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Meat, Culture and Climate

In his autobiography

In his autobiography, Gandhi relates what he calls a “tragedy.” When he was a teenager, his best friend wanted to accustom him to eating meat. Gandhi’s family belonged to the Vaishnava Hindu tradition in which vegetarianism is the rule. How to violate a custom all the more accepted in that Gandhi’s parents – to whom he was utterly devoted – never imagined moving away from it for a second? “We’re a weak people because we don’t eat meat,” his friend told him. “The English are able to dominate us because they’re meat-eaters.” Gandhi, who at that time felt puny and was already animated, even though he was not yet conscious of it, by a fierce desire for his country’s independence, consequently forced himself to eat meat for a while. He was to liberate himself rather easily from that dependency, so essential was the question of diet – to which he was to give a spiritual dimension far surpassing the health issue – to become for him.

What does this story tell us, the week when Claude Levi-Strauss’s death reminds us of the imperative necessity of looking at other cultures to understand our own? That what we eat is not a metabolic act, but first of all, a cultural artifact. In other words, that the infinite variety of ways to feed oneself is nothing other than a reflection of the infinite variety of cultures. Gandhi shows that effectively by contrasting the customs of an Imperial England with those of a still-subjugated India.

Must we, out of respect for all life, abstain from eating meat as the Hindus do? At the very least, we could remind ourselves of the practices of those Native American peoples who apologize to the animal they hunt for taking its life. Or, at the very least, we could recall that still-familiar French peasant culture which established friendly connections between people and animals, borne witness to by the thread running from the “Roman de Renard” to Marcel Ayme’s stories.

But what is our culture, our agri-culture, today? It gorges by the millions of tons on the products of immense meat factories where the specific animal is no longer hardly anything but raw material. By denying animals all dignity, our culture flaunts its contempt for the world outside itself, and not only for the natural world.

But let’s return to a consideration more in accord with the spirit of the times. According to the FAO report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” published in 2006, livestock farms are the source of 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 18 percent! Almost a fifth. To fight climate change, we need not only to use our bicycles, but also to eat much less meat. Yes, it’s less exciting than planting windmills and nuclear power plants all over the place. And – horror! – it doesn’t create any monetary profit. But it does produce a more reliable result.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.

Herve Kempf | And What If Meat Were a Killer?

Herve Kempf, Le Monde

Wednesday 14 October 2009

One is not altogether the same after reading certain books. That’s the impact of “Bidoche:” at the end of 400 pages of a convincing indictment, it’s no longer possible to see one’s steak with fries the same way. One tends to eat the fries – and to leave the steak. Why? Because the widespread use of industrial animal farms has had enormous negative consequences for biodiversity, climate change and human health. The elements of the issue were scattered: Fabrice Nicolino brings them together effectively, adding a good number of heretofore-unpublished or neglected facts, allowing him to highlight the importance of the problem.

Pollution? Massive amounts of nitrogen waste provoke the invasion of green algae on a number of coasts. The production of soy in Latin America for animal feed contributes to the deterioration of the savannahs and the Amazon. Deforestation is also directly linked to the desire to acquire new lands for Brazilian beef cattle. More surprising is the size of the greenhouse gas emissions from the some 20 million animals we raise: according to an FAO report, “livestock farming emits more greenhouse gas than all planetary transport.”

Health? The massive use of antibiotics as a growth factor has increased antibiotic resistance in many bacteria. Moreover, it is ever more clear that excessive consumption of “industrial” meat is a source of illness. On top of that, as a report from the US Centers for Disease Control indicates, “because heavily crowded livestock farms tend to bring large groups of animals together in a small area, they facilitate the transmission and blending of viruses.”

Can this system endure when we know that it requires about seven plant calories to produce a calorie of meat? No, the author asserts: “On the one hand, the production of grains continues to grow to respond to growing demand. On the other, global livestock holdings are also growing. No problem? It’s tragic and for a simple reason: the number of livestock animals is increasing faster than the availability of grains.” If we want to feed nine billion human beings in 2050, we will have to limit the number of livestock animals. And to change the agricultural model by returning those beasts to the field. And … to eat less meat.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.

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