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How Increased Meat Consumption In the US + China Changes Landscapes Across The Globe

Americans eat 235 pounds of meat annually. That’s the equivalent of roughly 470 big hamburgers a year – more than a burger every day.

The Chinese on the other hand consume a mere 120 pounds of meat per person each year. Yet with 1.35 billion people in the country, China now consumes double the amount of meat we do in the U.S..

“If everyone on the planet were to eat like Americans, we have the capacity to feed 2 billion people.” says Janet Larsen, the Director of Research at the Earth Policy Institute. “This is not a situation the world has dealt with before. Never before have so many people been trying to live so high on the hog, so to speak.”

In the U.S. beef reigns supreme, while in China, the meat of choice is pork. More than half of the 107 million tons of pork eaten world wide in 2013 were consumed in China, a clear reason Chinese company Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. bought the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, last year.

And although hogs more easily turn grain into protein than cows do – it takes only 3 pounds of grain for a pig to gain a pound of weight (chickens take only two, while beef takes seven) – all those pigs mean a lot of grain is needed. China now purchases more than 60 percent of the soybeans available for export in the world, a vital ingredient in animal feed.

Soybeans, says Larsen, help to quickly and “efficiently” fatten hogs and cattle. But soybean yields are difficult to increase, which means that as more soybeans are needed, more land must be converted to make room for the legume.

That extra land is currently found in Brazil and Argentina. Since the 1990s large monoculture soy crops have graced lands where forests once stood, and today Brazil is quickly becoming the world’s leading soy producer.

But now Brazil is also the world’s leading user of pesticide. According to a study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, herbicide use between 2003 and 2008 rose 50 percent in Brazil and average fungicide use in that same period for soybean plants rose 70 percent. 99 percent of soybean crops in Brazil are also genetically modified, as are 93 percent of U.S. soybeans and 71 percent in Argentina, and, the report found:

“This massive adoption [of genetically engineered soy] has led to excessive reliance of glyphosate for weed control in world soybean production….A major cause for the increasing use of herbicides in soybeans is the rapid evolvement of glyphosate-resistant weeds in GE glyphosate-tolerant crops….Also in Brazil, there are signs of increased use of older and more toxic herbicides in the soybean crop. For example, imports of the toxic herbicide paraquat have increased strongly the last years and there are reports of growing use of paraquat and 2,4-D in soybean regions.”

This massive use of herbicide in Brazil and the U.S. is also now affecting the water and air we breathe.

Last year glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Round Up, was found consistently in water and air samples gathered in two farm states in the U.S. And while it may be true that glyphosate is less toxic than many other pesticides, several studies have also found it toxic to fish and water microbes. The Associated Press also reported last year that communities around Argentina are now also dealing with health issues due to chemical drift, water contamination and a host of other issues related to the widespread spraying of pesticides on soybean fields.

Monsanto, the producer of most glyphosate herbicide and glyphosate-resistant seeds, reported $368 million in profits in Q1 of 2014, in large part because of Brazilian sales of their products. A new Monsanto glyphosate product called INTACTA RR2 PRO aims to also take advantage of “emerging insect pressure” which “ sets the stage for rapid penetration” into markets in Latin America and the United States.

In other words, says Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute, “ Dramatic meat consumption in China is responsible for reshaping landscapes in western hemisphere.” It is also affecting the health and well being of communities across the globe in ways we may never have imagined before.

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