Vegetarian Week, Day 1
This week I’m posting blogs about something close to my heart – vegetarianism.
I became a vegetarian by accident over 30 years ago. Having left university, but wanting to stay in the area where I had many friends, I ended up in 1985 sharing a house with some vegetarians. It was easy enough to fit in, so I did, but I soon became interested in the reasons people go vegetarian, and then I was converted to the cause.
This week’s posts will cover the various aspects which, for me, are the focus of the issue, under the general heading of: Why Am I A Vegetarian?
- The Land Use & Population Argument
Human beings are by nature omnivorous. We evolved over millions of years to eat meat, animal products, vegetables and fruit. But this is a biological situation, which does not impinge upon our ability to choose, an ability which (amongst others) separates us from animal species many of which have no choice about their eating habits. We, therefore, can choose to be vegetarian if we wish, and because we evolved to be omnivores that choice has almost no adverse health consequences. Had we evolved to be carnivores, the situation would be different. Cats for instance cannot survive on a vegetarian diet.
There is a country where this ability to choose is clear. Hindus in India are by religious inclination vegetarians, though there is no strict prohibition as with other religions. Most Hindus are vegetarian, and the reason is religious encouragement to follow ahimsa, which roughly translates as non-violence towards life. The usual Hindu diet doesn’t include eggs, fish or meat. If meat is included however Hindus will often practice jhatka – quick death – preparation because they believe this method minimizes trauma and suffering.
Hindus suffer no major health problems from this diet, showing that vegetarianism is perfectly within human biological requirements as long as a little thought is put into nutrition.
The land use argument and the population argument are pretty much the same thing, with the former a population issue and the latter a land-use-because-of-expanding-population issue. The current human population of the planet is 7.6 billion, with projections for 2100 varying between 11 billion and 15 billion. But already the Earth’s ecosystems are struggling to cope with this vast population, if not actively being destroyed. One of the strongest arguments in favour of a global shift to vegetarianism is that meat production is a very wasteful use of agricultural land. Far more useful nutrient can be produced by a unit area of land if it is producing grain or any other similar vegetable crop rather than producing grazing for animals. The reason such extremely wasteful practices are followed is purely cultural – people want to eat meat regardless of the consequences. This is especially true in countries like America, which have appalling environmental records and a hypertrophied culture of meat-eating.
There are however some environments where vegetables or grain can’t be grown except on the small scale – a topic to which I’ll return later – such as hillsides. The use of such land needs to be recognised in future environmental/agricultural policy.
But even some plants which are linked to vegetarianism such as soya are in fact implicated in global meat-production. Only 6% of the world’s soybeans are used directly as food, mainly in Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Indonesia. Whole soya beans are eaten as a vegetable, or incorporated into tofu, soya milk or soy sauce. 2% of the meal is further processed into flours and protein additives. Soy beans are very high in protein and have been grown for thousands of years in Asia.
But these days most soy is consumed indirectly. The great majority of soy is milled into high protein soymeal, which is fed to the animals that people subsequently eat – a clearly wasteful procedure. Increased meat consumption is in fact the main driver behind the recent expansion of soy use. Around 75% of soy worldwide is used for animal feed – mainly for poultry and pigs.
In a global situation of expanding human population the answer to wasteful food production is a massive cut in keeping animals for food and in using huge tracts of land to sustain them – irreplaceable tracts in the Amazon rainforest for instance. Beef production in South America is directly destroying this particular environment. Raising cattle is in fact the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates. Amazonian Brazil alone is home to 200 million cattle, and is now the largest exporter in the world, supplying about one quarter of the global market. This is all for meat which human beings don’t need to eat, but which they want to eat.
The land use facts are stark and these days hardly debated. Because cows use energy to convert the grass they eat into protein, several times the amount of land is needed to produce an equal amount of beef as, say, poultry – and about 10 times the amount of land than needed to produce grain. This situation needs to change if the planet’s useable environment is to be rescued.