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Eat less meat to save the environment

Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Great Khali

In the Scientific American of February 2009, it was reported that the production of meat produces more greenhouse gases than either transportation or industry. It added to the case being made of the need to, at least, review the production of meat and its negative impact on land and water resources and human health. These were discussed in an earlier column.

At the climate conference in Paris last week, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the famous body builder and actor, recommended eating less meat to mitigate climate change. The Terminator took the realistic view that giving up meat altogether would be difficult for most people but cutting back for a day or two is a realistic approach. (This approach was proposed in this column a few weeks ago.) Of course he was on the receiving end of serious flak. Powerful multinationals trade in the meat production and marketing business and hence one expects that there would be blowback to such a suggestion.

There is a trend, which some view as unfortunate, that as societies become more affluent, the consumption of meat goes up. It is driven by several myths that need to be debunked. Many believe that eating meat makes you big and strong. Well, there’s no conclusive evidence to support that. By way of example, Dilip Singh Rana aka the Great Khali, a vegetarian, stands at over seven feet tall with a chest size of 63 inches. The Terminator’s is listed at 58 inches. The Great Khali, like the Terminator is also an actor; having appeared in films from Hollywood and Bollywood and one French film. He was also the world heavyweight champion of the WWE in 2007. The Great Khali is certainly not the only strong vegetarian. 

The argument put forward by protagonists for carnivores is that the human body is optimised for eating meat exclusively or mostly. The scientific evidence does not support that. The teeth, jaw muscles, digestive enzymes and tract of humans have been compared with plant-eating and meat-eating animals, in more than one study. The conclusion is that humans are more similar to plant eating animals. Dr Milton Mills, a graduate of the Stanford School of Medicine, indicates “Medical research shows conclusively that a plant-based diet reduces chronic disease risk.”

It would appear that the basis for the supposed superiority of meat-based diets has less to do with scientific evidence and more to do with the culture of the western civilization which has been the dominant one for centuries. One outcome of this has been the explosive growth of the fast food industry (mainly meat based) and the subsequent rise in chronic illnesses. It would be impractical and not wise (economically) to try to dispense with meat eating, even if everyone were to become a vegetarian. But certainly some choices will have to be made in the not too distant future.

The feeding and housing of the seven billion and growing population require that the effective use of our land and water resources be treated as an urgent priority. Rainfall patterns and quantum significantly impact our ability to produce grain and livestock. Recent changes in the climate has resulted in less rainfall in some areas and far too much in others. The result is either flooding or drought. Both are deleterious to agriculture. 

One may conclude that mankind is at a critical juncture. Population growth has to be slowed so as to be able to live and prosper on the limited land and water resources available on earth. Secondly, the use of these resources must be optimised and thirdly, climate change/extreme weather must be tackled. 

Limiting the production of meat will significantly and positively impact the latter two issues.


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