One man's meat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 August, 2009, 12:00am

There are usually only two reasons why people quit smoking: health and politics. A doctor or spouse can have strong influence on even the most avowed smoker. Both can also be behind meat eaters turning to vegetarianism, but there can be many other causes for steaks to be pushed aside in favour of tofu and sprouts. I re-encountered an extremely persuasive one this week.

During internet research I chanced upon the Food and Agriculture Organisation's landmark 2006 report, Livestock's Long Shadow. The UN agency published it largely in response to concerns about the impact to the global food cycle and environment of the increasing wealth of China and other developing nations. Affluence equates with being able to afford to eat more meat. Assessing circumstances was a necessary starting point to making projections and determining risk.

The report did that and more. Its pages are filled with chilling facts and figures. In 2006, the world's resources were being strained by meat demand. Continued consumption levels and the predicted desire of hundreds of millions more people in China and India for a regular taste could mean environmental catastrophe.

Keep in mind that the FAO is not an organisation dedicated to vegetarianism. Its objective is to ensure that the world's people have enough to eat. Diets need to be balanced, but neither livestock nor poultry raising nor crop nor fruit production is favoured. Preventing hunger is its overarching concern.

Regardless, the headline statistics alone make clear that too much meat production is not good for Planet Earth. For starters, the livestock industry uses 70 per cent of agricultural land. It saps up 8 per cent of global water resources, mostly for growing feed, and is believed to be the biggest single source of pollution of waterways. Those of us worried about greenhouse gas emissions can point to it as being responsible for 18 per cent of carbon dioxide - more than for transport - and 37 per cent of methane, which is more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in its warming effect. There is much more, such as rainforest and habitat destruction, but there is only so much distressing news that can be taken in one day. Yes, and these figures are three years old - developing world demand is rising by the second.

My getting reacquainted with the report had the same affect it did the first time I read it: I have taken another resolute step down the road to becoming a 100 per cent vegetarian. That process began when I came to Hong Kong to work in 1988. My rural Australian upbringing of steak and eggs for breakfast backed by meat at every other meal had to be substantially modified when I encountered what I determined to be staggering beef prices. Scares involving chemically tainted pork and seafood and bird flu have over time put paid to everyday mealtime encounters with pork, fish and chicken. The older I get, the less meat my body craves. I was down to being a vegetarian two days a week when I first read the FAO report in 2006; its cold facts made me vow to aim for three or four.

Vegetarians I know made their choice for any number of reasons. Religion, the thought of consuming a fellow mammal and a desire to lose weight are among them. A friend who grew up on a movie diet that started with Bambi and progressed through Babe, Chicken Run and Finding Nemo was also naturally turned down the veggie route. Another appears to have done so purely for financial reasons: Vegetables and fruit cost less than meat and fish. But perhaps the most salient reason of them all for at least becoming a part-time vegetarian lies in the FAO report.

I do not yet equate eating meat with smoking. There is no doubt, though, that it is becoming an increasingly political issue. Just as I gave up smoking at the age of 20 because a girlfriend complained of the smell, I can foresee the day I will feel that crossing the threshold of a steakhouse is a crime. In the meantime, I will work towards four or five days of vegetarianism a week and recommend that those who insist on meat at every meal take a look at

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post