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.

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