Book Review: The Ecological Hoofprint

Tony Weis’ new book, the Ecological Hoofprint is an outstanding work of activist scholarship. Even though, at a personal level, I was already aware of some of the problems associated with the industrial livestock industry, the book helped to both deepen my understanding and increase my moral and intellectual concern about the issues involved. I found Weis’ central contention – that ‘the deindustrialsation of livestock and the demeatificaiton diets are central to the hope of a more sustainable, just, and humaecological hoofprintne world,’ (p.12) – to be overwhelmingly persuasive.

The central aim of the Ecological Hoofprint is to challenge and expose the many unrecognized costs and problems associated with what Weis calls the growing ‘meatification’ of diets. The title is, of course, an allusion to the now well-known ecological footprint, which has successfully raised awareness about the unsustainable nature of high consumption lifestyles more generally. In the same vein, the Ecological Hoofprint seeks to draw ‘attention to the resource budgets and pollution costs that are embedded and under-accounted for in production and consumption’ of livestock (p. 129).

A related aim is to challenge the way in which dominant development narratives uncritically take for granted high-meat consumption. The livestock industry has used a range of strategies – most noticeably the (misleading) claim that meat is an indispensible source of quality protein – to reinforce the association between high meat consumption and successful societal development. Weis shows how this has influenced future development goals, such as the widely promoted imperative to ‘double food production’ by 2050. Such projections come with embedded assumptions about the continual ‘meatification’ of diets. As Weis points out ‘the scale of chronic hunger (nearly one billion) and malnourishment today, and expected population growth (more than two billion) still does not come close to adding up to a doubling scenario, which also must be understood to contain an uncritical expectation that meat consumption will continue to rise rapidly’ (p.3).

The context for the book is the explosive, albeit geographically uneven, rise in meat consumption across the world, in the second half of the 20th century. In 1961 just over three billion people ate an average of 23 kg of meat and 5 kg of eggs a year, but by 2011, 7 billion ate an average of 43 kg of meat and 10kg of eggs a year – in other words, there has been a quadrupling of meat consumption, and an even greater rise in egg consumption, in a mere half-century (p.1). At the same time, Weis shows that the meatifcation of diets is very unevenly spread across the globe. The global-regional inequalities are massive: average meat consumption in the U.S, for example, was 121 kg in 2010, compared to 7kg in South Asia. This picture, however, needs to be tempered by the fact that meat-consumption is growing most rapidly in some of the so-called ‘emerging economies’ – China, for example, saw per capita meat consumption grow from 4kg to 61 kg between 1961 and 2010.

Weiss rightly situates the growth of the industrial livestock industry within the context of critical political economy. Weiss shows how the competitive pressure acting on producers in a capitalist market economy has shaped each stage in the growth of the industry. For example, in the early 20th century economic competition had compelled U.S grain farmers to make a series of productivity enhancing technological innovations designed to simultaneously maximize agricultural yields while reducing labor costs. This, however, soon led to a food ‘glut’, as more food was being produced than could be sold, which threatened to undermine prices and agricultural incomes. But this ‘glut’ did not mean everyone in the U.S was being adequately fed. The imbalance created was between supply and effective demand – the latter referring to both the desire and ability to purchase a commodity. In a market economy, Weis reminds us, ‘the hungry people who can’t pay don’t register’ (p.72). Still, from a commercial perspective the glut was a major problem. Various strategies were attempted to resolve the issue, such as  government purchasing of grain surpluses or third world food ‘aid’ – otherwise known as food ‘dumping’ (designed to establish long term markets). But ultimately a longer-term solution was needed. This was found, Weis shows, in the funneling of grain surpluses into livestock – that is, animals separated from traditional farms, and systematically reared for food in specialized factory farms, warehouses and feedlots in order to produce meat, eggs and dairy. Although the funneling of grains through livestock involved a net nutritional loss, still, the resulting meat could be sold at higher prices, enabling a new source of income and future growth for the sector. In this way, the growth of what Weis calls the industrial grain-oilseed complex, was increasingly tied to the industrial livestock complex; the growth of each reinforcing the other, to the point where, today, nearly 1/3 of all world arable land is used to grow grains for animal feed (p.148).

Once established, capitalist growth imperatives have, of course, compelled the livestock industry to systematically increase and speed up the production of meat. This has particularly favored poultry production, with chickens especially well suited to the ‘technological innovations’ of industrialized livestock production. Poultry are also the most ‘efficient’ at turning feed into meat in the quickest time possible – their short lives lasting only a matter of weeks – even if the process inevitably involves, in the words of Bob Torres, neglecting ‘their interests to not suffer, their desires to be free and to live as beings in the world,’ and instead, subjugating them to the ‘productive ends of capital’ (quoted in Weis, p.142).

In a powerful chapter, Weis shows the contradictory nature of this process. In a variety of ways the attempt to speed-up and intensify meat-egg-milk output, undermines basic biophysical processors. These then have to be ‘over-ridden’ by additional application of resources – most noticeably fossil fuel energy – which in turn generates mounting ecological and social problems. To give just one example, the sheer volume of often-contaminated biowaste generated at large (labor saving) factory farms, cannot easily be recycled back into the soil as was the case with traditional farms. Instead a variety of energy and water intensive processors are needed in order to remove the waste from factories and either transport off-site or funnel it into massive, often leaching, neighboring ‘lagoons’.

The final chapter is an appropriately devastating summary of the true ‘hoofprint’ generated by the grain-oilseed-livestock industrial complex. At its heart, this is a challenge to the narrow conception of capitalist ‘efficiency’, which has shaped the development of the industry. In the search for profit, the industry has very ‘efficiently’ sort to increase meat-egg-dairy output while minimizing costs, especially labor costs. However, looked at through the lens of ecological and social impacts, the industry has been appallingly inefficient, generating multiple and mounting problems, including:

  • Magnified GHG emissions (livestock production is involved in nearly 1/5 of all anthropocentric GHG emissions);
  • Increased land devoted to monocultural feed crops, which in several ways accelerates the decline and fragmentation of eco-systems;
  • Increased water use, as well as pollution of waterways from fertilizer and pesticide runoff and leaching bio waste;
  • Increased chronic diseases associated directly with high meat diets, and indirectly from the disease risks associated with livestock factory farms;
  • The domination, abuse and violence inflicted on livestock animals;
  • The mundane, degrading and psychological unhealthy conditions experienced by animal industry workers.

Weis concludes the book by discussing alternatives and strategies for change. On the supply side he argues for a gradual dismantling of the industrialized grain-livestock complex, to be replaced with bio-intensive organic farming. Bio-intensive farming, he argues, is capable of producing more ‘total nutrition per land area than monocultures owing to their capacity to grow a bigger range and overall number of plants, even if individual plants are lower yielding’ (p.148). The more direct use of agricultural land for (mostly plant based) food could open up space ‘for the renaturalization of forests, native grasslands, wetlands, riparian zones, streams and rivers’ (p.149). On the demand side, Weis encourages individuals to adopt more plant-based diet and discusses the debates that rage between meat minimizers, vegetarians and vegans. Still, he cautions against exaggerating the ‘impact of individual consumer choices’ worrying that ‘this could lead to self-gratification when what is needed is far more critical reflection and political engagement’ (p.154).

I felt this section could have done with further elaboration and discussion of the hugely difficult socio-political issues involved. Weis does not go into detail on some of the inevitable trade-offs that would come with such a societal shift. For example, while a transition to labor intensive bio-intensive farming may well have the advantage of increasing employment and defusing the ecological hoofprint, the costs would involve not just reduced meat availability, but also a less lucrative agricultural sector generally, as reduced labor productivity would eat into both profits and per capita incomes. Furthermore, a labor-intensive agricultural sector could undermine many sources of modern economic growth. Personally, I think these are costs worth making but the point is, when viewed in these terms, the immensity of the political challenge becomes clear. Which capitalist society today – all of which consider economic growth to be a fundamental societal goal, and most of whom are fully integrated into today’s neoliberal global economy dominated by huge Trans-National Corporations – are going to consider making the radical shifts Weis wants?

Ultimately, Weis’ systemic analysis points towards the need for a new anti-systemic movement. This is especially clear when the hoofprint is understood as just one more set of problems that global-consumer-capitalist society is generating, and particularly when viewed in light of the emerging (savage) limits to growth.

Those reservations aside, Weis’ book stands as a fine achievement and a must read for anyone working for transition to a democratic, sustainable and peaceful world order.

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