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On The Global Food Crisis, Part Deux

For at least 10 days, my mailbox has been inundated with links to articles about the global food crisis. I’m currently working with a group directly affected by the crisis, and it has begun to see food riots. I tell you this because I’m the only person involved in the initiative who is a vegan or–and this is far more important–understands the connection between how we eat here in the US and why there doesn’t appear to be enough food for developing nations. If you’re going to work directly with people who are starving, it would seem to me that engaging in a lifestyle that contributes to that starvation is not the optimal way to behave.

Though most mainstream publications in the US connect not just biofuels to the food crisis, but meat consumption also, they don’t concentrate on the latter (as I discussed in The Global Food Crisis and Crimes Against Humanity). Other publications are dealing with it a bit more substantially, but not without major problems.

For instance, in "The Big Question: Is changing our diet the key to resolving the global food crisis?" in The Independent, Jeremy Laurance reports that the quantity of grain grown in the world (2.1 billion tons) isn’t the problem. The problem is where the grain is going (biofuels and farmed animals).

According to Simon Fairlie, in his magazine The Land, it would take just 3 million hectares of arable land to meet Britain’s food needs, half the current total, if the population were vegan.

Meanwhile, Laurance thinks it’s completely unrealistic for Britain to go vegan.

Vegans number 0.4 per cent of the population, vegetarians 3 per cent, and most people will not take readily to a diet of green leaves, pulses, fruit and nuts. This is about the direction we should be moving in, not the ultimate destination. We should be aiming to reduce our meat and dairy consumption, and increase consumption of fruit and vegetables.

We are eating 50 per cent more meat than in the 1960s, and global consumption is forecast to double by 2050. More of the extra is chicken, and we eat less red meat than in the past (and a lot less than the Americans). But in terms of overall meat consumption, we are not even going in the right direction.

I don’t disagree that it’s unrealistic for Britain to immediately go vegan, but I wouldn’t call it completely unrealistic. Also, calling veganism "a diet of green leaves, pulses, fruits and nuts" hardly sounds appealing, and would make no one even investigate going vegan, which I think is unfair.

Laurance also thinks "it seems too difficult" to give up meat, and writes: "We should get used to thinking of meat as a treat – it could help to save the world’s poor from starvation." That’s an odd juxtaposition to me. It’s a treat to kill someone when you don’t need to, and it’s also a treat to help starving people? I don’t get it. But what confounds me even more are his conclusions. Given the realities that Laurance explains regarding health, the environment and the inefficiency of meat production, he writes:

Should we be trying to cut out meat to help save the world’s poor from starvation?

* Producing meat is less efficient than growing grain – it takes 8kg of corn to produce 1kg of beef

* Growing crops to feed animals means there is less land on which to grow crops for humans

* There is a shortage of grain for human consumption, and global food prices have leapt by 57 per cent in a year


* It is not realistic to expect people to switch to a vegan diet of vegetables, pulses, fruit and nuts

* China and India should not be denied the same diet that we have enjoyed as they grow wealthier

* An alternative way of tackling the food crisis would be to reverse the policy of diverting grain to make biofuels

First of all, the food crisis existed prior to biofuels. Some people starve while others eat animals. That’s not news. Would ceasing the production of biofuels ease the situation? Probably. But what’s being done here that’s inexcusable, is that biofuels are being painted as the enemy, while meat production, which has been diverting food from the mouths of the hungry for decades, gets a free pass.

George Monbiot does something similar in his "The Pleasures of the Flesh: If you care about hunger, eat less meat" (and you can comment on it here–I did). He begins with the statistics about food and where it is going, mentioning biofuel and calling it, like others have, a "crime against humanity" to use food as fuel. Like Laurance, he quotes Simon Fairlie’s findings, concluding that "A vegan Britain could make a massive contribution to global food stocks." But then he loses me and my jaw drops with:

But I cannot advocate a diet I am incapable of following. I tried it for about 18 months, lost two stone, went as white as bone and felt that I was losing my mind. I know a few healthy-looking vegans and I admire them immensely. But after almost every talk I give, I am pestered by swarms of vegans demanding that I adopt their lifestyle. I cannot help noticing that in most cases their skin has turned a fascinating pearl grey.

Like Laurance, he doesn’t make one want to even investigate a healthy vegan diet. (And by the by, my visits to London and Oxford have informed me that is the British who look wan.) Monbiot goes the sustainable-meat route, ruling out beef "for both environmental and humanitarian reasons," and encouraging the consumption of tilapia.

What I don’t read in either Laurance or Monbiot is a moral imperative. I don’t get the feeling of urgency. Instead, the message I received was: biofuels, bad, and in fact a crime against humanity; meat consumption, bad, but it’s a yummy pleasure and a treat and we enjoy it and shouldn’t be asked to stop.

Finally, the most unsettling part of both articles is the blatant speciesism. The effect on other species isn’t even considered. Monbiot thinks he considers it with: "Pigs and chickens feed more efficiently, but unless they are free range you encounter another ethical issue: the monstrous conditions in which they are kept." He is considering the welfare of the animals yet he doesn’t find an "ethical issue" in bringing them into existence for the sole purpose of dominating, exploiting and slaughtering them unnecessarily.

I’m still waiting for someone to have the integrity to write that we have a moral imperative toward each other, other sentient beings and the Earth. And the simplest, most environmentally friendly answer to our biggest problems is to eschew products that contribute them and to go vegan.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Fredrik Fälth #

    I found this link on Eric Marcus blog:–meat-does.html

    It's a strong argument in our favor in the local meat vs non-local vegan debate. (Why is a vegan diet always assumed to be non-locally produced?)
    "An analysis of the environmental toll of food production concludes that transportation is a mere drop in the carbon bucket. Foods such as beef and dairy make a far deeper impression on a consumer's carbon footprint.

    "If you have a certain type of diet that’s indicative of the American average, you're not going to do that much for climate while eating locally," says Christopher Weber, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who led a comprehensive audit of the greenhouse gas emissions of our meals.

    His analysis included emissions such as transporting and producing fertiliser for crops, methane gas emitted by livestock, and food's journey to market. All told, that final step added up to just 4% of a food's greenhouse emissions, on average.

    To drive his point home, Weber calculated that a completely local diet would reduce a household's greenhouse emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a car 1600 km fewer per year. He assumed the car travels 10.6 km per litre of petrol (25 mpg). Switching from red meat to veggies just one day per week would spare 1860 km of driving.

    "The differences between eating habits are very, very striking," Weber says."

    April 18, 2008

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