A Publication of
THE CATHOLIC STUDY CIRCLE
FOR ANIMAL WELFARE
From the Ark Number 184 Book Review The Meat Business: devouring a hungry planet,
Edited by Geoff Tansey and Joyce DSilva.
Earthscan, £35 (paperback £12.95)
Reviewed by Delny Britton, a scientist now scripting natural history films with her film-maker husband
By Delny Britton
How will the world feed its rapidly growing human population in the new millennium? By producing more food, of course, using all the technological advances that decades of scientific research and billions of dollars of investment have achieved in the latter half of the twentieth century. Consider the fruits of these labours: genetically modified super-plants capable of 40 per cent higher yields, tolerant of liberal dousings of herbicide and able to survive in hostile tropical soils; transgenic animals with huge muscles and a near absence of body fat; hormone-supplemented cows capable of 15 per cent higher milk yields. And because high-tech food production will not require any additional farmland, we will be able to spare valuable rainforests and animal habitats. There may be some casualties in this brave new world of biotechnological agriculture, but the benefits of producing more food will greatly outweigh the costs, even if these entail animal suffering, risks to human health, crop failures, polluted water, loss of biological diversity, loss of livelihoods, decreasing food security, increasing poverty more hungry mouths.
If ever a case existed to support the more is less school of thought, it can be found between the covers of The Meat Business, a collection of twenty-one papers presented at the spring 1998 conference of Compassion in World Farming. An impressive and diverse group of speakers turned the spotlight on global agriculture and in doing so revealed a devastating picture. Modern farming has lost its way. What we are doing, and what we plan to do, is bad for people, animals and the environment, and the agricultural myth which says you can feed the world by producing more food is simply that a myth.
Little effect on the hungry
Increasing agricultural output has little effect on the hungry because it fails to address the key issues which lie at the root of hunger: access to land and purchasing power. Over half a billion rural people in the third world are either landless or have insufficient land to grow food. Their access to food is solely by purchase once they lose that purchasing power, they starve. Brazil is now the third largest agricultural exporter in the world, yet two out of every three Brazilians do not have enough to eat.
Jose Lutzenberger, formerly Brazils National Secretary for the Environment, describes how vast tracts of land in southern Brazil once farmed sustainably by small communities or densely forested have been taken over by powerful, profit-driven individuals who farm it western-style: liberal use of pesticides and fertilisers, monocultures of soya beans. The end product feeds not Brazilian mouths but cattle in the European Union. And herein lies the central theme of the book: that quite apart from the suffering it inflicts on animals, the business of meat production is now seriously affecting the lives of people the world over.
India a country where millions go hungry not only exports soya beans to feed European livestock but now devotes 37 per cent of its arable land to growing fodder for animals that are raised and killed for export. Maneka Gandhi, Indias Minister for Welfare, describes how government subsidies to meat exporters are pushing livestock prices up and putting cattle critically important to the rural economy for their draught-power and dung out of the reach of small farmers. Goats destined for export are stripping the land bare and destroying precious wildlife habitat. If India stopped growing and exporting goats and buffaloes writes Gandhi we could regenerate our land and water, we could avert famine we could find more of everything for everybody
Excessive consumption of meat in rich nations coupled with rising consumption in developing ones means that more and more agricultural land is being given over to producing feed for animals, most of which are intensively reared in abysmal conditions. Chinas growing demand for animal feed has changed it from a net exporter of grain (8 million tonnes in 1992) to a voracious and insatiable importer (16 million tonnes in 1995 and rising yearly). Forget the EUs grain mountain and Americas bumper harvests grain production will soon be outpaced by the demands of a rapidly growing human population and ever-increasing numbers of animals reared for meat. Grain prices will soar, and the casualties will be the poorest nations of all who cannot afford to compete.
Enter the agrichemical industrys latest offerings to humanity: patented, high-yielding, genetically-engineered crops and livestock. Denis Avery, Director of Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute, held a solitary flag high for biotechnology at the CIWF conference. Biotechnology, he declared, may be the only compassionate answer to the world food challenge in the 21st century for poor people, for children, and for the billions of wild creatures on the planet. Yet his arguments for biotechnology, glaringly at odds with the views of fellow contributors, reveal a profound and disturbing ecological ignorance and a mindset that has helped push agriculture further and further down the path of unsustainability. This approach puts yield and profit above all else and externalises the costs: the human calamities, the environmental devastation, the loss of biodiversity in the landscape and on our farms. It turns sentient creatures into meat production units and farmers into tractor drivers and poison sprayers. Aided and abetted by GATT a trading system which puts the right to trade freely above the fundamental rights of humans and animals modern industrial agriculture widens the gulf between rich and poor and brings a further burden to developing nations: the costly diseases of the developed world caused by a diet too rich in meat.
What the world needs now, argue other contributors to The Meat Business, is not more of the same but a radical re-assessment of values, priorities and responsibilities. We need land reform to enable small-scale, people-rich farming to flourish. We need a trading system that respects environmental and ethical concerns and sustains rather than subverts the ability of people to feed themselves. We need farming practices which minimise harm and reunite us with natural living systems. And we need to eat less meat.
Organic farming which shuns pesticides, artificial fertilizers, prophylactic drugs and genetic manipulation may not be able to meet the excessive demands of the West, but it can feed the world without damaging the environment, communities and our health. And cynics like Avery need not look far for proof. A forty-year shortage of agrichemicals has forced Cuba to go organic on a grand scale, with one third of its 11 million hectares of farmland fully organic, one third maintained with agrichemicals and the rest transitional part organic and part agrichemical. Yields per hectare of the fully organic are equal to the fully agrichemical, while the yields of transitional fields are only half as much. As Patrick Holden of the Soil Association so rightly points out, there is another reason for taking the organic route. Organic farming espouses high standards of animal welfare which will go some way to repaying the huge moral debt incurred by the industrialization of agriculture. For all to eat well and compassionately in the new millennium, fundamental changes in many different areas are required. The Meat Business provides food for both thought and action.
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