Smithfield Market
Smithfield Market, London

The sight of pre-packaged animal flesh wrapped in cling film was familiar and disturbing in equal measure. As a vegetarian, it had been a while since I had entered a butcher’s shop, but I had gone in seeking answers to my questions: where does beef come from these days? Where were the cattle raised, and how far had their carcasses travelled? The first answer I received was short and snappy. All the meat that’s sold in this country comes from Smithfield Market, the butcher said. “It’s the most famous meat market in the world.”

I had not intended to be critical or to pass judgement on his business. Meat has long played a key role in the human diet due to the high quality of its protein, which contains essential amino acids, minerals and vitamins. The butcher supplies many local restaurants, and later I overheard him say that his clients had no choice but to pass on the recent price increases to their customers. Yet the steep rise in food and fuel prices – partly as a result of the war in Ukraine, but also because of the cumulative effect of Brexit and the pandemic – is overshadowing other problems with our diets.

According to the World Resources Institute, our global food systems contributed between a quarter and a third of annual greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade. A huge proportion of this is produced by the beef industry. The combination of land use and agricultural processes (including waste as well as animal feed) means that emissions from beef are seven times higher than from chicken and 20 times higher than beans per gram of

I spotted the blackboard behind the counter: “We stock British beef, Irish beef, Argentinian beef, Australian beef, Uruguayan beef, Brazilian beef.” As I wondered how anyone could justify all those food miles, the butcher informed me that the Argentinian beef was his favourite. And even if we choose to eat cattle farmed closer to home, intensive farming requires vast quantities of feed, using fertiliser sourced from raw materials found elsewhere.

While the fertile plains of South America, the famous Pampas, are known for their cattle ranches, the production of lucrative animal-food crops – notably soy – wreaks havoc in other parts of the continent. The area most affected is the Cerrado in Brazil, a savannah the size of the UK. Land-grabs and deforestation continue to destroy its complex ecosystems, displacing many indigenous communities in the process.

The UN has issued recommendations that beef-producing countries tackle their emissions, but levels of meat consumption continue to rise globally. The prospects for meeting globally agreed climate goals are not good. And the truth is that we are all implicated in the environmental harm caused by food production, whether we consume meat or not.


Environmental journalist George Monbiot is convinced that the sooner we liberate the land from farming the better. “We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years,” he wrote shortly after the airing of his 2020 documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet. “Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life.” The success of this biotech revolution will inevitably hasten the end of the livestock industry, he argued. Might this be the way to go?

Modern systems of food production have been largely driven by scientists aiming to make farming more efficient, regardless of the toll this might take on the environment. Some of these developments also promised revolutionary changes, whether by increasing yields or saving huge labour costs. At the same time, many scientists have been motivated by the need to address poverty, inequality and public health. Perhaps we can learn from earlier examples of momentous change in the way our food is grown, prepared and consumed; this history might offer some insight into the roots of our current crisis.

The humble Oxo cube is a good place to start. A product originally sold as a convenient and affordable way to consume beef, the story of its invention, production and consumption illuminates many aspects of modern history.

The story begins in the 1840s, with the brilliant German scientist Justus von Liebig. He was concerned with the meagre diets of people forced to move away from the land into Europe’s growing industrial towns. Liebig, whose ideas and methods influenced contemporary philosophers and economists, including Marx and Engels, saw that food preparation placed a particular burden on women. In 1847 he concocted “a thick, dark brown liquid with a powerful beef aroma,” that he marketed as Liebig’s Extract of Meat, hoping to provide a cheap protein that was available to all.

However, the dubious benefits of Liebig’s Extract of Meat were largely confined at first to wealthy households and armies on the move. Beef farming on a large scale was simply not feasible in Europe. In 1863, Liebig, who never patented his invention, went into business with George Giebert, a young German engineer building railways in Brazil. Acting as scientific adviser, Liebig consented to the plan to purchase 28,000 acres of land at Fray Bentos on the banks of the Uruguay river. Machinery was shipped across the ocean and the company assembled a largely European workforce to manufacture the extract, using the flesh of thousands of cattle that would otherwise have been killed for their hides and hooves.

The year that Liebig died, in 1873, the company also began to produce tinned corned beef, sold under the label Fray Bentos. In 1910, the beef extract, now renamed Oxo, was manufactured in solid form, and the trademark hand-wrapped cubes became an essential component of every kitchen cupboard and soldier’s ration pack throughout the 20th century.

Today, the globally recognised brand is owned by a UK-based firm. Still a household staple, the Oxo cube survives as a reminder of what can happen when an innovative scientist joins forces with an ambitious entrepreneur. Meanwhile, the revolutionary changes that the Liebig company introduced played a key role in globalising the European beef market, laying the foundations for the trade to this day.

This venture also accounted for the industrial revolution in Uruguay and neighbouring countries in Latin America. The original processing plant in Fray Bentos is now the Museo de la Revolución Industrial, and Uruguay competes with Brazil, Argentina and Australia to sell beef to the world’s most famous meat markets.


The history of the Oxo cube can help us understand the way that the beef industry has transformed regional and global economies, driven by European nations’ insatiable need for new colonies to source raw materials, control trade routes and fend off starvation at home. Food, war and colonialism are entangled in ways that are often overlooked, and it is important to recognise that radical scientists could not always predict the long-term implications of their revolutionary proposals.

For this reason it seems prudent to give extra scrutiny to the scenario welcomed by Monbiot. Might his faith in Silicon Valley’s ability to solve the ecological crisis effectively sever the link between food and the soil? This would surely run counter to the agroecological principle of supporting social and cultural communities in conjunction with sustainable farming.

The success of Monbiot’s proposed biotech revolution would inevitably hasten the end of the livestock industry, with predictable consequences for jobs. He suggests that “Instead of pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be investing in helping farmers into other forms of employment, while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their livelihoods.”

Standing in the butcher’s shop, the vague idea of governments providing “relief funds” for people suddenly losing their livelihoods seemed dangerously tokenistic. Replacing farming with biotechnology overnight would disrupt ways of life and fracture deep ties to place and community. The politics of food is always about more than what we choose to eat.


I suggest instead that we pay more attention to those advocating alternative food systems that take social and cultural needs into account, as well as repairing and healing the environment. In many parts of the world today, agroecologists are working to change the basis of food production by addressing the harms caused by human exploitation of the planet – whether flooding, drought, soil degradation or biodiversity collapse – viewing these harms as intrinsically connected to human problems such as malnutrition, obesity and disease.

By making the relationships between plants, animals, people and their environments the basis of a sustainable food system, agroecologists demonstrate that livestock can play a crucial role in regenerating the soil. Animal manure, for example, is rich in nutrients and organic matter, which are both key to the physical, chemical and biological properties of healthy soils.

The climate crisis cannot be addressed simply by changing consumer habits: choosing between animal or lab-grown meat, vegan or dairy. Nor is abolishing agriculture going to save us, not in our lifetimes anyway. It’s true that we desperately need a revolution, but it must be one that demands a reparative relationship to the land, not its abandonment.

Extending human life on this planet, free of dependence on fossil fuels and soil-poisoning chemicals, demands a greater knowledge of how our food systems work, as well as how they might be uncoupled from geopolitical power struggles. As the glare of war illuminates the vulnerability of all living things, educating ourselves about alternatives, whether agroecological or biotechnological, has never been more urgent.

This piece is from New Humanist summer 2022. Subscribe here.