Fri, Jan 10, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Will fear for the planet
turn us vegetarian?

The impact of the meat industry upon our environment really should induce the kind of sleepless terror that forces people to give up their worst habits

By Ian Jack  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Their grazing and feeding takes up a greater area than any other land use: 26 percent of the world’s land surface is devoted to grazing, while feed crops command a third of total arable land — land that might more usefully grow cereals, pulses and vegetables for human consumption or biomass for energy production.

The paper’s authors argue that, with more than 800 million people chronically hungry: “The use of highly productive croplands to produce animal feed is questionable on moral grounds because this contributes to exhausting the world’s food supply.”

Other well-known consequences include tropical deforestation and the erosion of biodiversity, but unless governments intervene it seems unlikely that the demand for animal flesh can be curbed. However, which popularly elected government will ration meat or deliberately price it as a luxury?

More people, especially among the newly prosperous in India and China, have the taste for it. Animal meat production stood at a global figure of 229 million tonnes in 2000 and at present rates of increase will have more than doubled to 465 million tonnes by 2050.

The Japanese appetite for whale meat has disgusting results, as does the Chinese fascination for ivory trinkets, but elephant and whale slaughter is surely no more than a peccadillo in the context of the great, ever-expanding, overheating slaughterhouse that the world feeds from.

Animals with single stomachs such as pigs and chickens produce negligible amounts of methane.Perhaps we should rear and eat more of those, but wild fish are no alternative: The sea is steadily being emptied of them.

On the Firth of Clyde, where I go every summer, an inshore fleet was catching white fish until the 1980s — until there was nothing left to catch.

Now, a few small boats scrape the bottom for scallops and prawns until that harvest is likewise exhausted and all that remain are the salmon farms where salmon, being carnivorous, eat compounds of smaller fish.

The “moral eater” faces a series of puzzles.

“Eat oily fish,” is the government’s health advice, but if all of us did so, the stocks of oily fish would be even more imperiled.

“Eat more fruit,” is another instruction, though unseasonal fruit often depends on aviation fuel to reach us.

A diet that could reconcile the competing needs of carbon reduction, social equity, biodiversity and personal nutrition would probably consist of field-grown vegetables that have been harvested locally by well-paid labor: the diet of the £5 (US$8) turnip.

Nonetheless, my resolution this year is to become a vegetarian. Not quickly, but as a slow transformation, with mince the last to go — a sort of “Operation Vegetarian,” to use the name for Churchill’s plan, never fulfilled, to poison Germany’s cattle population with anthrax-infected cattle cakes dropped by bombers.

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