More Than Meats the Eye: About the Special Report

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About this Special Report

Meat production has a hefty environmental impact on our planet. Animal agriculture alone is responsible for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is also extremely land- and water-intensive. Consider that livestock takes up around 80% of the world’s agricultural land and is a leading driver of deforestation; meat footprint calculators estimate that 15,000 L of water is required to produce 1 kg of beef.

These numbers, dire as they are, don’t capture how the industrialized breeding of cows, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry to fill our bellies often causes biodiversity loss, contaminates our waterways and fouls the air.

People in the United States and Australia eat more than 90 kg of meat per capita every year, however consumption – and production – in the West is stagnating and in some countries, beginning to decline.

Elsewhere, even as the climate crisis deepens, and pressures on natural resources intensify, the demand for meat continues to grow. And nowhere is it growing faster than in Asia: Per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO), more than half the world’s population consumed on average, 30kg+ of meat per person every year by 2013, compared to around 5 kg per capita in 1961.That’s a staggering sixfold increase in just two generations.)

According to OECD-FAO’s Agricultural Outlook 2021-30, these rising appetites in developing nations – fueled by rising incomes – will account for 84% of global meat production growth in this coming decade.   

The "systemic meatification of Asia" is not a simple environmental story; there are serious implications for human health, too. 

Increased rates of obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease are all correlated with an increase in meat consumption. Public health crises stemming from animal to human spillover events are also becoming more frequent. Factory-farmed meat produced in inhumane, crowded conditions jeopardizes the health of farm laborers and can facilitate zoonotic outbreaks. Variants of bird flu, swine fever, Nipah, coronaviruses and other emerging diseases are of grave concern to public health experts.

Then, there’s the vastly under-reported threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – accelerated in large part by the unregulated use of antibiotics to rear animals for food. India is now referred to as “the AMR capital of the world”; other countries are not far behind. By 2050, AMR could cause 10 million deaths every year.

Clearly, decisions made on Asia’s farms and in its billions of kitchens will have global ramifications in the years to come. If meat production and consumption in countries like China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam continue to climb as expected, environmental sustainability and climate drawdown will be further out of reach.

Increasingly, governments are recognizing that the health of humans, animals, and the planet are inextricably linked, and one cannot be achieved without the other. There is growing awareness that this integrated approach, referred to as “One Health”, must urgently be applied to sustainable food production.

Will policymakers be able to change what’s put on the plate? What solutions – and alternatives – might be palatable to populations newly able to cater to a taste for meat, which developed nations have enjoyed for decades?

It is at this crucial juncture that Internews’ Earth Journalism Network’s Asia-Pacific project unveils More than Meats the Eye, our latest collaborative special report.

Just as the One Health approach highlights the importance of coordination, collaboration and communication across sectors for better outcomes, EJN maintains the same holds true across newsrooms.

Twelve journalists from 8 media outlets in 8 countries have spent months investigating the many impacts of rising meat production and consumption in the region; their stories, published in series, are each the outcome of shared sources, leads, data and other resources.

Reporters and editors from The Wire Science in India will look at the consequences of the country’s poultry boom; in Malaysia, project partners Macaranga will explore how the waste generated by pig farming is polluting the region’s rivers. For Tia Sáng in Vietnam, journalists will trace the routes and impacts of importing meat.

From Initium Media, our partners in China, will come stories about the overuse of antibiotics in domestic pork production, even as the country announced its intention to promote cultivated meat and plant-based egg and meat alternatives through its current Five-Year Agricultural Plan. Bangkok Post and PhilStar Global, our partners in Thailand and Philippines respectively, will study the growth of the alternative meat market and dissect the challenges to popularizing lab-grown-meat.

In Indonesia, they’ll report for Mongabay Indonesia on how cattle farming has led to widespread deforestation in Indigenous territories — and, like our partners at The Fiji Sun, will delve into how industrial agriculture practices have heightened the risk of zoonotic spillover .

This project, like many recently, presents participating newsrooms the opportunity to cover a complex issue from different angles and geographies, without concern about competition.

It is not EJN’s intention to be prescriptive about the food choices of 4.7 billion people – our objective here is to improve the quality and quantity of coverage about meat’s impacts on animal, human and environmental health in the Asia-Pacific region. Our partners’ in-depth stories will together produce a multisectoral, cross-border perspective that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s far more than meets the eye. Dig in.

Editor’s note: For the purpose of this collaborative journalism project, the health and environmental impacts of aquaculture – although sizeable and increasing – were not considered. The stories produced will focus on land-based animal meat production in the Asia Pacific. Within this purview, we do not examine the impact of either the production or consumption of animal by-products such as dairy and eggs.

— Amrita Gupta, EJN Editor and Content Officer

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