A meaty issue

The Redwood Blog
Published:  19 August, 2014
Mike Redwood

A lot is made of the fact that most hides and skins are a by-product of the meat and dairy industry. As a consequence we are intricately involved in the livestock business. I have never bought the argument that tanners are some sort of waste disposal businesses cleaning up unwanted waste from the meat industry. We need hides and skins to be top quality and we fight for the best ones. That is why hides today are at record prices yet offer ridiculously small margins to tanners.

Most of our work together is about trying to influence husbandry to improve hide and skin quality. Many readers will remember the battle to eliminate the warble fly in Europe and some might recollect endless struggles to persuade Irish farmers to present hides free of dung.

Increasingly these days we share a new problem. There is a war going on against meat that is getting ever more strident and intolerant. Much of the problem started with an FAO report in 2006 that we were too slow to challenge which essentially argued that methane from cows would destroy the planet. The FAO eventually rowed back on its arguments but it was not until 2013 that they admitted livestock did not after all have a carbon footprint bigger than transport. The American Meat Institute says that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show that all of agriculture contributes 7% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions while livestock production accounts for 3% of greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, transportation accounts for 26%.

Health and land

There are many other challenges to meat from health issues to land use. These are important discussions and it is fair and proper to have a debate but not to come to conclusions before the facts are fully analysed and the casual observer is given the chance to make a fair and considered judgement. Generally speaking the balanced, global view, shows meat and dairy products to have a useful role for both the environment and human health.

A recent article by Simone Baroke of Euromonitor International suggests that India could be the next battleground for meat. Not for scientific reasons but because of the newly elected government’s campaign promises based on their Hindu beliefs. The BJP said that they would halt the export of meat and growing domestic consumption. Cows are sacred animals in Hinduism and their slaughter is already prohibited, so the beef industry focuses on water buffalo meat for domestic consumption and exports.

The industry has been booming, as the previous government was generally supportive of the sector. It has one of the world’s largest herds and is the fourth largest beef producer after the U.S, Brazil and China. In 2013 its export of meat and meat products earned US$3.5 billion. Domestic sales of beef and veal have grown nearly 50% since 2008 as demand from an expanding middle class has been served by better distribution.

But according to Baroke the industry is worried as “India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an observant Hindu and a committed vegetarian, seems to be taking particular umbrage at India’s rapidly growing beef exports. ‘What is the crime of my mother cow… that you are slaughtering her and selling in the international markets just to earn money,’ was one of Modi’s emotive statements on this matter, voiced during the election campaign.”

Attacking the sector does not seem to make sense given that India desperately needs to eradicate poverty and build economic growth. Yet when deep-seated opinions surface things get emotive at about the same speed as the facts get relegated to the margins. Nearly fifteen years ago the historian D N Jha wrote “The Myth of the Holy Cow” which showed that beef was a major, and approved, part of the historic Indian diet. His life was threatened and his publishers intimidated. Fundamentalist groups demanded that the book be ritually burned in public.

As we know in the leather industry, everyone is entitled to their opinion but expressing it via red paint on shop windows, stopping scientific debate and threatening lives is no way forward. Apart from being wrong it will eventually be self-defeating in a world that is fast becoming middle class, better educated and good at communicating.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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