Some 70 billion land animals are produced globally for food each year, an estimated two thirds of them reared in intensive conditions. Ecostorm co-founder and food journalist Andrew Wasley has spent the past decade and a half probing the multiple impacts of this kind of industrial farming.
His journey has taken him to farms of all sizes, from traditional smallholdings to huge Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) run by some of the world’s biggest food conglomerates. It’s also led him into abattoirs and meat processing plants, livestock markets, ports and food factories in numerous countries.
Many of the issues he’s covered – food safety, antibiotic resistance and superbugs, animal welfare, exploitation of workers, pollution, deforestation – were probably more marginal concerns just twenty or thirty years ago. Today they have jumped up the global agenda and now command the attention of a concerned public as well as politicians.
The Covid-19 crisis has also prompted a renewed interest in the links between animal and human disease, public health, and in farming and food production more widely.
It was this that finally prompted him to write the inside story of the fifteen years he’s spent reporting on the global meat machine.
Investigating “Big Ag” isn’t easy. In common with other globalised sectors, it’s dominated by huge but little known corporations where big money and vested interests prevail, along with a culture of secrecy and a widespread lack of accountability. Shining a light on the industry’s murkier corners often requires months of research, sourcing secret or suppressed data and documents, working with whistleblowers and undercover filming.
As well as telling some of the behind-the-scenes stories behind the headlines, he’s highlighted some of the many environmental impacts connected to industrial meat production. Soy, for example, is a staple in animal feed, with up to 90% of the global crop used to feed livestock. But it has been linked to deforestation and human rights abuses in places such as Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
Other feed inputs are sourced from the marine environment, including fishmeal. Although prized for its nutritional value – it contains omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial to humans and animals – the fishmeal trade has been responsible for a host of environmental and social problems, including pollution, health issues, overfishing, and impacts on ecosystems and wildlife, in Peru and elsewhere.
It’s here, and in other equally remote places, away from the spotlight and the scrutiny, that many of the real costs of the global appetite for intensively farmed meat are felt. Lives and livelihoods ruined, environments trashed and futures blighted. And it’s often invisible to the outside world.