India—my country of origin renowned for its large vegetarian population—is slated to overtake the U.S., Australia, and even Brazil to become the world’s largest exporter of beef by the end of 2012. How can this be when cows are supposedly sacred? Apparently there’s a loophole that India’s beef industry has not hesitated to exploit. While closely related, water buffalo don’t count as cows, and are mercilessly slaughtered for meat shipped to the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. This USDA report drew my attention to an alarming trend—the rise of factory farming in developing nations, mainly India, China, Brazil, and Ethiopia, but also Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines.
Global meat production has multiplied by five times since 1950 for several reasons. First, the influence of Western dietary habits and the glamorization of fast food has fueled demand. Second, some governments provide subsidies or loans to spur animal agriculture, perceived as an economic opportunity. However, because the WTO prevents many nations from imposing tariffs on imported products, imported meat may be sold even more cheaply than domestic meat, causing local farms to intensify production and reduce costs just to remain competitive.
Third, as environmental regulations and restrictions on intensive confinement have increased in the U.S. and E.U., agribusinesses are relocating their operations to countries with lax laws and enforcement—as well as new markets of meat-eaters. For example, both Smithfield and Tyson have invested in China, the latter entering a joint venture with China’s Jianhai Poultry Industry Group to establish a plant that will produce a million chickens per week. Such activities negatively affect animal welfare, the environment, and public health not just in those individual countries, but worldwide.
While all this sounds like bad news, it isn’t too late to reverse this trend. We can educate and empower activists and consumers in other countries by connecting with them on Facebook or Twitter, sharing videos on YouTube, starting petitions, or promoting campaigns such as VegWeek or Meatless Monday. Most importantly, we can set an example simply by choosing vegetarian foods.