When I first became a vegetarian 30 years ago I used to find myself in passionate discussions about food issues all the time. The situation seemed so urgent. There were so many reasons to be vegetarian that I felt (and still feel) that the burden of justification should be turned around – not ‘why are you vegetarian?’ but rather ‘why on earth do you eat meat?’
There were reasons of dietary health – avoiding fat and cholesterol – and distaste for the idea of feeding on the flesh of another sentient being. But those rarely cut any ice with committed meat-eaters. There was also my abhorrence of the treatment of animals in factory farming. However, if I chose the ground on which to do battle, I tended to talk about the misuse of food resources in a world where people still went hungry – the enormous amounts of grain and pulses fed to cattle to produce a much smaller amount of beef. I saw eschewing meat as ‘a conscientious objection to a system with waste at one end and starvation at the other’.1
Distasteful and unnatural
In more recent years, whether because I have become more mellow (or more cowardly) with age, I have rarely ended up in such arguments. I have retained my convictions and my diet and have raised children for whom vegetarianism seems to be a fundamental part of their identity. I had expected at least one of them to experiment during adolescence but instead they still perceive eating meat as both distasteful and unnatural.
Parenthood tends to focus you inward more, and to put you less in the paths of strangers to whom an ‘abnormal’ diet would need explaining. Friends and family already know where I am coming from. Extraordinarily, given the shocked disbelief when I first made my stand all those years ago, my extended family now splits pretty much down the middle (turkey-eaters were actually a minority last Christmas). Less surprisingly, the New Internationalist co-operative also now splits down the middle. When I first joined in 1984 I was profoundly shocked to find I was the lone vegetarian.
On the other hand, many friends who once seemed just as committed have reverted to eating meat, while in society as a whole vegetarians and vegans remain a small minority. In Britain a November 2007 survey by the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs showed two per cent to be vegan, three per cent vegetarian and a further five per cent restricting themselves to fish or chicken. In other Western countries vegetarians and vegans are an even smaller minority.
But a sea-change is now taking place. A turning-point came when it became evident that the livestock industry, in addition to all its other failings, was a major contributor to climate change. Over the last year, a crisis in the existing world food and farming model has erupted – refocusing attention on precisely those arguments about misuse of resources that fuelled my original concern.
The burden of justification should be turned around – not ‘why are you vegetarian?’ but rather ‘why on earth do you eat meat?’
The 2006 report of the UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, helped bring the global warming effect of the meat and dairy industries to public notice. Written by agricultural economist Dr Henning Steinfeld, the report caused consternation in the livestock industry and cost the FAO some of its funding. More recently, in September 2008, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, added his own fuel to this particular fire with a presentation in London. Though he was making a personal case rather than representing his organization, there were inevitably newspaper headlines along the lines of ‘UN chief says eat less meat to stop global warming’.2
His presentation encompassed the latest statistics, gathered from a range of different sources, not only on greenhouse-gas emissions from the livestock industry but on the wasteful inefficiency of a food and farming model based on meat and dairy produce. Among the key facts he included were:
• Livestock production accounts for 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and for 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities – including 37 per cent of the methane (23 times the global warming potential of CO2 over 100 years), and 65 per cent of the nitrous oxide (265 times the global warming potential of CO2 over 100 years).
• Producing one kilogram of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases with a warming potential equivalent to 36.4 kilograms of CO2 – equivalent to the amount emitted by the average European car every 250 kilometres. The production of that one kilo of beef consumes 169 megajoules of energy – enough to light a 100-watt bulb for 20 days.
• On top of this, meat requires refrigerated transportation and storage, extensive packaging and cooking at high temperatures for long periods. A high proportion of meat (bones and fat, as well as past-sell-by-date products) is wasted and finds its way into landfills or incinerators.
• A farmer can feed up to 30 people throughout the year on one hectare with vegetables, fruits, cereals and vegetable fats. If the same area is used for the production of meat, milk or eggs, the number of persons fed varies from 5 to 10.
• A third of the world’s cereal harvest and over 90 per cent of soya is used for animal feed, despite inherent inefficiencies. Yet it takes more than 10 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilo of beef, 4-5.5 kilos to produce 1 kilo of pork and 2.1-3.3 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of poultry meat.
• A vegan living for 70 years will pump an average of 100 tons less CO2-equivalent into the atmosphere than someone eating meat and dairy products.
The food crisis detailed in the rest of this issue only makes these statistics more telling. The era of cheap, mass-produced food – dependent on the consumption of enormous amounts of energy and responsible for huge greenhouse-gas emissions – is surely coming to an end. Yet meat eating worldwide continues to rise.
In 2006, farmers produced 276 million tons of meat, five times as much as in the 1950s. In the West, meat consumption has continued to increase, while those developing countries that have prospered over the period have immediately tended to mark their new prosperity by eating more meat – a trend that is obviously likely to continue.
To feed the projected extra demand, there would need to be a further doubling of meat and dairy production by 2050, involving a doubling in the number of farm animals from the current 60 billion to 120 billion. Yet 70 per cent of all agricultural land and 30 per cent of the world’s surface land area is already given over to livestock.
These global eating trends are clearly unsustainable, whether in terms of producing (and sharing) enough food to feed a still-growing world population or of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. People who have up to now dismissed vegetarianism and veganism as mere ‘lifestyle choices’ may over the next few years be forced to think again. Governments will surely be required to intervene to reduce (or at least limit the growth in) the consumption of meat and dairy products. A good start would be eliminating the vast government subsidies from which the meat and dairy industries currently benefit.
At an individual level, altering our diet may be as much of a necessity in the years to come as insulating our homes or reducing our air travel. For those not prepared to give it up altogether, perhaps more attention could be paid to meat’s origin – to eating only animals that have grazed areas unsuitable for arable farming. Or perhaps meat might return to being something saved for special occasions, for high days and holidays – as it was for earlier generations, and still is in most parts of the Majority World.
I felt the situation was urgent 30 years ago, but it is much more so now. The politics of food have always been emotive but the stakes just got much, much higher.
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