Essay five: Hides and skins as products of the meat industry
The meat of the matterThere is great interest in ethical sourcing, animal welfare and social responsibility across many consumer product categories, especially food. Livestock farmers will continue to send cattle, sheep and goat to slaughter and will continue to generate millions of hides and skins that tanners can turn into leather, but the meat sector in 2021 faces a more complex set of challenges than ever before and the leather sector will do well to pay attention to what is going on.
The global market for beef and for hides remains strong, but it is finely balanced. Supply is clearly based on the demand for beef, rather than the needs of the leather sector. In early 2021, the Leather and Hide Council of America (LHCA) commissioned a study from two agricultural economists, Professor Gary Brester of Montana State University and North Carolina-based Dr Kole Swanser. LHCA said its objective was to address claims that cattle are raised for their hides.
The two agricultural economists presented economic analysis of the potential impact that the price of hides can have on cattle production in the US1. After applying a method called the Granger Causality Test to the data, Professor Brester and Dr Swanser concluded that no direct relationship exists between hide values and cattle production numbers. They argued that an increase in the value of hides could have an indirect effect on cattle numbers, but only a small one. They concluded that even if hide prices were to increase by 10%, the increase in cattle numbers that they might expect, based on established research methodologies and previous research they have carried out, to be less than 0.2%. The only possible conclusion is that livestock farmers are in business for meat, not the hides.
Meat consumption growsDemand for meat and communication about meat are being affected in some parts of the globe by the growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, but across the world as a whole meat consumption continues to grow. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN)2, average global per capita meat consumption grew from 36.4 kilos per year at the end of the twentieth century to 41.3 kilos in 2015. FAO projections suggest a level of 45.3 kilos in 2030. Poultry will account for a large proportion of this growth. Poultry’s share of total consumption was 28% in 1999, but it will be 38% in 2030. There will be growth in consumption of meat from cattle, sheep and goats, too, reaching 10.6 kilos of beef per person per year, and 2.4 kilos of sheep and goat meat by then, up from 2015 figures of 10.1 and 2.1 kilos respectively.
Livestock farmers will continue to send cattle to slaughter, which means there will be millions of hides for tanners to work with every year. It is a sound principle to hold that consumers who want to eat meat should be able to continue to do so, just as vegetarian consumers who do not want to eat meat and vegan consumers who extend this to avoiding consumption of dairy products as well, have every right to make their choices too. But many fear the situation may be less straightforward than that.
The development of synthetic meat-like products has attracted much attention. Some developers see these products as a way of broadening their protein offering and making money from consumers who want to eat less or no meat. Major suppliers of meat, including Cargill, Tyson, JBS and Marfrig, have invested in non-meat protein products or developed their own. All of these companies will continue to be major players in the animal-based protein market, which earns them billions every year. Synthetics are a side-line that can sit side by side with their main range.
SDG call to actionThose arguing for fast and affordable developments to help feed a growing world population are also happy to see new forms of protein come to market. Food features prominently in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the UN adopted in 2015, issuing a call to action for all governments to help end poverty and hunger, to promote health and wellbeing, to take urgent action to combat climate change, ensure sustainable patterns of consumption and protect the land3. The target for meeting the SDGs is 2030.
“Today, more than 820 million people do not have enough to eat and the climate emergency is an increasing threat to food security,” said UN secretary general, António Guterres, on World Food Day in 2019. “It is unacceptable that hunger is on the rise at a time when the world wastes more than 1 billion tonnes of food every year.” He said it was time to change how we produce and consume food4. He added that “transforming food systems” is crucial to delivering the SDGs and said he intended to convene a Food Systems Summit in 2021 to start a decade of action to deliver the SDGs on time. “As a human family, a world free of hunger is our imperative,” Mr Guterres said.
For the UN, the term ‘food systems’ refers to the full set of activities involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food, touching “every aspect of human existence”. The Food Systems Summit, scheduled to take place in New York in September 2021, aims to provide an opportunity “to unleash ambitious new actions, innovative solutions and plans to transform our food systems to deliver progress across all the SDGs”. Since Mr Guterres announced the summit, the world of course, has had to begin learning to cope with covid-19; the UN has said the summit will lead to the unveiling of ideas for “rebuilding for resilience” in the wake of the pandemic.
Voices of protestLaudable as these ambitions are, the 2021 Food Systems Summit has attracted criticism. La Via Campesina, an international movement representing 200 million small- and medium-size farmers and other people in rural communities, called for “a total boycott” of the New York event and said scientists and academics who work in agriculture and food systems around the world shared its opposition.
La Via Campesina’s complaint centres on the contention that “a handful of transnational companies dominate current global food and commodity trade”5. It claimed that transnational agribusinesses are now entering into partnerships with technology firms “to digitalise the global food system to cement their dominance”. It insisted this should not be allowed to happen because the food systems these big corporations have come up with have proved incapable of feeding the world. “Despite their control of nearly 75% of the world’s food production-related natural resources,” La Via Campesina has said, “they can barely feed one-third of the global population.
Furthermore, they are responsible for most of the $400 billion worth of food lost annually and for the emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases.”
By contrast, it continued, small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, farmworkers, peasants, pastoralists and indigenous people, with barely 25% of the world’s food-production-related natural resources, provide about 70% of the world’s food. It added: “Our web of local small-scale food producers stepped up in every corner of the world when the industrial food supply chain crumbled under the covid-19 pandemic. Yet, when it comes to defining the future of our food system, guess who gets invited by the UN to conceive and construct the plan, principles and content of the global summit: big agribusinesses.”
Shareholder interestsOne of the academics to hold similar reservations to La Via Campesina’s is Dr Michael Fakhri, an associate professor of law at the University of Oregon with a specialist interest in international food policy. He is also a UN special rapporteur, which he describes as “being the eyes and ears of the UN” on a given subject, food in his case. In comments6 he gave to BBC Radio’s The Food Programme in late July 2021, Dr Fakhri said: “Transnational corporations are gaining more and more power in all aspects of the food system. The problem when you have a small number of people who have a disproportionate amount of power is that they’re going to serve their own interests, and more specifically, when it’s a corporation, they’re going to prioritise shareholder profit over the common good.”
He said this was evident in the work the UN and its partners did in the build-up to the 2021 summit, arguing that corporations’ key ideas about the food system and its future were already baked in before the New York event began. “The process has been designed and implemented mostly by people who are very close to corporations and philanthropic organisations like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation,” Dr Fakhri continued. “The ideas and the leadership and the language is all from a network of people that think that corporations are part of the solution.” He accepted that it was important to hear what these big organisations had to say about food, but not to “grant them privileged access”. To do so was like “inviting the fox into the henhouse”, he insisted.
On the same BBC programme, Dr David Nabarro, a special envoy for the World Health Organisation, pointed out that, in spite of these objections, large numbers of other organisations, including some representing farmers, did agree to take part in the 2021 Food Systems Summit and were happy “to have a seat at the table”. One of the reasons for La Via Campesina’s boycott and for a distinct nervousness among some in the meat industry is that they will share the forum with campaigners who, in the recent past, have lobbied, in some cases quite aggressively, against meat. Dr Frédéric Leroy, a food scientist based at the University of Brussels and a great social media champion of meat and livestock farming, has coined the term ‘vegan tech industry’ to describe this group.
Imitation gameOrganisation of the New York summit involved dividing the range of tasks into five areas, called Action Tracks. According to Dr Leroy, Action Track Two, which addresses the shift to sustainable consumption patterns, was heavily geared towards people representing the ‘vegan tech industry’. They are, he insists, working to replace animal-source foods with “imitation foods”, a term he uses for cell-cultured meat and dairy imitation products. For instance, Dr Gunhild Stordalen, founder of EAT, the Oslo-based non-profit organisation dedicated to “transforming our global food system” that launched in 2019 its own meat-meagre diet (recommending no more than 50 grammes per person per week for beef, a quarter of what the UN believes the global average will be in 2030), was appointed the overall chair of Action Track Two7.
Dr Leroy also thinks it is worth noting that non-profit organisation the Good Food Institute (GFI) played a leading role in preparing the innovation component for Action Track Two. Innovation, in GFI’s own words, means presenting plant-based and cultivated meat as “a better way to feed the world”8. The lead for global civil society’s contribution to Action Track Two (ostensibly to counter-balance the views of the corporate world), was Lasse Bruun, chief executive of 50by40, a coalition of organisations dedicated to cutting the production and consumption of industrial animal products around the world by 50% by 2040, “for the earth, the climate, and people”9.
Frédéric Leroy made it clear to the BBC’s The Food Programme that he shares the aim of improving efficiency and environmental performance across the global meat industry, but were the summit to produce a message urging people to shift to processed, patented, fake meat products, he said it would be a big mistake. “We’re talking about an even higher centralisation of the food system,” he explained, “with patented foods that are very difficult to produce, requiring specific expertise. This will shift the food supply system even more to the corporate world and move it away from traditional food systems.”
Over-consumptionIn the build-up to New York, Gunhild Stordalen said she could understand scepticism about the involvement of big corporations in a UN summit such as this one. She said there was no doubt that big business had contributed significantly to the problems that exist in the global food system and that now need fixing. She argued, though, that the same can be said about government policies, adding that most in the food industry accepted that governments needed to take part in the event to help shape the food policies of the next decade. “And, in my view, the same goes for business,” she said.
Her view of animal protein now is that it is an important part of a healthy and sustainable diet. “That’s what the best available science shows,” she explains. “What we need to tackle with urgency is the over-consumption of factory-farmed, grain-fed animals. Factory farming has to end. On the contrary, free-range, grass-fed livestock is an important part of regenerative and nature-positive farming systems. They can restore biodiversity and soil health, and store carbon in the ground.” She said the 2021 Food Systems Summit would draw a clear distinction between “good meat and bad meat”.
There is a need for change, but certainly not for giving big corporations a chance to tweak the systems they have engineered for the way we make and consume food, Dr Leroy says. “We need to use the best science available,” he says. “We need to use the whole portfolio of scientific solutions and we need more engagement from the people that actually produce the food.” He wants fewer people with expertise in investment flows to become involved in shaping the future of meat and of food more generally. Instead, he wants more people with deep knowledge of the soil, of animals and of human health to make their voices heard.
Positive relationships with suppliers in the meat industry are important for leather manufacturers. With foods systems in general, and meat as a high-profile component part of them, facing far-reaching changes in the decade ahead, it seems likely that there will be implications for the leather industry too.