Famine can only be avoided if the rich
give up meat, fish and dairy
Why vegans were right all along

The Guardian (London) December 24, 2002




By George Monbiot


The Christians stole the winter solstice from the pagans, and

capitalism stole it from the Christians. But one feature of the

celebrations has remained unchanged: the consumption of vast

quantities of meat. The practice used to make sense. Livestock

slaughtered in the autumn, before the grass ran out, would be about

to decay, and fat-starved people would have to survive a further

three months. Today we face the opposite problem: we spend the next

three months trying to work it off.


Our seasonal excesses would be perfectly sustainable, if we weren't

doing the same thing every other week of the year. But, because of

the rich world's disproportionate purchasing power, many of us can

feast every day. And this would also be fine, if we did not live in a

finite world.


By comparison to most of the animals we eat, turkeys are relatively

efficient converters: they produce about three times as much meat per

pound of grain as feedlot cattle. But there are still plenty of

reasons to feel uncomfortable about eating them. Most are reared in

darkness, so tightly packed that they can scarcely move. Their beaks

are removed with a hot knife to prevent them from hurting each other.

As Christmas approaches, they become so heavy that their hips buckle.

When you see the inside of a turkey broilerhouse, you begin to

entertain grave doubts about European civilisation.


This is one of the reasons why many people have returned to eating

red meat at Christmas. Beef cattle appear to be happier animals. But

the improvement in animal welfare is offset by the loss in human

welfare. The world produces enough food for its people and its

livestock, though (largely because they are so poor) some 800 million

are malnourished. But as the population rises, structural global

famine will be avoided only if the rich start to eat less meat. The

number of farm animals on earth has risen fivefold since 1950: humans

are now outnumbered three to one. Livestock already consume half the

world's grain, and their numbers are still growing almost



This is why biotechnology - whose promoters claim that it will feed

the world - has been deployed to produce not food but feed: it allows

farmers to switch from grains which keep people alive to the

production of more lucrative crops for livestock. Within as little as

10 years, the world will be faced with a choice: arable farming

either continues to feed the world's animals or it continues to feed

the world's people. It cannot do both.


The impending crisis will be accelerated by the depletion of both

phosphate fertiliser and the water used to grow crops. Every kilogram

of beef we consume, according to research by the agronomists David

Pimental and Robert Goodland, requires around 100,000 litres of

water. Aquifers are beginning the run dry all over the world, largely

because of abstraction by farmers.


Many of those who have begun to understand the finity of global grain

production have responded by becoming vegetarians. But vegetarians

who continue to consume milk and eggs scarcely reduce their impact on

the ecosystem. The conversion efficiency of dairy and egg production

is generally better than meat rearing, but even if everyone who now

eats beef were to eat cheese instead, this would merely delay the

global famine. As both dairy cattle and poultry are often fed with

fishmeal (which means that no one can claim to eat cheese but not

fish), it might, in one respect, even accelerate it. The shift would

be accompanied too by a massive deterioration in animal welfare: with

the possible exception of intensively reared broilers and pigs,

battery chickens and dairy cows are the farm animals which appear to

suffer most.


We could eat pheasants, many of which are dumped in landfill after

they've been shot, and whose price, at this time of the year, falls

to around £2 a bird, but most people would feel uncomfortable about

subsidising the bloodlust of brandy-soaked hoorays. Eating pheasants,

which are also fed on grain, is sustainable only up to the point at

which demand meets supply. We can eat fish, but only if we are

prepared to contribute to the collapse of marine ecosystems and - as

the European fleet plunders the seas off West Africa - the starvation

of some of the hungriest people on earth. It's impossible to avoid

the conclusion that the only sustainable and socially just option is

for the inhabitants of the rich world to become, like most of the

earth's people, broadly vegan, eating meat only on special occasions

like Christmas.


As a meat-eater, I've long found it convenient to categorise veganism

as a response to animal suffering or a health fad. But, faced with

these figures, it now seems plain that it's the only ethical response

to what is arguably the world's most urgent social justice issue. We

stuff ourselves, and the poor get stuffed.