, a new strain of H1N1 swine flu has been brewing in China in the background as COVID-19 steals the spotlight.
These are some of the many issues that plague the meat industry. But I’d stop to address the elephant in the room: Meat is here to stay. (For my lifetime, at least.)
As much as meat dishes are part of Singapore’s national identity, the meat industry also makes up an economic lifeline in some nations.
Brazil is home to the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, which naturally produces rubber, cocoa, nuts and medicinal herbs, commodities that do not fetch as much money as beef and soy. These unfortunate market dynamics have pushed Brazil towards deforestation, where 70% of its deforested land is used as livestock pasture, with the remainder mostly for beef fodder cultivation. As Brazil claims the title of the world’s largest beef exporter, Amazon deforestation has reached an 11-year high in 2019. Today, 20% of the Amazon rainforest has already been lost. In such circumstances, as much as the meat industry is fuelling deforestation, it also fuels the creation of jobs and supports livelihoods. The meat industry both literally and figuratively puts food on the table.
This is the fallout of the global linear and extractive economy, where low- and middle-income governments have little choice but to respond to global demand for such products to prop up the national economy. That is the way their economy is run, and the only way their people know to make a living. The onus is on developed and wealthier nations, given their financial clout in the global economy, to make the shift away from extractive practices.
Meat’s main nutritional benefit, protein, is also an essential component of a healthy diet. This is usually the first objection to the meatless lifestyle. As I write this during the COVID-19 pandemic, health is definitely an important and justified concern. (Although I do note there is a growing body of research showing that the plethora of health benefits of plant-based diet compared to a meat-based diet. Truthfully, the sole nutrient unique to meat is Vitamin B12, which our bodies cannot naturally produce. Thankfully, plenty of foods such as cereals and spreads are fortified with Vitamin B12.)
Whether a precious part of culture, an inevitable economic necessity, or the key to health, meat is here to stay. And that’s okay. (For the record, it’s also okay to love meat. Who am I to stand in the way of love?)
But perhaps it would do us all good to think about the consequences of our actions in a world we have inherited.
No doubt, not all of us consumers have the means or the will to cut meat out of our lives. But we could always go for the mushroom risotto, or the classic aglio olio. Egg fried rice. Aloo gobi. Nasi goreng with tempeh. Onion omelette. Carrot cake – white or black – it’s your choice. If you’re adventurous enough, try the latest meatless patties, topped with caramelized onions in a charcoal burger. If that doesn’t tickle your adventurous senses, there are always insect patties too.
It’s easier to reduce your meat intake than you’d think. Don’t think of “vegetarian” as a whole new lifestyle. Think of it, rather, as the absence of meat. (Veganism is a whole other science, though!) Plastic-Lite will embark on a set of initiatives in the hopes that Singapore’s F&B scene could include more of such meatless options. Of course, Economics 101 mandates that the delicate dynamic of supply-and-demand must be maintained — and that’s where consumer behaviour can work its magic.
Developing meat-consciousness and reducing meat intake are but some of the baby steps that we, as individuals and consumers, could take. A reduction in personal meat consumption is also in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s policy recommendation in a 2019 special report. If you don’t believe me, use this brilliant climate change food calculator to calculate the impact of your dietary choices.
University of Cambridge Professor of Geography Keith Richards put it well: “This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets.” If you like, this way of life has a name: the “flexitarian” diet — and research published in the Nature journal found that a global shift to a “flexitarian” diet has the potential to halve emissions from livestock.
It is but the smallest of actions, but collectively they have the potential to make a tremendous impact. Maybe this could be the beginning of nudging the global economies away from a mega profits-driven model towards a more sustainable, low-consumption one. Indeed, simple steps lead to sweeping change.
Chrystal currently works with local and international startups in Enterprise Singapore to support their innovation and internationalisation journey. Trained in law, she is striving to advance environmental and climate change laws in Singapore, in the belief that Singapore can be a small but shining beacon of sustainability in our corner of the world.