issue 160 - June 1986
Eat your greens
Integral to the Western life-style is the consumption
of meat. And the wish to eat more meat is one of our more
pernicious exports. Ann Cullen looks at the repercussions
of our carnivorous appetite on the hungry.
VEGETARIANISM is sometimes presented as the ultimate solution to the world food problem. Statistics show that protein production per acre is 10 to 15 times greater than if arable crops are grown compared to grazing livestock. No pasture, more grain. Food for all in the vegetarian utopia. But of course the supply of food is strictly limited to those with effective demand. Land will never be used to grow grain for the world's poor as they simply haven't got the necessary cash.
Even the hands of vegetarians are none too clean. Drinking coffee or eating pineapples or avocados probably deprives the Third World dinner table as much as eating meat. As with all cash crops, the evil lies in the way the rich world consumes too much, pays too little for it, and ruins the environment to get it. The small farmers of Kenya or Indonesia lose their land and their livelihood.
Meat production is a prime example of this. Every year in Latin America and Africa millions of hectares of land are turned over to mega-ranches for the production of cheap beef. At least 20 million hectares1 of irreplaceable tropical rain forest are destroyed annually, according to the US Academy of Science, mostly to provide grazing land to raise cattle. Yet after five or seven years, the productivity of the cleared land falls (mainly due to loss of top-soil) to negligible levels and new areas of forest have to be destroyed to create fresh pastures.2
Vegetarians are opting out of this particular form of plunder of the world's resources, and by doing so are acting as whistle-blowers, saying 'Take a closer look at the way we produce and eat meat and how it affects people in the rest of the world'. The Western lifestyle is one of the more pernicious of our exports. Selling the desirability of high meat consumption and processed junk foods means profit for a few, ill-health for many, along with the destruction of a fragile environment and traditional ways of life.
This pattern of plunder can be seen in Costa Rica, where meat production has tripled in the last 30 years. But, over the same period, consumption of meat by the local people has dropped by 40 per cent, to 15.2 kilograms per year - the same as the average pet dog in a Western household. The extra meat had been exported. Costa Rica pays for these exports with the destruction of its environment. In the past 25 years the rainforest in Costa Rica has declined by a third, and the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the country will lose 80 per cent of 1981's forest-cover by 2000. Even the meat that is consumed locally is dubious. Dangerously high levels of hormones are often used to fatten cattle. As a direct result of consuming meat injected with steroids both Costa Rica and Puerto Rico have epidemics of precocious puberty. In Puerto Rico over 7,000 girls under the age of eight developed breasts, started menstrual bleeding, grew pubic hair and aged prematurely.
Yet proselytising vegetarians should remember that for some environments, meat eating is an appropriate lifestyle. They should not compare the obscenities of Western beef and dairy mountains with the frugal and prudent pastoralism of the Third World. We have the luxury of being able to choose. We can adopt a varied and nourishing vegetarian diet. Elsewhere people do not have this option.
So vegetarianism is not enough. But it can, and should, be a step towards becoming aware of the underlying assumptions of our greedy, wasteful society. It throws light on the relationship between consumers in this country and those who produce for our inflated and unnecessary diet. And it can quicken the desire to change the grossly unequal world order which condemns so many to lifelong deprivation.
Ann Cullen works for Oxfam in Newcastle, UK.
1. hectare equals 2.47 acres.
2. Rainforest by Charles Secrett, Friends of the Earth, UK.