The Pleasures of the Flesh

If You Care About Hunger, Eat Less Meat

Never mind the economic crisis. Focus for a moment on a more urgent threat: the great food recession which is sweeping the world faster than the credit crunch.

You have probably seen the figures by now: the price of rice has risen by three-quarters in the past year, that of wheat by 130%.1 There are food crises in 37 countries. One hundred million people, according to the World Bank, could be pushed into deeper poverty by the high prices.2 But I bet you have missed the most telling statistic. At 2.1bn tonnes, last year’s global grain harvest broke all records.3 It beat the previous year’s by almost 5%. The crisis, in other words, has begun before world food supplies are hit by climate change. If hunger can strike now, what will happen if harvests decline?

There is plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13bn tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01bn, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), will feed people.4

I am sorely tempted to write another column about biofuels. From this morning all sellers of transport fuel in the United Kingdom will be obliged to mix it with ethanol or biodiesel made from crops. The World Bank points out that “the grain required to fill the tank of a sports utility vehicle with ethanol …could feed one person for a year.”5 Last year global stockpiles of cereals declined by around 53m tons6; this gives you a rough idea of the size of the hunger gap. The production of biofuels this year will consume almost 100m tons7, which suggests that they are directly responsible for the current crisis. In The Guardian yesterday the transport secretary Ruth Kelly promised that “if we need to adjust policy in the light of new evidence, we will.”8 What new evidence does she require? In the midst of a global humanitarian crisis, we have just become legally obliged to use food as fuel. It is a crime against humanity in which every driver in this country has been forced to participate.

But I have been saying this for four years and I am boring myself. Of course we must demand that our governments scrap the rules which turn grain into the fastest food of all. But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tons of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tons will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals.7 This could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.

While meat consumption is booming in Asia and Latin America, in the United Kingdom it has scarcely changed since the government started gathering data in 1974. At just over 1kg per person per week9, it’s still about 40% above the global average10, though less than half the amount consumed in the United States.11 We eat less beef and more chicken than we did 30 years ago, which means a smaller total impact. Beef cattle eat about 8kg of grain or meal for every kilogram of flesh they produce; a kilogram of chicken needs just 2kg of feed. Even so, our consumption rate is plainly unsustainable.

In his magazine The Land, Simon Fairlie has updated the figures produced 30 years ago in Kenneth Mellanby’s book Can Britain Feed Itself? Fairlie found that a vegan diet grown by means of conventional agriculture would require only 3m hectares of arable land (around half the current total).12 Even if we reduced our consumption of meat by half, a mixed farming system would need 4.4m hectares of arable fields and 6.4 million hectares of pasture. A vegan Britain could make a massive contribution to global food stocks.

But I cannot advocate a diet I am incapable of following. I tried it for about 18 months, lost two stone, went as white as bone and felt that I was losing my mind. I know a few healthy-looking vegans and I admire them immensely. But after almost every talk I give, I am pestered by swarms of vegans demanding that I adopt their lifestyle. I cannot help noticing that in most cases their skin has turned a fascinating pearl grey.

What level of meat-eating would be sustainable? One approach is to work out how great a cut would be needed to accommodate the growth in human numbers. The UN expects the population to rise to 9bn by 2050. These extra people will require another 325m tons of grain.13 Let us assume, perhaps generously, that politicians like Ms Kelly are able to “adjust policy in the light of new evidence” and stop turning food into fuel. Let us pretend that improvements in plant breeding can keep pace with the deficits caused by climate change. We would need to find an extra 225m tons of grain. This leaves 531m tonnes for livestock production, which suggests a sustainable consumption level for meat and milk some 30% below the current world rate. This means 420g of meat per person per week, or about 40% of the UK’s average consumption.

This estimate is complicated by several factors. If we eat less meat we must eat more plant protein, which means taking more land away from animals. On the other hand, some livestock is raised on pasture, so it doesn’t contribute to the grain deficit. Simon Fairlie estimates that if animals were kept only on land that’s unsuitable for arable farming, and given scraps and waste from food processing, the world could produce between a third and two thirds of its current milk and meat supply.14 But this system then runs into a different problem. The FAO calculates that animal keeping is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impacts are especially grave in places where livestock graze freely.15 The only reasonable answer to the question of how much meat we should eat is as little as possible. Let’s reserve it — as most societies have done until recently — for special occasions.

For both environmental and humanitarian reasons, beef is out. Pigs and chickens feed more efficiently, but unless they are free range you encounter another ethical issue: the monstrous conditions in which they are kept. I would like to encourage people to start eating tilapia instead of meat. It’s a freshwater fish which can be raised entirely on vegetable matter and has the best conversion efficiency — about 1.6kg of feed for 1kg of meat — of any farmed animal.16 Until meat can be grown in flasks, this is about as close as we are likely to come to sustainable flesh-eating.

Re-reading this article, I see that there is something surreal about it. While half the world wonders whether it will eat at all, I am pondering which of our endless choices we should take. Here the price of food barely registers. Our shops are better stocked than ever before. We perceive the global food crisis dimly, if at all. It is hard to understand how two such different food economies could occupy the same planet, until you realize that they feed off each other.

  1. E.g. “The cost of food: facts and figures,” BBC, April 8, 2008. []
  2. World Bank, 14th April 2008. “Food Price Crisis Imperils 100 Million in Poor Countries, Zoellick Says.” Press release. []
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization, April 2008. Crop Prospects and Food Situation. []
  4. ibid. []
  5. World Bank, 2008. Biofuels: The Promise and the Risks. []
  6. Gerrit Buntrock, 6th December 2007. “Cheap no more,” The Economist. []
  7. Food and Agriculture Organization, April 2008, ibid. [] []
  8. Ruth Kelly, 14th April 2008. “Biofuels: a blueprint for the future?” The Guardian. []
  9. The British government gives a total meat purchase figure of 1042g/person/week for 2006. []
  10. There’s a discussion of global average figures here. []
  11. See Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Figure 1.4, p9. []
  12. Simon Fairlie, Winter 2007-8. “Can Britain Feed Itself?” The Land. []
  13. Based on the current population of 6.8bn consuming 1006mt of grain. []
  14. Simon Fairlie, forthcoming. “Default livestock farming.” The Land, Summer 2008. []
  15. Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow. []
  16. The FAO (ibid) gives 1.6-1.8. On April 12th, I spoke to Francis Murray of the Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling, who suggested 1.5. []
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain; as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper (UK). Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Rich Griffin said on April 17th, 2008 at 5:43am #

    One of the (many) strategies to get people to eat less meat has to be (in the U.S.) to end agricultural subsidies to factory “farmers”. This will increase the cost to consumers. We also need to increase subsidies to healthy nutritious vegan food growers. We also need to change our nutrition advice by having it provided by the NIH with no input from big business interests, such as the dairy industry.

  2. hp said on April 17th, 2008 at 8:11am #

    ‘Nothing will benefit human health or increase the chances for survival on earth as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.’
    Einstein

    If people can’t even do something which is so simple, so good for them, saves them money and is truly an evolutionary act of goodness and a humane example for their children, then how can they be expected to do penance which really does hurt?

    When you make things harder than they are, this is just an excuse to do nothing. Except, of course, for the interminable talk, talk, talk.

  3. Mary Martin said on April 17th, 2008 at 8:33am #

    What I find somewhat unsettling is that here we are, with the realities of the myriad costs of using animals as food exposed, and we still want to find a way to continue to eat animals simply because we “enjoy” them.

    What I find very unsettling is that biofuel production is consistently called a crime against humanity, yet meat production, with all of its inefficiencies and with its decades of diverting food from the starving, isn’t similarly vilified.

    But what I find most unsettling is that there is no hint that bringing sentient beings into existence for the sole purpose of dominating, exploiting and slaughtering them, when there is no need to, might also be some kind of crime.

  4. Mickey Z. said on April 17th, 2008 at 11:39am #

    “In most cases their skin has turned a fascinating pearl grey”? Maybe Mr. Monbiot not only needs a vegan diet…but an eye exam, too.

  5. evie said on April 17th, 2008 at 12:29pm #

    Mary’s “… unsettling is that there is no hint that bringing sentient beings into existence for the sole purpose of dominating, exploiting and slaughtering them, when there is no need to…” – for 1 split second I thought you were speaking of humans. Yikes.

    I rarely eat meat and if I do it upsets my system; I am not a gray color but a “high-yellow”. I won’t explain that term.

    It might help a tad too if the world practiced a little more birth control.

  6. Elaine Vigneault said on April 17th, 2008 at 3:44pm #

    “I cannot help noticing that in most cases their skin has turned a fascinating pearl grey”

    I’m vegan and I’m not grey.
    My husband’s vegan and he’s not grey.
    I know plenty of vegans who aren’t grey.
    There are white vegans, black vegans, latino vegans, mixed-race vegans, but no grey vegans.
    I think the author is confused.

  7. Don Hawkins said on April 17th, 2008 at 5:55pm #

    The setup looks right for another dramatic ice loss this summer.
    March 2008 compared to Marches past
    March 2008 monthly maximum extent was 780,000 square kilometers (301,000 square miles) greater than the past record low, set in March 2006, but 540,000 square kilometers (208,000 square miles) less than the 1979 to 2000 mean. Including 2008, the linear trend for March indicates that the Arctic is losing an average of 44,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) of ice per year in March. Although March 2008 extent is greater than in recent years, the setup looks right for another dramatic ice loss this summer.
    A look at sea ice thickness
    Another way to study sea ice thickness is to look at freeboard, or the amount of ice and snow that protrudes above the water surface. New information on ice thickness is coming from NASA’s ICESat instrument, a spaceborne laser altimeter. Colleague Ronald Kwok at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory uses data from ICESat to study freeboard. His findings indicate that freeboard in the spring of 2008 is 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) less than in spring 2007, pointing to thinner sea ice.
    Let’s see the commercials from oil and gas and coal after this summer.

  8. Anthony Paton said on April 22nd, 2008 at 2:13am #

    There are grey carbon based bi-pedal life forms on Earth, but we are Vogons not Vegans. Admittedly Spock looks a bit green or blue, but that’s because he’s been eating Venusian meat. We are leaving earth as soon as Scotty can get enough biofuels into the Star-Ship Enterprise.

  9. toni brockhoven said on April 22nd, 2008 at 5:37am #

    A well written piece except when the author started on about pearl grey vegans ?? After 3 years as a vegan i am certainly not pale grey. My skin is clearer, my eyes are “twinklier” and my heart is easy. The only logical, workable, reasonable and cost efficient way to reduce world hunger, global warming, deforestation etc etc is to adopt a vegan lifestyle. It is also the only way to end the horrific suffering of billions and billions of sentients. We talk about biofuels as a crime against humanity – what of the meat eaters, whose lust for flesh is depriving humanity, the planet and

  10. toni brockhoven said on April 22nd, 2008 at 5:39am #

    PART TWO ….the animal kingdom the right to life, unhindered and free from torment. And yes, I have included the planet in this statement. When will we learn?