Animal agriculture's worst offences can be redressed. Doing so will require eliminating Government's favouritism toward the industry, taxing or regulating environmentally destructive practices, and restructuring development strategies. More importantly, it will call for a rethinking of meat's role in the diet.
Believe it or not, each day we use tools so powerful they have the potential to determine our entire existence and the future of our planet. These tools have the ability to save billions of lives, to rejuvenate eco-systems, to prevent the destruction of rainforests, to help preserve valuable natural resources; in short, to safeguard the future of the human race. These tools are the most significant powers on earth, more powerful than any government, policy maker, or multi-national corporation. We use these tools usually three times a day - every day. You probably have a whole drawer full; it's time to appreciate the power of your knife and fork. It is no exaggeration to suggest that if the world, particularly the West, could be persuaded to become conscious of the importance of what we put on the end of our knife and fork, it could change everything. The slaughterhouse could shut down for starters, global pollution could be dramatically reduced for the main course and the world's hungry could be fed for pudding. We are at a crucial time in terms of the impact the human race is having on our planet. As a living system, the Earth is under tremendous strain; now more than ever the effect our diet has on the state of the environment is crucial. The fate of the world really is on our plates. It is with this in mind that The Vegetarian Society is embarking on a campaign, in association with The Co-operative Bank. The 'Food and the Environment' campaign will tackle one of the biggest global questions of our time - whether there can be a diet plan for a healthy planet! The campaign will involve a number of organisations campaigning on food issues in the UK and will tackle some of the most serious problems facing the future of global agriculture. Components of the campaign include a supplement in the Observer, scheduled for the end of June, along with a national cinema advertisement undertaken jointly by The Vegetarian Society and The Co-Operative Bank. This will be launched to coincide with National Vegetarian Week, taking place from 1-7 June.
The central objective of the campaign is to encourage consumer food consciousness. Only when consumers acknowledge that food doesn't grow in supermarkets will any steps be made to clean up our diet and bring about an end to disastrous farming practices and the unnescessary suffering of animalas. We all have choices concerning what we eat and making the right choice has a big impact. Re-gaining an appreciation of 'real food', fresh ingredients, local produce, foods with less packaging, can all make a difference when considering the environment. More importantly in terms of environmental sustainability, there is no doubt that a radical re-think of the Western diet is needed. There is a growing acceptance among food campaigners, academics and opinion formers that only via a serious reassessment of the role of meat within the diet will the long-term survival of the planet be secured.
Vegetarians are generally already switched on when it comes to their food choices. We have made the connection between the intelligent, sentient animal and the slab of steak. We have acted on the logic that says 'well I care about animals, animals are suffering to reach my plate, I don't need to eat them, so I'm not going to eat them'. The vast majority of vegetarians stop eating meat because of this very a concern for animals. Few, however, turn to vegetarianism on environmental grounds - they should do. Everyone cares about something, those who care little for animals, little even for their own health, may find it difficult to support a diet that causes such serious environmental problems.
There is a danger of simplifying global environmental issues. The problems of tropical rainforest destruction, oceanic collapse, spiralling pollution levels, global warming and land degradation are complex. There remains no doubt, however, that meat production has had a colossal impact on all of the above. Global environmental problems can leave the individual feeling powerless, yet we each have the most powerful means of, not only expression, but real action at our disposal. What we put in our mouths really does make a difference. The demands on the planet to supply us with space, shelter, warmth, food and water continue to increase and have stretched beyond the limits. The only way to get us back on track is to persuade the world that a vegetarian diet is the only option if we are to feed the world without destroying the planet.
The global livestock industry is a mess. Drastically inefficient, polluting and riddled with disease, it is an industry at odds With the environment. The massive global population boom experienced this century has been met by a similar demand for meat. Worldwide, livestock now outnumber humans by 3 to 1. These extraordinary numbers of livestock, and their need for natural resources to keep them alive, has disastrous environmental side effects. Globally the use of grain to fatten livestock is colossal, with an estimated 38% of the world's grain fed directly to livestock. In richer nations even more grain is used, rising to 70% in the USA. Plant protein that could be used to feed people is being squandered, fattening animals, whose only future is the slaughterhouse. Globally it is estimated that the world's cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the calorific needs of 8.7 billion people, almost double the human population.
It is not only grain that is gobbled up by livestock; extraordinary amounts of energy and water are also consumed by the animal farms of the world. Producing, processing and packaging any food uses energy. However, when it comes to meat products they are in a class of the own. The majority of animals in the Western world 'live' in factory farms, where lighting, heating and feeding are completely automated. This mechanical automation uses vast amounts of fossil fuels. Research has shown that even the least efficient plant food is almost ten times more efficient, in terms of energy use, compared with animal farming. The so called 'efficiency' of the factory farm is a complete nonsense. The system is not only a horrific abuse of animals, but also a disastrous waste of the Earth's resources.
When the energy inputs to construct the monstrosity are added to the heating, lighting, waste disposal, feeding and maintenance costs, the system fails to make sense even in the most heartless of economic terms. Put simply, 'the trends in meat consumption and energy consumption are on a collision course.' Scientific American.
The planet's fresh water supplies are rapidly disappearing. Livestock agriculture is not only the single worst culprit when it comes to water pollution, but the farming of livestock also has a tremendous thirst for this most precious resource. Water is used not only to produce the huge quantity of grain needed to feed livestock, but also to clean away the waste produced by the planet's billions of livestock animals. In the USA, to produce a single pound of beef takes the equivalent amount of fresh water that will be used by the average family in an entire month. There can be no justification for such consumption and inefficiency in order to provide a diet laden with saturated fat and cholesterol, that in health terms is proving to be a Western disaster.
What comes out of livestock Is as environmentally damaging as what goes in. Manure on a small scale is no problem for the environment, but the billions of tonnes produced annually by Iivestock is literally hazardous waste. The soil simply can't absorb the mass of manure and as it pollutes the land, nitrogen escapes to the air as ammonia, a pollutant that causes acid rain. The problem is so severe that the Netherlands, Belgium and France are all known as manure surplus regions. With US livestock alone producing 250,000 tonnes of excrement a second, it is no wonder that globally 20% of methane emissions are due to livestock.
The destruction of the environment caused by the global fishing industry is similarly catastrophic. Because of over-consumption, all of the world's major fisheries have reached a state of collapse. Dwindling fish stocks are at odds with increasing demand. In a desperate attempt to fulfil demand, suppliers are trawling for different species of deep sea fish from further and further afield. Water pollution is also affecting fish stocks with experts acknowledging that eating fish could cause learning and behavioural difficulties among children. The industry is at odds with the environment, it is now clear that the only future for our suffering seas is a dramatic change in diet.
The Western gluttony for more and more meat simply cannot be sustained. As the global population increases and developing countries adopt Western appetites for flesh foods, the future looks bleak. The only way forward is a return to a system of agriculture that is not only kind to animals, but also has similar respect for the planet. It is the responsibility of the Western developed world to lead the way in promoting and adopting a diet that is a tool for environmental protection. Changes are underway and the public desire for clean, healthy, 'humane' food has never been higher. Ten years ago nobody knew what a free range egg was; today it is estimated that a third of eggs sold are free-range. A small step in the right direction. Five thousand people each week in the UK are becoming vegetarian, a big step in the right direction. A revolution really can start from the kitchen. Our diet is the key, the right dietory choice can bring about changes in agriculture, to attitudes concerning animals and to our planet's future.
Who would have believed that your first veggie meal was the start of a life-long contribution to environmental protection?
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