Tue, Jun 24, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Meat is more deadly than ever

For the new wave of herbivores, the agenda is more about human lives than sympathy for animals

By John Harris  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Back in April, under the auspices of a campaign titled “No Meat, No Heat,” around 1 million people in Taiwan — including the legislative speaker, the environment minister and the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung — vowed to never again touch flesh nor fish. Given that Taiwan’s Buddhist traditions mean around 1.2 million people are already vegetarian, this was perhaps not such a bold move as it seemed. Still, the organizers of the mass pledge cited the often overlooked contribution of livestock farming to greenhouse gas emissions and presented it as an environmental move par excellence.

The decisive arrival of the current food crisis must be making them feel even more righteous. As daily news reports now remind us, there are three key factors behind the rocketing price of the most basic foodstuffs: the rising cost of oil, swathes of agricultural land being given over to biofuels, and the fact that the increasing affluence of China and India is spearheading an explosion in the demand for meat and the feed needed to produce it.

From there, it is only a small step towards an argument that is rapidly gaining ground: that with more than 850 million people going hungry, using huge amounts of water, grain, energy and land to rear livestock is a luxury now officially beyond us. This may suggest the arrogant west once again telling the rest of humanity to refrain from what we have happily done for years, but there is another way of thinking about it: with the contraction and convergence model for tackling climate change, if we are to accommodate other countries’ increased demand for meat, we will have to drastically reduce our own.

As the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra would have it: My name is John Harris and I am a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat or fish since Christmas 1984, when I had my share of the Christmas turkey, and then quit. I can faintly recall arguments about the inbuilt inefficiencies of meat-eating, but the decision of this particular hard-bitten 14-year-old was based on two considerations.

First, a belief that it was wrong to kill sentient creatures to eat them. Second, that living without meat was an integral part of the 1980s counterculture that set itself against the adult world, international capitalism, and Margaret Thatcher. With the arrival of the Smiths album Meat Is Murder in 1985, everything became clear.

If only for reasons of space, we’ll have to leave vegans out of this — but in the intervening 20-odd years, it’s been strange to watch vegetarianism ooze so easily into the culture. The great post-PC backlash that began in the mid-1990s seemed to briefly threaten its quiet ascendancy, but though avowed British herbivores still form a pretty tiny minority (between 2 percent and 8 percent of us, polls show), their influence is obvious.

The recent story of British meat consumption may essentially be one of fish, chicken and processed meat supplanting our appetite for beef, pork and lamb straight from the butcher’s block, but the parallel growth of vegetarian food has been astonishing: after well over a decade of year-on-year surges, the research firm Mintel reckons that the annual value of the British “meat-free” market is about to reach US$1.5 billion.

In the midst of such progress, there has only been one drawback: the ongoing and inevitable association of vegetarianism with a very British piety (with the onset of age, one begins to understand George Orwell’s very reasonable distaste for the people he described as “vegetarians and communists”) and the mixed-up morals of the hardcore animal rights lobby.

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