Save the world with salad


Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating AnimalsThis week, scientists at the Global Carbon Project announced that 2010 saw global carbon emissions rise by 5.9 per cent. That means that, as delegates enter the 17th year of the UN's climate conference in Durban, South Africa, some 14 years after the Kyoto Protocol, we have just had the worst year of greenhouse gas emissions ever.

Among those with the highest increases were the booming economies of China and India, up by 10.4 and 9.4 per cent respectively.

That's not to say that only developing countries are to blame. Overall global emissions increased because emissions from developed countries did not decrease, despite the West's perceived role as leaders in the fight against climate change. The US led the charge with a four per cent increase from 2009, with emissions from all developed nations increasing by 3.4 per cent.

While the fruits of the Labor Government's carbon price are yet to materialise, they are unlikely, given the rising emissions elsewhere, to do much to stall, let alone reverse global levels.

This is not least because the government exempted some of the worst offenders from the carbon-pricing scheme — animal agriculturists — choosing instead to spend $1.9 billion helping farmers reduce their emissions. Australia is not alone in this arrangement, with other developed nations also sparing the industry from burdens to reduce carbon.

This has to change. Intensive farming is the single biggest contributor to rising carbon levels. Conservative estimates put animal agriculture as responsible for 15–25 per cent of all emissions. This is more than all the world's planes, trains and automobiles combined.

For years we've had advertisements imploring us to reduce our own emissions by switching the power off at the wall, not leaving appliances on standby, taking two minute showers and not driving to work.

Yet the truth is that the best thing each of us can do to stall climate change is to decrease our consumption of meat and other animal products.

Indeed, last year, the United Nations released a report warning that a gradual shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet is essential if we are to combat the worst effects of climate change. Yet the global demand for meat continues to rise.

It's no surprise that China and India's emissions rose so drastically. In recent years, these countries, with their burgeoning middles classes, have seen demand for meat skyrocket. Both of these countries have adopted the intensive 'factory' farming systems used in the west.

Currently, there are approximately 56 billion animals slaughtered for food every year. By the year 2050, that number is projected to double. With such high demand, 'sustainable' meat production methods are simply not viable. According to the UN, 'A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.'

How much longer can meat consumption be kept out of the mainstream debate when it comes to tackling climate change? As a subject that inflames passion on both sides of the debate, meat eating is right up there with abortion and the existence of God.

Even Al Gore did not include animal agriculture in his global warming doco An Inconvenient Truth, although the film did, ironically, spend a lot of time romanticising his background as a cattle rancher.

In 2009 Gore conceded that 'the growing meat intensity of diets around the world is one of the issues connected to this global crisis', due both to the CO2 produced and to the amount of water consumed. While not a vegetarian, Gore did reduce his meat consumption, and urged others to do likewise.

No doubt this article will have many readers decrying my attack on their right to eat whatever they like. They will invoke arguments about dietary preferences, evolutionary processes and individual liberties. They may even bring up the bible.

But this isn't about people's 'right' to consume animals. It isn't a 'vegan fetish' as some writers have derisively claimed. It isn't about our canine teeth, the length of our intestines, or how we evolved eating meat. It isn't about humanity's dominion over the earth and its inhabitants. It isn't even about animal cruelty, although factory farming is indisputably cruel.

This is about the future of our planet and our long-term survival. Our window of opportunity is closing.

Towards the end of Eating Animals, his book on the nature and effects of animal agriculture, US author Jonathan Safran Foer asks a question we can no longer afford to ignore:

We cannot plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generation that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the generation of whom it will fairly be asked, What did you do when you found out the truth about eating animals?

Ruby HamadRuby Hamad is a freelance writer and graduate from Victorian College of the Arts, where she majored in screen writing and directing. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. Ruby lives in Sydney where she is developing several feature film scripts. 

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, climate change, Durban, vegetariansim



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Existing comments

Oh my goodness! I'm amazed at my own ignorance. In all of the things I've 'heard' about sustainability, I've never comprehended that we should be eating less meat! I was positively ignorant of this fact. Thank you for this enlightening article. I'll do my best to "change the world" in which I live.
KP | 09 December 2011

Maybe we could legislate a requirement for all animal agriculturalists to fit all of their stock with generous collection bags which would prevent the unlimited emission of flatus into the environment.
john frawley | 09 December 2011

Dear Ruby the human dentition clearly indicates that we are not herbivores but omnivores. Also please Eureka don't get brainwashed. Global warming is not TRUTH uncomfortable or otherwise. Increase in carbon dioxide is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, but what effect that has had or will have on our climate is or should be carefully scientifically studied.To even mention that our carbon tax will help to reduce this increase is folly. Please don't climb on the bandwagon. Eureka should have higher standards.
Theo Verbeek | 09 December 2011

Yes, acting reasonably is a good thing. And I am an animal lover. But the most humane abbattoirs in Australia were developed according to the plans of Temple Grandin who totally transformed this side of things. And I don't like factory farming either. BUT why does no one complain about the fact that HALAL killing which goes on all the time around us is the most vile cruel form of animal killin - and now over 85 % of our lamb is killed in this way, 90% of our beef and so many innocent animals are sent overseas to the most vile cruelty. If we could stop halal killing - that would be a start. There is NO justification for Halal killing if we take seriously the proposition that animals have rights.
Skye | 09 December 2011

"Some 14 years after the Kyoto Protocol, we have just had the worst year of greenhouse gas emissions ever." Indeed. And yet, in this past decade of unprecedented greenhouse gas increases, the global temperature has virtually flatlined. Hmmm...
HH | 09 December 2011

We all can try to look and live like a skinny version of Gandhi to “save” the world. If it comes to eating animals, there is often no middle ground. God made animals mainly out of meat. If he did not want us to eat meat, he would have made animals out of something inedible. If we just look at the environmental issues of meat production, then intensive animal farming may be preferable to cattle raising using range land. One of our largest environmental issues in Australia remains land degradation, which leads to the loss of environmental diversity, soil loss and silting. The “best” meats which cause the least environmental impact are possible fish and kangaroos. Growing fish are actually a very large active carbon sink and kangaroos do very little environmental damage to land. A vegan may be skinny and feels warm and fuzzy about saving planet earth. In reality the vegan may have helped to destroy a rain forest in Brazil to enable the growing of more soya beans to produce more of his beloved tofu. I am sure that eating kangaroo meat is a preferable option to cutting down rain forests. If we would use some of the carbon tax windfall money to purchase marginal degraded lands, for example in the Flinders Ranges, we could enable massive natural regeneration of land. The land would would act as a far more cost effective carbon sink then just tree planting. When the land is restored, sustainable kangaroo harvesting would provide us with an environmentally sound healthy alternative to meat produced in a manner which may be either cruel or may cause land degradation.
Beat Odermatt | 09 December 2011

And this in a Church that increasingly dismisses the recurring periods of abstinence. A recent meeting of diocesan consultors during Lent featured roast beef as the central meal. The only prayer Jesus asked us to pray is for our daily vegetarian fare. At no time do the Gospels depict Jesus eating anything other than fish and grain - but I know that smart-alec comments will deride this. This is one change we all can make - return to the diet advocated by St David and St Benedict.
DavidP | 09 December 2011

Thank you, Ruby! As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said at the Parliament of the Worlds Religions, even in the Bible, humans are "allowed" by God to eat meat as a last resort, not because that was the intention in creation. He presented a strong case for vegetarianism in the Jewish tradition, which is the foundation of Christianity. This has to do with ethics, the environment and faith in a God who sees that all creation is good, and plans to redeem all of creation.
Elizabeth Young RSM | 09 December 2011

And this in a Church that increasingly dismisses the recurring periods of abstinence. A recent meeting of diocesan consultors during Lent featured roast beef as the central meal. The only prayer Jesus asked us to pray is for our daily vegetarian fare. At no time do the Gospels depict Jesus eating anything other than fish and grain - but I know that smart-alec comments will deride this. This is one change we all can make - return to the diet advocated by St David and St Benedict.
DavidP | 09 December 2011

Ruby Hamad quotes without explanation "Conservative estimates put animal agriculture as responsible for 15–25 per cent of all emissions." This percentage is inflated by including fuel, which is more accurately allocated to her next category of "all the world's planes, trains and automobiles..."

Allocation of excessive carbon emission to industries which are smaller contributors, deflects attention away from the main contributors - mining and processing coal, oil & gas; generation of electricity from fossil fuels; and cement production.

To argue that we should reduce these industrial processes before a significant rise in atmospheric and sea temperatures is to ignore the loud and clear message from the Copenhagen conference.

Our effort would be better spent managing the challenges that come with global warming, especially the movement of agricultural and pastoral regions away from the equator, and the effects those movements will have on world food production and distribution.

Global warming is not a threat to the world, but it is a challenge to geographically rearrange our food production and distribution to better fit with the changing climate. And yes, eating less beef would help, particularly by ensuring that cereal production is for direct human consumption not for beef cattle. Similarly, bio-fuels made from cereal crops should be prohibited under international law.

Ian Fraser | 09 December 2011

Thank you Ruby, Safran's book highly recommended to all. Eat less meat, please. Theo, time to move on from you're brainwashed state, the effect emissions have on climate is proven; the scientific debate is about the degree of effect and note that it has been consistently underestimated as new findings are published.
Kay | 09 December 2011

Ms Hamad's argument is faulty on a number of grounds and I would commend to readers Simon Fairley's book 'Meat; a Benign Extravagance' or google the very good site "let Them Eat Meat" which provides extensive counter-arguments to much of the mythology of vegetarianism, and is also an intelligent and witty read.

I found the following quote from Fairley quite moving:

"A mixed farming system provides more natural landscape than pure arable farming, is less mechanized, and gives humans greater contact with nature. Why should this be so? The answer is that mixed farming, like nature, is complex, whereas pure arable farming (whether it be for animals in feedlots or for vegans in cities) removes an entire order of creation from the system. Moreover it is the order which is closest to humanity, which gallops and gives birth and suckles, which feels pain and anger and joy. Farmers talk to their animals and give names to them, perhaps not to all of them but almost always to some of them. What vegetable farmer ever gave a name to a cabbage?"
chris g | 09 December 2011

And why is there an ad for the very book Ms Hamad quotes right next to this article?
Product placement in the guise of comment?
chris g | 09 December 2011

I am sorry Ruby but the very statistics you quote seemingly have been put aside as "inconvenient truth "because average 10% increases of already large contributers (China, India )render our Oz figures almost inconsequental .So you should be imploring our Govts to cease exporting the fuel essential to those countries .
Of course this would seriously deplete the National budget & the first affected would be grants to the creative people of our society to be able to develop feature films etc .( my apolagies of course to all such people who are totally self funded )
Finally I support Theo's comment regarding E S editor publishing such an article of very questionable credability . Regards John
John Kersh | 09 December 2011

@DAVIDP, if I may draw your attention to the following passages from Matthew's gospel.

Matt 15.11 "It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”

Matt 15.17“Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? 18“But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. 19“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. 20“These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”

I realise that some posters here will think that Jesus is a little judgemental, but hey, he lived in those unenlightened days! We have to cut him a little slack. So I hope that no one who has committed fornication, adultery, murder etc, will feel offended by what he said. Just as we don't condemn abortion too loudly as we dont want to offend people who may have had one. But we should not let him off the hook for giving a free pass to those who are real threat to humanity; those amongst us who like a good steak.
Patrick James | 09 December 2011

A polarising article, but food for thought (no pun intended). As Homer Simpson once said, 'You don't make friends with salad.'
MBG | 09 December 2011

Thank you. I believe we cannot ignore the fact that something in our way of life has to change. Whether temperatures are rising, whether man made activity is the cause if real - regardless of the conflicting opinions we must accept if for no reason than simple extrapolatory mathematical logic, we need to consume less and conserve more.Alone the number of people on the planet and the projected increase is cause enough for concern. Please tell me why we seem so reluctant to change. No one seems willing to do this. I ask myself why.
graham patison | 09 December 2011

I have tried to be vegetarian since I was eleven, simply because it involves suffering caused to animals. There is no escape from the fact that they feel fear and pain, even if they can't express it. For me this is why I'm vegetarian, not because of a more difficult notion such as 'the environment'. (Not that that's unimportant!)
Penelope | 09 December 2011

Ah Penelope, but all the animals that are killed growing your vegan delights! From the insects to the birds and rodents to the animals displaced by ever increasing farmlands. Unfortunately vegan diets only increase the number of animals killed.
Is a mouse less important than a cow?
chris | 09 December 2011

Seeing that the world population has reached 7 billion people and we all breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, will someone advise us to cut the population to 3 billion people to save the planet? Honestly, for Eureka Street to publish Ruby Hamad's article, it makes me wonder?
Ron Cini | 09 December 2011

If you're going to quote "Livestock's Long Shadow," at the very least acknowledge that even the UN has admitted that their calculations in regard to animal agriculture emissions vs. transportation are skewed and misleading. The FAO calculated all aspects of livestock production, from the raising of animals to their slaughter, encompassing feedlot emissions as well as the emissions from transit to abbattoirs. However, they only calculated the emissions from gas-using cars for transportation. So of COURSE it's going to look like animal agriculture is worse than transportation-- they weren't measured equally!

Jonathan Safran Foer's book is a blatant one-sided attack on animal agriculture. There are many things he doesn't mention-- such as how he illegally broke into a turkey farm in the middle of the night, or how states that farmers do not aim to produce healthy animals. As a livestock producer, this is deceit, plain and simple, and Mr. Foer should be ashamed of himself. The health of my animals is of utmost importance to me and my family. The fact that he didn't bother to tell both sides of the story shows how skewed this book really is.
Leigh | 10 December 2011


I wasn't referring to 'Livestock's Long Shadow' but a more recent report,'Priority, Products and Materials' released by the United Nations Environmental Programme.

I'm not sure how you can refer to Safran Foer's book as 'one-sided' given that he devoted entire sections of the book to farmers who described their work in their own words. He was also careful to differentiate between factory farming and smaller family farms, which he praised quite highly. The animals he was referring to when he wrote that farmers deliberately raised unhealthy livestock were those living on factory farms. Given that some of the health problems include inability to breed naturally (turkeys) and rapid growth in order to reach 'maturity' at six weeks (chickens), not to mention the outbreaks of swine and avian flues which both originated from factory farms, I find to difficult to disagree with him.

Now, you may have taken his book personally, but that does not mean it was one-sided. I find that, often, when people accuse writers of being biased or one-sided, what they really mean is, they don't like the writing because it doesn't tell the same story they tell themselves.
Ruby Hamad | 10 December 2011

And as to whether or not he entered the farm illegally, he clearly maintains that he didn't. But in either case, that really doesn't have anything to do with whether his book was a fair assessment or not.
Ruby Hamad | 10 December 2011

'If he did not want us to eat meat, he would have made animals out of something inedible.' Beat, this could equally be an argument for cannibalism!
Penelope | 12 December 2011

Thank you Penelope ,I believe your arguement far more cr edible than Ruby's & certainly spiced with more humour .Regards John
John Kersh | 13 December 2011

to Penelope:I hope you don't promote vegetarianism AND cannibalism as answers to save the world!
Beat Odermatt | 14 December 2011


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