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Genocide of the mind: Why can’t we have a rational conversation about meat eating?

Lauren Hutton is an independent consultant with more than 10 years experience working on peace and security in Africa. She has worked for think tanks such as the Institute for Security Studies and the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael), as well as operational agencies such as the Danish Refugee Council and Danish Demining Group.

It was rather bizarre to read the articles about the UCT Faculty of Humanities’ discussions on meat eating published here last week. Both articles focused the debate on animal suffering and culture; both issues that are important but neither of which even comes close to raising the issues that underlie why we need a national debate on food security and the consumption of meat.

The real issue is that if we all carry on eating meat the way we currently do, we guarantee that not only will we be water insecure for all generations to come but also that poor nutrition and food scarcity remain a key dimension of inequality, undermining any other development efforts.

South Africa is remarkably uninformed and unwilling to engage in discussion about how we maintain food security, while facing deteriorating water security, increasing population numbers and decreasing effectiveness of our commercial agriculture sector. Yes, meat production is tied to incredible levels of animal cruelty and massive decreases in biodiversity. But outside of those debates, there’s a much more robust debate needed on how to feed ourselves while sustaining our environment, improving the overall human condition and not collapsing, entirely, the inter-generational contract. You are quite literally eating away your children’s and grandchildren’s future.

Let’s unpack some basic facts about the commercial meat producing industry.

Animal agriculture and livestock production is very bad for the environment

  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. That is more than all the exhaust fumes of every vehicle in the world.
  • Livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of all CO2 emissions. This is more than the transport and energy industries combined.
  • Large-scale livestock production accounts for the majority of methane gas emissions. Methane has a global warming contribution 86 times higher than that of CO2 over a 20-year time frame.
  • Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years.
  • Current food consumption patterns and population growth rates mean that emissions from animal agriculture will increase by 80% by 2050. Comparatively, energy related emissions, even without shifting to green energy sources, will increase by 20% by 2050.
  • Livestock and animal agriculture alone at current growth levels will exceed global CO2 emissions targets by 2030.

Even knowing all this, we talk about reducing dependency on fossil fuels and eco-friendly cars but how often do we speak about global warming as a consequence of meat eating?

The animal agriculture and meat producing industries are very water intensive

  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of all water usage in the US.
  • Water for growing livestock feed accounts for about 1/3 of the fresh water used worldwide.
  • It takes just under 9,500 litres of water to produce a 450g steak and about 16,000 litres of water for every hamburger patty made. Just a small comparative, it takes about 700 litres of water to grow an apple.
  • 1,000 litres of water are required to produce 1 litre of milk.
  • Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.

And yet we will fix a leaky tap and take shorter showers before running off to KFC and pretending to ourselves that we have made a difference.

Animal agriculture and the livestock industries take up an extraordinarily large amount of space

  • Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land.
  • Livestock operations on land have created more than 500 nitrogen-flooded dead zones in our oceans around the world.
  • 2-5 acres of land are used per cow. That’s between 8,000 and 20,000m2 per cow.
  • 1/3 of the planet is desertified with livestock feed and feeding a dominant contributor.

Now look at the overcrowded urban centres of the world where quality of life is strained by basic survival needs or think about the international humanitarian standard that deems each person needs a minimum 45m2 to inhabit. There’s no space for refugees but there’s always room for cows, chickens and sheep it seems.

Animals make produce a lot of waste

  • Every minute, animals raised for food, produce 7-million pounds of excrement in the US alone. That’s 3,175 146.59kg of animal waste per minute. The US produces 130 times more animal waste than human waste. And that amounts to 355-million tonnes per year (and I’m sure I’m missing a political joke somewhere here).
  • A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people.

Again, just look at urban slums and the lack of adequate sanitation that seems be an insurmountable problem in parts of Africa and think for a moment that we are able to provide better waste management to our cows than our people.

There’s quite literally only so many fish in the sea

  • With current consumption patterns, we will have fishless seas by 2048.
  • 90-million to -100-million tons of fish are pulled from our oceans each year for consumption, which translates to more than 2.7-trillion animals that are pulled from the ocean each year.
  • Up to 2kg of animal life are pulled from the ocean and discarded as collateral damage for every 0.5kg of fish that gets to your plate.
  • As many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels.

This means that someone born in 2016 will be 32 years old when all the fish could be gone. The next generation will hear stories from their parents and grandparents about the days of snoek braais, tuna salad and grilled kingklip.

We cannot have a rational conversation about meat eating when people tie their consumption patterns to identity and culture. We cannot have a conversation about the environmental implications of animal agriculture and livestock production if the only advocacy focus is on animal welfare and cruelty. We cannot address the real challenges of food insecurity, dearth and inequality until we realise that globally we devote more essential resources to raising cows than people.

An astonishing 50% of all grain produced worldwide is fed to livestock. Food grown for livestock in the US alone could feed 800-million people per year; globally that figure reaches an astonishing 10-billion people that could be fed. 82% of children facing food insecurity live in countries where crops are grown for animal feed; and people in other countries then eat the animals fed thereon.

There are connections between obesity, disease and diets dependent on animal products. An average American eats three times more meat than a person in another countries; Americans also have three times higher cancer rates than other countries. Some figures are as high as 1/3 of all heart disease cases, diabetes and cancer cases around the world are related to meat and diary consumption.

One can wonder why humans continue to drink teat milk from a cow well into the later years of their lives when we wouldn’t for a second consider a life sustained on human breast milk. And given that the purpose of cow’s milk is to quickly fatten a newborn calf, there can be no surprise that “health conscious humans then spend billions of dollars every year taking the fat out of cows’ milk so as not to have to give up the habits of a newborn calf. The absurdity is surreal.

And the implications of moving towards a diet less dependent on animal products are staggering. A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food.

Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves over 4,000 litres of water, 20kg of grain, 2.8m2 of forested land, the equivalent of 9kgs of CO2, and one animal’s life.

But by now, there are detractors reading this who are going to quickly jump on the above statistics and numbers for any number of reasons. I advise you to follow the link below, read up and educate yourself.

I also know that among those critiques, someone will be thinking – so what, we’re in Africa, not the US, and generalising patterns of global consumption across vast economic divides, surely would question their validity and applicability to our context? The answer is, of course, both yes and no.

Because we are all globally affected by our ability to continue to feed ourselves and sustain life on this planet. What is happening around the world is happening to us also. But it is manifesting in different ways in different places.

Consider, for example, our current situation here in South Africa:

In 2014 Oxfam released a shocking report on the state of food insecurity in South Africa called, Hidden Hunger in South Africa: the faces of hunger and food insecurity in a food secure nation. The authors pull no punches; the opening paragraph that reads:

South Africa is considered a ‘food-secure’ nation, producing enough calories to adequately feed every one of its 53-million people. However, the reality is that, despite some progress since the birth of democracy in 1994, one in four people currently suffers hunger on a regular basis and more than half of the population live in such precarious circumstances that they are at risk of going hungry.

More than half of our population is at risk of going hungry.

And if you want to know what that means, just consider these words spoken by a Khoisan Chief in Bloemendal, Eastern Cape –‘[It is a] genocide of the mind… because it affects the mind (fosters negative thoughts), the spirit (state of hopelessness) and the physical being (hunger).’ Hunger is more than just a lack of food or money.

In order to more fully understand the magnitude of what is facing half of our population, the report further explains:

Hunger, as described by participants in this study, means more than physical sensations of emptiness or pain, more than incessant cravings that cannot be satisfied. It is described by those interviewed as a phenomenon that creates ‘genocide of the mind’, inducing hopelessness and despair, depriving hungry individuals of dignity and demeaning them as social beings. Hunger is a personal and a communal malaise that crushes the potential of people to get out of poverty and to prosper. It is a manifestation of, and helps to perpetuate, damaging social inequality: poor households have to spend nearly half of their income on food but have to suffice with cheap, expired and non-nutritious food, creating a society that has ‘good access to bad food and bad access to good food’.

Of course, women face more food insecurity than men. Rural development is hampered by lack of access to land, water, tools and information. The structure of the food industry contributes to the inaccessibility of food to lower income brackets as five large food retailers control 60% of the market. This is what structural inequality looks like: genocide of the minds of the rich and poor.

And on top of all that, governmental incompetence and various global factors are piling on the economic strain felt daily by the increasing food prices. According to Oxfam, “(C)ommodity prices for maize have increased by 50% in a year and electricity prices have rocketed by over 200% since 2010, forcing people to make stark choices between food and energy”.

In June 2016, SADC issued a Regional Humanitarian Appeal, asking for $2.7-billion to assist 40-million food insecure people in the region.

The appeal was launched to address the $2.4-billion funding gap to feed people in our region. The countries most affected are Angola, DRC, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 14% of the region’s population is food insecure. The report notes that the “severe drought conditions have resulted in widespread crop failure, poor harvests and loss of livelihoods. Cereal harvest assessments indicate nearly 9.3-million tonnes regional shortfall in production. South Africa, usually the main producer of maize in the region, is facing 1.6-million tonnes deficit.”

We need 1.6-million tonnes of maize for immediate food assistance to feed our populations until March 2017.

The livestock industry has been deeply affected by the drought also. More than 643,000 livestock deaths have been reported since the start of the drought, to a cost of millions of dollars, affecting mostly to small and medium-scale farmers across the region and severely straining livelihoods for many.

Across the board our farmers – be they producing fruit, vegetables, meat or diary products – are being squeezed by unfair and unbalanced trade practices, climate change and drastic environmental conditions and lack of political and social care. We are so far away from the structures that put food on our table, that we have lost concern for the integrity thereof. This is structural inequality and it is pervasive. It is a rich and poor, lean and bloated dichotomy between the haves and have-nots in which profit, wealth, greed and class play core value-laden roles. Your position in the complex social map of your society determines if you eat.

An unnamed academic was quoted by Marianne Thamm as saying “that when institutions sanction dietary restrictions it could lead to violence”. You, sir, do not know what you are talking about.

Half of our population is not concerned about whether or not they are eating meat. They are concerned about whether they will be eating at all. Your inference that the bloated food privileged elite would use violence to defend their rights to over-consume speaks to the level of ignorance in this debate and lies clear the level of neoliberal thinking that dominates spaces of knowledge and that are preventing us from grappling with the realities of inequality. Stasis is not an option.

This is not to imply that dietary restrictions should be put in place.

Because, surely we don’t need to be regulated, restricted and forced into being responsible humans?

Because basically to lay less of a finer point on this, you can fix every leaky tap in your house, not water your garden in the heat of the day and shower for two minutes or less every day, but for every piece of meat you are eating, you may as well be leaving the faucet on full flow for the whole month, while cutting down all the trees in your neighbours’ gardens and driving a fuel guzzler round the block just for fun 50 times a day while smoking a pack of Camels behind your wife’s back.

Every bite of that delicious hamburger you’re considering for lunch represents more than one day of plant-based meals for a food insecure person – if we were working to reshape the structures of the food production industry and reconsider our patterns of food consumption to increase access to food for all.

Perhaps J M Coetzee’s fictional ageing vegan philosopher and novelist Elizabeth Costello is right: the consumption of meat by humans could really be considered “a crime, of stupefying proportions”.

Not eating meat may be a personal belief system, but it is part of a belief system in which the value of the lives and needs of other humans are equal to mine and the continued existence of life on our planet is of more importance than a bacon and cheeseburger – which in all likelihood is going to give me indigestion anyway. It is a belief system where my needs for instant gratification are weighed against the long-term survival of ours and other species.

The disparities are glaring. The implications of change so acute. So why can we not have a rational conversation about meat eating? The costs of avoiding the conversation are probably greater than ever before and the binaries of all or nothing meat consumption obstruct our views of the true social consequences of food insecurity. DM

Facts and figures are from translated from imperial into metric.


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