Consuming the living planet.

The eating habits of us humans have to change!

Funny how things go!

For just two days ago I published a post under the heading of Meat is Heat. It featured an essay by Michael Greger. He of the website NutritionFacts.org. That essay promoted the message:

What we eat may have more of an impact on global warming than what we drive.

Just cutting out animal protein intake one day of the week could have a powerful effect. Meatless Mondays alone could beat out a whole week of working from home and not commuting.

Many of you read that post.

On the same day that I published that post, George Monbiot published an article in The Guardian newspaper that offered the same message, albeit coming at it from a different place but nonetheless just as critically important.

Here it is republished with Mr. Monbiot’s very kind permission.

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We Can’t Keep Eating Like This

This is the question everyone should be attending to – where is the food going to come from?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2017

Brexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is not because I don’t care – I care very much. It’s only because I have a bigger question on my mind. Where is the food going to come from?

By mid-century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.

Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in South Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by 2050. Where will it come from?

The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree Celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. This could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4°C of warming in the US Corn Belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%.

The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely-tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.

Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with less than 5 hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the United Kingdom has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.

While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global seagrab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. Around 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?

All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50 years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how do we accommodate it?

The profligacy of livestock farming is astonishing. Already, 36% of the calories grown in the form of grain and pulses – and 53% of the protein – are used to feed farm animals. Two-thirds of this food is lost in conversion from plant to animal. A graph produced last week by Our World in Data suggests that, on average, you need 0.01m2 of land to produce a gram of protein from beans or peas, but 1m2 to produce it from beef cattle or sheep: a difference of 100-fold.

It’s true that much of the grazing land occupied by cattle and sheep cannot be used to grow crops. But it would otherwise have sustained wildlife and ecosystems. Instead, marshes are drained, trees are felled and their seedlings grazed out, predators are exterminated, wild herbivores fenced out and other lifeforms gradually erased as grazing systems intensify. Astonishing places – such as the rainforests of Madagascar and Brazil – are laid waste to make room for yet more cattle.

Because there is not enough land to meet both need and greed, a global transition to eating animals means snatching food from the mouths of the poor. It also means the ecological cleansing of almost every corner of the planet.

The shift in diets would be impossible to sustain even if there were no growth in the human population. But the greater the number of people, the greater the hunger meat eating will cause. From a baseline of 2010, the UN expects meat consumption to rise by 70% by 2030 (this is three times the rate of human population growth). Partly as a result, the global demand for crops could double (from the 2005 baseline) by 2050. The land required to grow them does not exist.

When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whales and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare.

Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that need never end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth with a living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.

There are no easy answers, but the crucial change is a shift from an animal to a plant-based diet. All else being equal, stopping both meat production and the use of farmland to grow biofuels could provide enough calories for another 4 billion people and double the protein available for human consumption. Artificial meat will help: one paper suggests it reduces water use by at least 82% and land use by 99%.

The next Green Revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?

http://www.monbiot.com

ooOOoo

As many of you know Jeannie and I changed our diet to a vegan diet some four weeks ago. It was done more for personal health reasons than from an awareness of the difference that it made to the future of the planet. But over the last few weeks we have had our eyes opened to the broader benefits of not eating meat. George Monbiot spells out the urgency of change for all of us, especially the richer people in the richer countries.

Am I hopeful that there will be a mass awareness of the need to change? I truly just don’t know. I will close be repeating Mr. Monbiot’s closing sentence.

Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?

Interesting times!

17 thoughts on “Consuming the living planet.

  1. Yes, we are minimalists in most things, eating included. Mostly grains and veggies, occasional fish (or a bit of meat for Chris – and NEVER stockyard cattle). It’s a problem, to be sure – and the greater human problem is rubbish. I remember a time when I NEVER saw rubbish on the roadside. Now people don’t even stop to pick it up, there’s so much of it everywhere. Plastic choking off sea life, choking gutters resulting in horrific flooding. Plastic islands floating around the Pacific. China recently refusing the US’s recyclables. We must must must begin to embrace large-scale recycling efforts and zero waste communities such as San Francisco. If they can make it work – and it’s profitable – other cities should follow suit. As for our little island nation, much ought to be done beyond what is currently on the table. Aloha, Paul.

    1. Bela, I have just visited (yesterday) a small stilted village over the sea on the Island of Pulau Ketam, Malaysia. As a stilted village, it is similar to many that I have seen through ASEAN nations and the Amazon. The Islands import food stuff in plastic containers and packaging. That plastic is then ALL thrown into the sea below the houses (along with every other form of waste) as there is little to no infrastructure to deal with it. The problem of plastic waste in these areas is that it is not biodegradable. The results are horrifying at low tide when the sea floor exposes the terrible smell of detritus trapped in plastic. It wraps itself around the mangrove roots and strangles life. It is a growing problem that will not be addressed by banning plastic grocery bags and straws in Western nations. These are poor people, uneducated to a large degree and no one is providing any infrastructure to make this particular problem go away.

      1. Yes, my point in addressing the US is that the Industrial Revolution here set a standard that China is now taking up with gusto, and it’s completely unsustainable. So for better or for worse, the US sets precedents that are often followed. Sometimes that’s good. And other times … really disastrous. If we ban plastic bags and other plastics, we have the technology and experts who can develop vegetable-based plastics and such that will biodegrade. Then wayyyy down the line, poorer nations might begin to embrace these products, though poor people will doubtless continue using whatever they have and the uneducated will continue being unaware of the larger problems their actions create. I have traveled the world over, and know well of what you speak. Infrastructure costs money, and is too often overlooked due to the sharp division between the small percentage of haves vs the majority of have-nots. Everytime Manila has a horrid flood, my Filipino friends here tell me it’s all the plastic clogging up the storm drains and the bays. It’s a massive problem that isn’t going anywhere for awhile. And each of us must decide what we, ourselves can and must do. Hope you find your own answers, as you seem like a caring person. Aloha, Colette.

  2. I am beginning to wonder if we have been fed something of a lie as far as needing animal protein. Animals don’t make protein, they get it from grazing plants. We eat grazing (herbivore) animals, not carnivores. And carnivores have short digestive tracts totally unlike ours…and totally able to process rotting carcasses without I’ll effect. We humans cannot do that.
    Another thing has suddenly come into sharp focus for me. The pro meat consumers argue that humans gained big brains from eating meat. If that were true (and not some misguided guess), then dogs, cats, lions, tigers, wolves, etc., would all have bigger brains than they do. Since they have relatively small brains in relation to body size, it negates that theory. An elephant (an herbivore) has a huge brain.

    This is an interesting talk on the subject.

  3. Thanks for sharing, it’s a scary world where the right information doesn’t make it to the right people and the ones with the power to make a difference often look inwards rather than outwards. There is always hope though especially when the right message continues to spread albeit slowly!

  4. Another most excellent read and George is right on the button in most things he speaks of.. Have you ever watched the video Cowconspiracy Paul? if not go to Cowspiracy Dot Com.. A site full of information, and everyone should start to consider their eating habits.. And Food in general especially the additives that often go undetected, but which are not good for our health.
    I was very happy to read this post, as you bring yet more awareness to your readers Paul 🙂

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