the price of meat

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If cheap meat means increased health risks and if it is based on work systems incompatible with human dignity, its acceptance in global markets will be increasingly contested

“Meat is too cheap. Advertising with low meat prices does not match sustainability. This is no longer acceptable.” The statement would not be surprising if it came from a vegan activist or a socio-environmental activist. But, coming from Julia Klosckner, Minister of Agriculture of Germany, it gains special importance.

More than that: it serves as a warning both for those who think that current methods of animal protein production are the epitome of technological progress, and for those who insist on characterizing any criticism of the sector as an expression of protectionist interests that make up the nature of wars. commercials.

It is cheap meat that makes slaughterhouses the epicenters of the pandemic in at least eight countries, including Brazil. And meat has become cheap as a result of a system that fails to overcome an essential contradiction. On the one hand, it increased the consumption of animal proteins and thus improved the health conditions of hundreds of millions of people over the 50 years in which it spread its production techniques around the world. On the other hand, by concentrating and homogenizing thousands of animals in reduced spaces and hundreds of people in its processing, increased the risks of viral or bacterial transmission. The data in this sense are impressive.

Study published in Royal Society Open Science shows that the mass of chickens kept in industrial captivity exceeds that of all other birds on the planet.

These animals are genetically wired for a lifespan of five to seven weeks, during which they binge eat to gain weight quickly. Their ancestors lived between three and eleven years. Since the Middle Ages, the weight of industrial chickens has increased fivefold.

Its organic structure is so fragile that, in an experiment in which the animals were kept alive for nine weeks, their illnesses increased alarmingly. Only the systematic use of medicines, which make stabled animals consumers of 70% of antibiotics consumed in the world, is what maintains the fragile balance of these industrial concentrations.

This speed on the farm is also accompanied by the pace of work in the slaughterhouses and slaughterhouses. Workers are concentrated in an icy environment and must perform dangerous operations involving sharp instruments as animals pass through hooks or production conveyors.

The concentration is so high that in one slaughterhouse the pandemic reached 6,5 workers and was responsible for reversing the curve of decline in contaminated people in Germany at the end of June. O famous R indicator (average number of new infected for each person affected by the disease) quickly went from 106 to 2,88 in a weekend.

And who are the infected workers? In the United States, almost 90% are from racial or ethnic minorities. In Germany, they are generally workers from Eastern Europe, who often don't even speak the local language, who work 60 hours a week and live in collective accommodation offered by subcontracting agencies. A Brazil Reporter also documented the poor working conditions in Brazilian aviaries. The availability of cheap labor is an obstacle to fully automated meat packing plants, as in Denmark.

These facts and the denunciations surrounding them suggest that the pandemic will accelerate crucial transformations in the international meat trade, which is, in a way, the heart of the global agribusiness, since it is for this production that most of the grains go. produced in the world. Two foci of these changes are especially important for Brazil.

The first is that the methods by which contemporary technical progress has enabled the production of cheap meat are increasingly threatening public health and animal welfare. If cheap meat means increased health risks and if it is based on work systems incompatible with human dignity, its acceptance in global markets will be increasingly contested.

The second is that, in Germany, the federal authorities are proposing regulations that prevent the subcontracting of workers. As of January 2021, slaughterhouses will only be able to rely on personnel directly employed by them. And the places where employees live will have to be informed to facilitate public control. In a sector as important as meat production, the idea that the radical flexibilization of working conditions is a premise for the proper functioning of the economy is no longer accepted.

The conclusion is that cheap labor and cost reduction through the renunciation of corporate responsibilities will be less and less the decisive factors of contemporary competitiveness. These civilizing demands tend to expand, even if backward representatives continue to shout that this is nothing more than disguised protectionism.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a senior professor at the Environmental Science Program at IEE/USP. Author of Amazon: For a Knowledge Economy of Nature (Elephant/Third Way)

Originally published in the magazine page 22


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