Practical Issues > Health - Index > Vegan Index

12/24/02 8:38:41 AM Pacific Standard Time


Article at:,12128,865087,00.html 

Why vegans were right all along

Famine can only be avoided if the rich give up meat, fish and dairy

George Monbiot
Tuesday December 24, 2002
The Guardian

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

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 exponentially.

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 

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 
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.