Planet Carnivore by Alex Renton

Planet Carnivore (Kindle Single)

But the fact remains that one of the reasons that 870 million people are hungry today is that 40% of the grain the world produces is being fed to animals raised for the richest to eat …[that same grain] could feed 3 billion humans.

Planet Carnivore is a well-referenced and up-to-date extended essay from the UK newspaper The Guardian with a rather unique and compelling take on meat, global food security and food scandals (including Horsegate) that all meat eaters should read.

Instead of focusing on WHY we should eat organic, hormone-free and undiseased meat, Renton focuses on HOW we are to feed not only the world’s growing hunger for meat, but feeding the future billions of extra mouths resulting from the uncontrolled growth in human population. Whatever we do, sacrifices will have to be made.

The simple reality that the current food system produces enough for 10 to 12 billion people is not widely recognised. Nor is the fact that industrially reared animals eat 3 billion peoples’ cereal, plus a whole pile of soya and 30% of the world’s fish.’

Meat, particularly beef, is linked to prosperity. As we get richer, the more meat we eat. China’s new wealth has driven up the demand for beef and other meats so much that they’re buying the world’s biggest producers in order to meet their country’s demand.

We in the West consume about 3 or 4 times more protein than we need. Protein should be 7% of our daily calorie intake – Americans eat 40% and of that 40% is from meat. Besides vegetarian protein like beans, nuts and seeds, we eat other animal protein like the milk in our coffees and the eggs in our breakfasts. Taking those into account, most of us only really need a maximum of 80g of meat per day – about 30kg a year per person.

The US currently eats 120kg per person (17% of the world’s meat is eaten by Americans who equate to 4% of the world’s population), in the UK it’s 89kg – the average in developed countries is 80kg, while the Chinese are eating more than Americans with 31kg of fish alone. ‘Because of the Chinese, pork has now become, by weight, the most eaten meat in the world.’ Chicken is second with about 52 billion alive at any one time.

I probably eat about 35kg a year as I don’t eat meat everyday; of the red variety, I usually just eat the odd hamburger and a prime fillet steak on special occasions when it comes to beef as well as the odd lamb stew in winter. Chicken, turkey and wild salmon are the most common meats I consume. But I do love my milk and butter.

I’ve read some of the economics of meat eating before so I knew that beef is the most expensive and inefficient animal but I didn’t realise the scale.

Our two steaks had been brought to us by using 60 morning showers’ worth of water. Enough grain to make 20 large loaves of bread. The energy to drive our car 35 miles. And the unpleasant outputs – just the faeces and carbon dioxide – entailed in the rearing of our 500g of steak weighed as much as my eight-year-old daughter . (These calculations are all based on 500g of beef, grown in the UK and fed on a normal mix of forage and imported feed.)

But feeding and rearing the world’s 1.65bn cattle takes up 60% of the world’s available land, though their products provide only 2% of our calories.

…the most efficient dairy cows convert between 55% and 67% of their gross feed energy into milk food energy.

Imagine, if you will, 40 party balloons rising into the air, each filled with farts. That’s the quantity of methane that an efficient milking cow produces every day.


  • 100 calories of crops fed to livestock = 30 calories of meat & fish (70% loss of calories)
  • Livestock consumes 50% of the planet’s drinking water
  • ‘…farming and consumption of animals and fish causes more environmental damage than all the production and use of fossil fuels and plastics put together.’
  • ‘3kg of an edible wild fish – sardines are used for the Chilean farms – to produce 1kg of farmed salmon.’
  • ‘…the Chinese have recently been rejecting imported American processed foods on health grounds, particularly over chemical additives).’

The Horsemeat Scandal
Food scandals occur every two years. In order to produce cheap food, producers were incentivised to find ways of saving money, leading to a horrendous cutting of corners with chemically contaminated horsemeat. The scandal resulted in people becoming aware that horsemeat is healthier and tastier, it increased organic trade, but consumer reactions to scandals don’t last – they return to almost pre-scandal levels eventually.

Food Science

Overeating red meat is thought to be the driving force behind the heart disease epidemic and a major contributor to obesity and diabetes. Here’s some reasons why we love it so much:

Meat and other animal products deliver more energy to primates like us the more they are cooked: only 65% of an uncooked egg is digested, compared with 90% if it has been boiled. Many animals will opt for cooked food before they go for raw.

Maillard worked out that at 125C the molecules inside carbohydrate and protein chains would start to be released and so interact, forming and breaking bonds and releasing all sorts of compounds responsible for smell and taste. One of these is of course glutamate (glutamic acid is as much as 25% of all proteins). This is why meat heated to these levels is tasty, while meat that has merely been boiled at 100 ° C is not. A bonus of Maillard is that, at 155 ° C, the sugars released start to caramelise, releasing more flavour and odour. The conversion of glutamic acid under Maillard is also what turns meat golden brown – a colour we’re now conditioned to associate with flavour.

We could consider:

  • becoming vegetarian – unlikely that many would give up meat entirely
  • intensive farming – but it’ll worsen the current situation and add animal cruelty to the mix
  • genetic modification e.g. farmed ‘frankensalmon’ – but it could be catastrophic if they escape and breed with wild fish
  • substitute meat e.g. laboratory grown hamburger – though it’s years before it’s ready for commercial production
  • eating algae, plankton and insects – if seasoned and mashed up beyond recognition we may find these palatable

The Compromise

‘The trick is to ration the amount of meat we produce – and then make better use of what we have.’ Eat meat as a treat instead of at every meal and our health will improve. Limiting the capture of wild fish will see stocks recover. However, ‘…the poorest people keep edible domesticated animals, other than pigs, lists as uses: transport; farm labour; a ‘networking mechanism and social status indicator’; a way of storing their savings; and, crucially, as providers of fertiliser.’ This is problematic because their animals will be worth a lot less and in turn making them even poorer. On the other hand:

The drop in the use of chemical fertiliser and the demand for feed crops would of course lower massively the oil price, and so food prices would follow.

Grain prices decreasing could make them more affordable to the world’s poor.

I’m okay with eating less meat – although you wouldn’t think that from looking in my freezer – as long as I can still eat the same amount of eggs, milk and other dairy products, but I’m not sure others would be happy to make the same sacrifice. Men won’t be able to bring home the bacon as often and as meat is a symbol of wealth, we’d have some difficulty changing this cultural norm. Despite this, meat consumption has decreased a little in recent years in the US and UK as the price of meat has become more affordable. So perhaps there’s hope.

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