Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Environmentally-friendly eating

Disclaimer: This post is based entirely on gut feeling and anecdotal evidence and may not stand up to hard-core challenges, but I got a feeling...

This article set me off (again). For years now, I've heard about how a vegetarian diet is better for the environment, how farming is animal cruelty and how meat is extremely unhealthy because it is pumped full of antibiotics. To be fair to those evangelising about this, I should point out that I was hearing all this against the backdrop of growing up in farming communities. This meant that the people trying to convince me ran into a problem of experience - when I was told that I should stop eating cows and sheep because it was cruel to keep them locked up in tiny pens where they couldn't move and dose them with antibiotics until they got too fat to move, the speaker generally got a bemused look and an offer to take him or her to a real farm. I've seen cows and sheep and they don't live in tiny little pens, they graze in huge fields in large herds and eat grass. Sometimes they eat the new green plants. You can taste it in the milk. And dairy cows eat lush green grass. And there are herdboys with sticks who whistle. Really, really. And these are not small farms. These are big commercial farms. The chickens I'll give them, but even then, the chicken farms I know may not let the chickens wander idyllically around a garden but they aren't all in little cages on top of each other either.

I discovered, in later years, that the phenomenon of battery-farmed, corn-fed cows does exist, from what I can gather primarily in the USA. But this isn't the universal reality. I have a huge problem with the suggestion that all farming, all meat are the same; the idea that there can be one solution for everyone. Let's take South Korea for example. This country doesn't really do meat. At least, it doesn't do good meat. There isn't really the climate or enough open space to raise cattle. They do have some cattle farms, but not a lot. So South Korean 'cuisine' includes a lot of soy-based products and their meat dishes are designed to make the best of poor-quality meat. Given their recent population explosion, they still import a lot of their food (with all the problematic environmental impacts). Meat, however, is correspondingly expensive, so the market balances out (for the most part).

In South Africa, that is simply not true. There is ample space to raise cattle and sheep without having to battery farm them and no-one is subsidising to bring down prices so there is a relatively good balance and a lot of diets include a lot of meat. They also include maize as a staple, which is grown in the country (provided there aren't droughts or WFP market intrusions doing strange things to prices) but the maize is produced for people to eat and not subsidies.

The problem, as far as I can tell, isn't that people eat meat or that cows are farmed, it's a matter of degree. When particularly beef is produced at increadibly high volumes in climates not designed to support the raising of cattle in large numbers, strange and often unhealthy measures have to be taken. Like battery farming of cows. When added to this is a market imbalance created by the ridiculous subsidisation of a particular kind of produce (in this case corn), the market-logical thing to do ends up being battery farming of large animals and feeding them corn, which they were never meant to eat, instead of grass - meaning that they're unhealthy cows and require major vetenary interventions to turn a profit. Of course, these market irregularities, combined with strong advertising and prices lower than they should be, sustain a great demand for the product and further stimulate what is, in effect, an artificially bloated industry. An artificially bloated industry that produces an awful lot of those harmful animal-based emissions. I am not usually one to suggest relying on the market to redress imbalances in anything, but I really do think that a good first step to solving a whole bunch of problems would be for the US to stop susidising corn.

Of course, this goes beyond subsidies. As this article points out, meat-substitutes may do just as much damage if they have to be flown all over the world. If environmentalists want to reduce the impact of food on global warming, they need to start by getting local. The myth that all people and all countries should do the same thing in order to have a better world seems to have dazzled them. The reality is that all true solutions are local. Each climate is ideally suited to the production of a different kind of food. Environmentalists in South Africa who want us to stop eating meat because it is destroying the rain forests would be wise to take a closer look at home and see what their own country can and should be producing. And to do that means to be open-minded about all kinds of products, including meat. In a water-scarce country, it's entirely possible that you'd do more damage trying to grow meat-substitutes than raising cattle and sheep.

Like every industry and every sector, the radical view is that the industry should be shut down. But there is a moderate view, which would avoid the potential unintended consequences of removing meat as an option. In this case, that middle-ground is not ridiculous - regulate the industry to avoid excessive use of antibiotics, encourage free-range cattle farming and ethical consumerism, regulate advertising and labelling to ensure that consumers know what they're getting and stop market interventions like the corn subsidies which encourage unhealthy practices. There are definitely problems out there but the South African pork and the South African mutton and the South African beef I eat is probably not destroying the rain forests. And because it is raised on large farms in numbers that are not beyond what the land can reasonably support, it is probably not excessively contributing to greenhouse gases. The solution is not to tell everyone to be a vegetarian, it is to regulate the markets and do things properly.

Calling for radical solutions is easy. It's easy to demonstrate and protest and tie yourself to a tree. It takes more effort and more careful thought, but is almost always more likely to achieve the desired outcome, to find middle-ground solutions and try to make the existing situation better. And that is my take on environmentally-friendly eating.

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