Thursday, 25 September 2008

Meat is murder - on the atmosphere

I just signed a petition that will be submitted to the United Nations on Earth Day (22 April) 2009.

Having been vegetarian for 33 years (other than a brief lapse at university) it seems obvious to me that our ability to feed the world's population is hampered by our determination to feed our crops to animals that are raised in horrendous conditions before being transported hundreds or thousands miles to meet their deaths in poorly regulated slaughterhouses.  I thought everyone would understand that this unnecessary cruelty is also hugely inefficient, reducing the calories that reach people's mouths from our farmlands by 90 or 95%.  Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and Colin Tudge ("So Shall We Reap") made all this crystal clear to millions of people - Schlosser's book topped the bestseller lists for months.

What this petition could do is bring this truth out into the open in 2009, something that powerful lobbies for the food industry and farming would rather we kept quiet about.

Of course, some kinds of animal husbandry are more ethical than others.  No-one could begrudge subsistence farmers their chickens and goats - these are essential to survival and quality of life for millions of impoverished families.  They are hardly likely to see much grain, anyway, as their starving owners have none to spare.  Similarly, grazing animals on hillfarms may be seen as a natural part of a sustainable lifestyle and what they consume (in summer at least) is free feed, additional to the calories our farms can provide. Against all my instincts as an animal lover, I have to concede that hunting genuinely wild animals, not those that gamekeepers have reared for so-called sport, can form part of a sustainable diet for indigenous families in remote areas. I am not excusing the probable extinction of great apes or other primates by the bushmeat trade, just noting that the use of wild populations can be sustainable in a way that intensive animal husbandry can never be.

However, the burgeoning appetite for meat in the emerging markets will not be met from these more ethical sources any more than it is in Europe and North America.  The world's demand for meat and meat products is being supplied by intensive farming. 

  • This industry, built on the suffering of animals, competes with human mouths for the crops that our farms can produce.  
  • Meat production, together with the current generation of biofuels, is driving the clearance of tropical rainforest at a greater rate today than ever before.  
  • Lastly, if more reasons were needed to stop eating meat, animal husbandry results in around 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.  

In a letter published in the current edition of New Scientist (27 September 2008), Peter Martin of CarbonSense points out that methane has an 'instantaneous' greenhouse gas potency that is more than 60 times as great as carbon dioxide.  The biggest manmade source of methane is animal husbandry - from both ruminant guts and fermentation of slurry.  We may be unable to prevent the outgassing of methane from the Arctic Ocean and tundra, as the northern sea ice and permafrost disappear, but at least we must begin to tackle the methane contributed by our own actions in raising animals for meat and dairy products! 

This blog is about reducing the environmental impact of everyday life.  That means changing our behaviour.  Adopting a vegetarian diet is one of the most significant changes we can make in our impact on the environment.  We need some basic knowledge and information to maintain good nutrition without meat but it's a really big contribution to a healthy lifestyle.  

If everyone were to halve their meat intake, this would go a long way towards feeding all the world's people, reducing deforestation (for cattle ranching and soya production) and cutting the greenhouse gases that animal husbandry emits.   

Please sign the "FOOD vs FEED" petition and think about cutting your own consumption of meat and dairy products.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Giving up the car

I started this blog a year ago with little idea what it would achieve and that's why it didn't achieve much.  This time around, I will try to post regularly and keep it practical so that you may be able to make use of what I have to say.

I have been busily working to cut my family's home energy usage and have now reduced our annual consumption by 30% since 2006.  Some of this required capital outlay - money which came from selling my two year old Civic Type-R.  This pocket rocket was much loved but owning it contradicted everything I believe about sustainability.  Consequently, selling it became a powerful statement of my personal commitment to reduce my own impact on the environment.  In a rare case of economic and environmental coherence, ditching this 200 horsepower runabout saved me at least £2000 a year (insurance, maintenance, tax, fuel and depreciation), cut my carbon footprint by around 4 Tonnes a year and put more than enough cash into the bank to fund my energy efficiency measures at home.  In the interests of transparency, I must add that my family still has the use of my wife's company car at weekends and for holidays.  

I know that my former online buddies at the CTR Owner's Club were unable to take the environment seriously but it's really hard to get your head round the idea that your own lifestyle is the problem!  Nothing is wrong with the CTR in particular, it's a fantastic car.  Like all petrol and diesel engines, however, it emits greenhouse gases whenever you use it.  The emissions per passenger-kilometre depend on driving style and number of people on board.  The incredible performance of the CTR is begging to be used and encourages the driver to adopt a fiery rather than frugal attitude.  It is also rare to see more than one passenger in a CTR and, during the rush-hour, most have no passengers - just a lone driver commuting between work and home.  

The alternatives to driving to and from work are difficult for many people and adopting them takes real courage.  Perhaps we should start by persuading everybody to avoid one day's commute a week - or even a month!  For the record, here are the obvious alternatives:
1) Work from home - using broadband, phone or just catching up on all that reading you're supposed to get through.
2) Share a lift - find out who lives near you and what days it will be convenient for you to pool.
3) Try the public transport options.  No really, they do exist for many of us.
4) If it's within an hour's cycling distance - pedal.  
5) If it's within an hour's walking distance - walk!  (or pedal, it's so easy if it's that close)

Less obvious - and really hard to do - is to face up to the environmental impact of living so far away from your place of work.  Few of us are in a position to trade in our current job for something closer to home - or to 'up sticks' and move closer to the office/ factory / shop, etc.  

The change that will drive us towards more sustainable personal transportation is likely to be painful and unpopular.  It will involve paying the true cost of the energy used and the environmental impact of this usage.   Fuel prices may bring this about, some years after peak oil has been recognised, but that will be too late to start managing down the carbon emissions  of our personal transport choices.