Skip Navigation


Beyond Protein FactoriesScience Source

Beyond Protein Factories (cont'd)

It's a given that food systems are under tremendous pressure to increase production. The planet's population is expected to jump past 9 billion people by 2050. Can meat production keep up? Can we meet increasing demand without sacrificing the public's health? What's the best way forward-wholesale abandonment? Or moderation of our impulse to eat meat?

Tough questions with immense ramifications. Some experts argue that industrialization is necessary to meet demand, but IFAP needs tighter oversight to safeguard the public's health.

Lawrence argues we have little choice but to change production and demand. It's a hard sell, he knows, one in which a body of public health research must be painstakingly built before analyzing current public policy and advocating for change.

"These are sloooow disasters, the unsustainability of the high meat diet as the population grows and we diminish our soil resources and rely on fossil fuels [for fertilizer production]. We're at peak oil production, and the prices are going to go up at some point," says Lawrence.

Just 40 U.S. poultry companies process 9 billion broiler chickens annually.

Then, of course, there are the serious impacts on human health. Recent data from scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Cleveland Clinic, among others, have shown the direct links of high meat consumption and increased cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.

"All of these things, the average person really struggles to get their arms around," says Lawrence.

Still, Lawrence says he sees a world more in balance with nature and the environment, where a diminishing taste for animal protein can be met by smaller, diversified farms that also grow vegetables (like One Straw Farm).

But the USDA, for one, isn't sure. A 2012 USDA report found that small producers of livestock are having great difficulties finding small rendering and processing plants to handle their animals. The control of slaughter facilities by the vertically integrated heavy-hitters like Smithfield and Tyson, shuts out small producers. (Solutions to the problem, however, do exist. Some small producers have partnered in developing mobile systems that process meat on site.)

Nor have the feds been much help. The six priority recommendations listed in the Pew report on IFAP have not been embraced by the current administration. At an October 2013 event at the National Press Club, Lawrence bluntly summarized government efforts by saying, "There has been an appalling lack of progress. The failure to act by the USDA and FDA, the lack of action or concern by the Congress, and continued intransigence of the animal agriculture industry have made all of our problems worse."

In addition, Big Meat has big money pushing against change. "It's very tough," admits Lawrence. "There's a disinformation campaign that has Americans believing the only source of protein is animals."

Still, Lawrence notes that as the body of research grows, the public's attitude about meat production and consumption may indeed be changing. CLF's partnership in the 10-year-old Meatless Monday campaign, aimed at getting Americans to consume 15 percent less meat (as recommended by a Surgeon General's report), is on the radar of half of all Americans and has received extensive media coverage. (See page 50.) In the U.K., the "meat-free Mondays" idea is also catching on, and Lawrence points to a recent report from a food trends agency that predicted that U.K. vegetable consumption would rise by 10 percent over the next two years. "Not that any of us can predict the future, but this offers an encouraging view of [consumption of] less meat and more plant-based foods," says Lawrence.

Domestically, there's also a movement by some states to eliminate those gestation crates: Colorado, California, Maine, and Rhode Island passed bills that will eventually ban such crates. Similar bans passed previously in Michigan and Oregon.

Taken as a whole, Lawrence says, "the cracks are appearing in a lot of ways," in the current model of meat consumption and production. Whether it's protecting the health of our hearts, our planet or our wallets, he says, moderation may be inevitable.


  • Lloyd Martin

    California 02/25/2014 05:11:36 PM

    Couldn't agree with you more. This policy has destroyed the farming infrastructure and otherwise good health of nations that rely on America for food, like Jamaica that imports over 80% of food from America. It is no wonder that Jamaica leads the world in the highest incidence of prostate cancer. I am one of them who was fortunate to survive. see

  • Carol Newill, MD PhD

    United States 03/05/2014 08:43:22 AM

    Fantastic issue. Have forwarded it to friends who moved from Baltimore to a 12+ acre farm in Delta, Pennsylvania in 2009 to establish Sunnyside Farm. They raise chickens, turkeys, pigs, cattle "organically." The poultry live in movable pens that are moved over the fields so the birds can eat fresh food directly from the pasture, and in turn fertilize the fields. Our family buys a weekly share of delicious chickens and eggs from Sunnyside Farm, which we pick up in Towson. The meat goes further when you can trust that the bones and gizzards are free of extraneous chemicals and can be used safely to feed your family.

  • Ursula Connolly, MHS

    Mill Valley, CA 03/10/2014 04:01:24 PM

    As an alumna of the JHBSPH, I look forward to receiving this magazine every month. It rarely disappoints me with its well-written and incredibly interesting articles about the amazing work Hopkins' faculty and alumni are doing on cutting edge public health issues all over the world. This issue, however, was so impressive that I wanted to write in to thank you. Living in Northern California, food and where it comes from is a topic that many of us are familiar with, but I am flummoxed, baffled, amazed, that so many educated, political citizens in this country do not seem to be aware of, or care about the dire consequences that are the result of the agri-businesses controlling our government's food and farm policies. People do not seem to realize that we all NEED to make changes. And we need to make them now. To see these words, written in plain English from a top notch, unbiased, school of public health gave me a tiny bit of hope that perhaps some people will start to pay attention to these crucial issues. Thank you and congratulations Johns Hopkins for another stellar issue of this excellent public health magazine.

* = required field

Read about our policy on comments to magazine articles.

design element
Online Extras
World of Food

World of Food

In this photo gallery, international photographer Shehzad Noorani shares some of his mesmerizing images that capture our diverse relationship with food-from Nepal to Malawi.

View Gallery

Rising To the Challenge

Talk to Us

Amazed? Enthralled? Disappointed? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts on articles and your ideas for new stories:

Download the PDF

Get a copy of all Section articles in PDF format. Read stories offline, optimized for printing.