Friday, July 19, 2013

Should Humans Eat Meat? [Book Excerpt]

What can & should be done about human carnivory? Vaclav Smil answers in this excerpt from his new book. Editor's Note: The following is an adapted excerpt of Should We Eat Meat?: Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, by Vaclav Smil. Wiley-Blackwell, May 2013.
There is no doubt that human evolution has been linked to meat in many fundamental ways. Our digestive tract is not one of obligatory herbivores; our enzymes evolved to digest meat whose consumption aided higher encephalization and better physical growth. Cooperative hunting promoted the development of language and  socialization; the evolution of Old World societies was, to a significant extent, based on domestication of animals
....Homo sapiens is thus a perfect example of an omnivorous species with a high degree of natural preferences for meat consumption, and only later environmental constraints (need to support relatively high densities of population by progressively more intensive versions of sedentary cropping) accompanied by cultural adaptations (meat-eating restrictions and taboos, usually embedded in religious commandments) have turned meat into a relatively rare foodstuff for majorities of populations (but not for their rulers) in traditional agricultural societies. Return to more frequent meat eating has been a key component of a worldwide dietary transition that began in Europe and North America with accelerating industrialization and urbanization during the latter half of the 19th century. In affluent economies, this transition was accomplished during the post-WW II decades, at a time when it began to unfold, often very rapidly, in modernizing countries of Asia and Latin America. 
As a result, global meat production rose from less than 50 t in 1950 to about 110 t in 1975; it doubled during the next 25 years, and by 2010 it was about 275 t, prorating to some 40 g/capita, with the highest levels (in the US, Spain and Brazil) in excess of 100 g/capita. This increased demand was met by a combination of expanded traditional meat production in mixed farming operations (above all in the EU and China), extensive conversion of tropical forests to new pastures (Brazil being the leader) and the rise of concentrated animal feeding facilities (for beef mostly in North America, for pork and chicken in all densely populated countries).
Obviously, current trends of eating beyond our means and planetary carrying capacity cannot continue.
So far, modern societies have shown little inclination to follow such a course – but I think that during the coming decades, a combination of economic and environmental realities will hasten such rational changes. Short-term outlook for complex systems is usually more of the same, but (as in the past) unpredictable events (or events whose eventual occurrence is widely anticipated but whose timing is beyond our ken) will eventually lead to some relatively rapid changes. These realities make it impossible to predict the durability of specific trends, but I think that during the next two to four decades, the odds are more than even that many rational adjustments needed to moderate livestock’s environmental impact (changes ranging from higher meat prices and reduced meat intakes to steps leading to lower environmental impacts of livestock production) will take place – if not by design, then by the force of changing circumstances.
 Read the complete excerpt, Should Humans Eat Meat? [Excerpt]: Scientific American

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