A couple of recent news stories have focused on one of our favorite consumables — meat. Pork is about to get a huge bump in price because of African swine flu. Currently, pigs are being culled in the thousands in an effort to stem the spread of the disease. But inevitably, when supply goes down, the price rises, and a large shortage is expected.
As for the second story, somewhat coincidentally, a company producing plant-based meat had its initial public offering in early May, and its share price soared in early trading well past its indicated opening price. And while these two events appear only marginally connected on the surface, at a deeper level, they may be more related than appearances indicate.
To anyone who has ever visited a pig farm, it would come as no surprise that disease crops up now and then despite the liberal doses of antibiotics that are administered to the pigs on a regular basis. Pigs are kept crowded so closely together in concrete pens that an outbreak of disease is more of an inevitability than an exception. So the swine flu virus appears to be the price we need to occasionally pay when we demand meat at the lowest cost possible, which results in factory farming, animal welfare be damned. At least, unlike bird flu viruses, the swine virus cannot be passed to humans.
On the Chinese mainland, the average resident consumes 55 kilograms of pork each year, which averages out to about one pig per person every two to three years. Here in Hong Kong, where the daily consumption of all kinds of meat is over 600 grams, our diet puts us among the most carnivorous in the world despite recommendations from our Department of Health to limit our daily consumption to 180 grams of meat, fish and eggs, to help avoid heart disease and some types of cancer.
Mass-scale animal husbandry, otherwise known as factory farming, exacts a huge toll on our environment. One estimate claims that rearing livestock accounts for 18 percent of the global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and is the main contributor toward climate change
With this backdrop, plant-based meat has entered our local market with considerable success. If you have not tried plant-based-meat burgers, I suggest you do as I found them to be a remarkable proxy for beef, although admittedly, as a vegetarian from childhood, I may be a poor judge. My subjective taste buds aside, presently in Hong Kong, you no longer have to travel far to find a restaurant serving plant-based meat. Burgers made of plant-based meat are already available in over 160 local restaurants.
There is little doubt that this movement is a good one. Although the success of plant-based meat has largely been due to technological advances from these companies to uncannily imitate the taste and texture of meat to the point that consumers cannot tell the difference, there is a much bigger picture to consider. Mass-scale animal husbandry, otherwise known as factory farming, exacts a huge toll on our environment. One estimate claims that rearing livestock accounts for 18 percent of the global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and is the main contributor toward climate change. One of the main components of the belching and flatulence of cows is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Beyond concern about our atmosphere, there are also the vast tracts of forest cleared each year simply to grow animal feed such as soybeans and corn as the developing world shifts from a diet low in animal-sourced foods to a carnivorous one. Finally, and equally important, any move to reduce our collective responsibility for the dismal and short lives led by pigs, cows and chickens has to be a step in the right direction.
I imagine our distant descendants in the centuries ahead will look back on our deplorable treatment of animals along with our casual disregard for the damage the livestock industry has had on the environment, and put it in the same category that we presently think of certain appalling actions of our ancestors, such as slavery. The move to plant-based meat cannot be anything but good and should be supported by all. Albert Einstein pointed us in the right direction several generations ago: “Nothing will benefit health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
The author is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.
HONG KONG NEWS