In April, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on food policy called the diversion of crops to be turned into biofuels "a crime against humanity." Indeed, 100 million tons of corn and other crops that could feed people instead feed our cars.
What then to make of the fact that more than 750 million tons of corn and wheat are diverted from the mouths of the global poor (and away from biofuels) to feed chickens, pigs, and other farmed animals? And that doesn't even include the 80 percent of the global soy crop that is also fed to farmed animals.
Surely this is a crime against humanity of even greater impact: First, it's more than seven times as many crops that are diverted to feed farmed animals so that we can eat the animals; second, while diverting grains for biofuels does decrease global warming, the impact of eating meat is bad for our health and environment -- there is no upside.
I adopted a vegetarian diet more than 20 years ago, after I read Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe. In the book, Lappe makes the argument that using land to grow crops for animals is inefficient, polluting, and that it steals food from the mouths of the global poor. The point is echoed by the respected environmental think tank, The WorldWatch Institute, which published a report a few years back that declares:
"[M]eat consumption is an inefficient use of grain--the grain is used more efficiently when consumed by humans. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world's poor."
More and more, that message is getting a hearing, so that a few weeks ago, the UN's climate chief Yvo de Boer told the Reuters news agency, "The best solution would be for us all to become vegetarians." Indeed.
De Boer was talking about both the global food crisis and global warming, because a U.N. report recently found that eating meat is the number one human cause of global warming, causing almost a fifth of the global greenhouse gas total -- and, of course, poor communities are the first to suffer the potentially grave consequences of climate change.
The chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, is himself a vegetarian and has been outspoken on the need for people who care about the climate to move in that direction. At a press conference just after winning the Peace Prize, the IPCC declared "Please eat less meat -- meat is a very carbon-intensive commodity".
Indeed it is, which is why the official handbook for the Live Earth concerts says that "refusing meat" is "the single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint" (emphasis in original).
And the U.N. report also found that eating meat is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." Specifically, the 408-page report noted the meat industry's contribution to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity".
Clearly problems of climate change and the global food crisis warrant global and political solutions, but one of those solutions will have to include a shift away from the massive handouts that governments give to their meat industries in the form of government-paid inspection programs (these industries should pay their own bills), subsidies for feed crops, teams of scientists helping to grow larger animals with fewer resources, and so on. And it should also include government programs to encourage a public shift away from the consumption of chickens, pigs, and other farmed animals.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated last month that "[h]unger is a moral challenge to each one of us as global citizens... [w]ith one child dying every five seconds from hunger-related causes, the time to act is now".
The current issue of the New Scientist, in discussing the food crisis and the vast additonal crops that are required to feed meat-eaters, as opposed to vegetarians, explains in discussing solutions, "We could try to reduce the demand by persuading people to return to a less meaty diet for example, but that is unlikely to work."
I think the New Scientist editors underestimate people. In Taiwan, they're taking the concept seriously; the Guardian reported on Wednesday that to address the global food crisis and global warming, "around a million people in Taiwan -- including the speaker of parliament, the environment minister, and the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung -- vowed to never again touch flesh nor fish."
If we take global warming and global poverty seriously, isn't adopting a vegetarian diet the least that each of us can do?
Bruce Friedrich is vice-president in charge of international grassroots campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world's largest animal rights organization, with more than 1.6 million members and supporters. Before joining PETA more than 10 years ago, Bruce spent six years running a shelter for homeless families and the largest soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., as well as leading demonstrations on behalf of unions, a living wage, and other causes. He has been a progressive activist for more than 20 years.
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