In 1782, the Scottish soldier John Oswald arrived in Bombay eager to fight for the East India Company. But after witnessing Britain's savage treatment of the natives, Oswald quit his post and went on a walkabout among the Indians. Under the influence of his newfound Hindu hosts, Oswald cast aside the haggis and roast beef of his homeland and converted to vegetarianism. With ideological fervor he attacked the human oppressors who were guilty of exploiting both humans and animals alike.
In his own country, he realized, the Scottish Highlanders were being forcefully evicted by the meat-gorging rich in a greedy quest to provide their animals with more grazing.
By the time Oswald finally returned to Britain, he had become, according to one contemporary, "a convert so much to the Hindu faith, that the ferocity of the young soldier of fortune sunk into the mild philosophic manners of the Hindoo Brahmin."
Oswald's next career move was to join the French Revolution with a proclamation that the republican fraternite should be extended to the animal kingdom, before grape-shot laid him and his utopian dreams to rest.
Oswald was one of many revolutionary vegetarians, from the 18th century to the 21st, who imbibed the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1755, Rousseau had argued that because animals shared with humans the capacity for sensation, they at least had the right to be protected from "unnecessary" maltreatment. The majority, meanwhile, maintained that animals had no value except insofar as they were useful to humans.
In Jewish and Christian societies, this animal-unfriendly view had been bolstered by the Bible's testimony of God's words to Noah: "the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth ... Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you" (Genesis, 9:2-3).
Two-and-a-half centuries after Rousseau's declaration, vegetarians and carnivores are still locked in battle. But there is a pressing case for these warring camps to lay aside their differences and unite against a problem that affects us all. For one of the greatest threats to the welfare of animals, to biodiversity and to humans comes from the same single source: the perverse state of the modern meat industry.
Viewed from a holistic ecological perspective, some meat -- such as conscientiously hunted animals -- involves less suffering and environmental damage than arable agriculture; while both of these are significantly less harmful than indiscriminately purchasing meat on the market.
Vegetarianism and veganism remain powerful protests against modern society's disregard for the interests of other animals. But even among the most sincere defenders of animal rights there is no room for self-righteousness. Though the stomachs of vegetarians may not be graves for dead animals, the purest vegan is still indirectly complicit in hidden forms of slaughter. To use the phrase of one early 19th-century carnivore, apparently innocent vegetarian foods "are ushered into the world on the spoils of the slain."
Let us ignore for the moment the lives of microbes and invertebrates. Seasonally ploughing and harvesting crops will mash up a few moles, slice through a burrow of field mice and crush any ground-nesting bird chicks. Far more significant, though, is the creation of the field in the first place: an act that replaces entire ecosystems, along with all their animal inhabitants.
Inevitable as these side-effects of agriculture are, we do have the opportunity to minimize them significantly -- and it is here that the argument against meat becomes compelling. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when populations were growing exponentially and the environment was visibly suffering, both vegetarians and carnivores voiced their worry that meat production required more land than that of vegetables.
A sustainable approach to food production -- as Rousseau, and later Percy Bysshe Shelley, pointed out -- had to involve maximizing the number of people that could be fed from each unit of cultivated land. Since then, however, commercial meat production has progressed in the opposite direction, by appropriating more and more of the world's available acreage.
Between one-third and a half of the world's arable harvest is now given over to feed animals. Most of the crop's nutritional content (which could otherwise have gone to feed humans) is thereby effectively converted into feces, inedible tissue and heat. Much of the destruction of wildlife and the countryside -- Britain's hedges and meadows and the 200 million hectares of tropical rainforest since the 1960s -- has been committed to supply the inefficient demands of the meat and dairy industry.
Combatants in the "bloodless revolution" against meat-eating have historically had impossibly idealistic aims; but it is still less realistic to believe that we can continue this profligacy indefinitely.
The cries of demographers centuries ago are now backed up by the WHO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization: on 0.4 hectare of arable crops, they say, enough food can be grown for up to 20 people; use 0.4 hectare to produce beef and the number drops to just one. It takes an estimated 100,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of beef, compared with 500 liters for 1kg of potatoes.
According to the dramatic figures of ecologist David Pimentel, at Cornell University, New York, beef requires up to 27 times more energy to produce than plant protein, suggesting that a blindingly simple way of tackling global warming would be to revert to a vegetable-based diet. Climate change is further ratcheted up by a menagerie of 20 billion farm animals exuding plumes of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Brazil's Amazonian and Cerrado ecosystems, meanwhile, have been devastated by the advance of cattle ranching and, more recently, soya cultivation, 80 percent of which is used for animal feed. Most people would not like to chew their way through a heap of endangered monkeys, birds, beetles and plants (or people, for that matter): and yet that is effectively what we do when we buy meat without ensuring the provenance of the feed it was fattened on.
Until meat is produced in a sensible fashion, vegetarians will continue to occupy the higher moral ground. At the very least, policy-makers and consumers should be thinking of meat-eating in the same way that we have learned to regard fossil fuel consumption: we cannot eliminate it, but we should at least reduce it.
Fortunately, there is meat on the market that evades many of these problems. As human pastoralists discovered 8,000 years ago, raising animals can be an efficient way of harnessing otherwise unusable resources such as grass. Well-managed hill-farming of cattle and sheep with minimal grain-feeding can even contribute positively to local ecologies, such as heathland, where animals keep down bracken, tree saplings and grasses, allowing the rarer habitat of heather to dominate. New farm subsidies will encourage such practices, thus making them more economically viable.
Feeding unused vegetable matter to animals is another way of turning waste into food, rather than food into waste. As a teenager I raised pigs and chickens on surplus collected from the school kitchens, a local baker and a vegetable market. The resulting pork was -- and would be still if new waste legislation can be negotiated -- thoroughly good food, and highly amenable to large-scale application.
Witness the recently launched business Fareshare 1st, which will divert some of Britain's enormous quantities of surplus food into animal feed. If we could think past the idea that meat is murder, we would see that raising animals in this way actually reduces humanity's heavy ecological footprint.
Heartless though it may seem to some, among the least harmful things to eat are sustainably culled wild animals. In the absence of natural predators, deer populations in parts of Britain have reached such dense numbers that the woodlands they browse fail to regenerate. Rabbits also are in no danger of being wiped out, and the non-native grey squirrel (whose palatability British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted by employing its culinary name, the "flightless partridge"), can be a pest to forestry as well as a threat to red squirrels.
Harvesting animals from the wild will never yield the quantity of the modern meat industry: but it will not cause the waste of valuable resources and pollution inherent in that industry either. Local councils in the Scottish Highlands are encouraging school canteens to serve "Bambi-burgers" to absorb the 70,000 red deer culled each year, thus providing children with a local, free-range meat that has a fraction of the fat and cholesterol of beef.
For centuries, hunting for sport has been vilified. But as a method of gathering food, at least hunting brings the consumer and the consumed into closer contact. It may not accord with the Indian doctrine of non-violence that Oswald embraced, but neither is culling animals necessarily representative of the west's traditionally rapacious attitude to nature.
Exchanging a daily feast of ordinary shop meat for more vegetables and an occasional venison steak would be a difficult choice for most; but if we could imaginatively close the distance between ourselves and the world's impoverished people and the environment that suffer as a result of our food choices, it might be possible.
It would also be healthier and far tastier. Which is why, along with the wild blackberries and the horseradish I picked and dug from a grassy verge in the English countryside, I recently served guests with sausages made from a deer I shot in the preceding days.
How -- when I gazed down my rifle-telescope at the exquisite animal grazing in the woods, twitching the flies away with its ears -- did I manage to pull the trigger that ended its life? Although I have been culling deer for 13 years, it is still hard.
But I did so by contrasting that one individual kill with the innumerable less visible victims of arable agriculture, and by remem-bering that at the last big party I attended there were barbecued prawns -- farmed on bulldozed mangroves, fattened on over-exploited fish stocks, transported away from a hungry part of the world and served to an overfed elite.
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