The awkward ecology around eating meat
23 October 2010
The morality gap between what people say and what they do is at its widest in matters of the environment. Those who emit concern about logging in Indonesia or coal-fired power plants in China will quite likely squeal in dismay at the suggestion that motorway tolls might be imposed in the UK, or street lamps switched off after midnight.
Meat is a particularly rich source of verbal methane. There are powerful environmental arguments against mankind’s increasingly carnivorous diet, but they have been weakened in the past by the deployment of dodgy statistics and hysterical arguments. For all the talk and hand-wringing, we eat more meat than ever in the West, and the developing world is gaining a taste for it, too.
There have been salvos from both sides of the argument recently. A former editor of The Ecologist, Simon Fairlie, has written a book called Meat: A Benign Extravagance in which he suggests that the arguments commonly deployed against meat should be directed at the way we produce it. Fairlie points out that the much-quoted statistic that it takes 10kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef is only true if the cows’ diet is entirely grain, which never happens. Even in the grim beef mega-farms of America, where grain is used to fatten cattle quickly, the proportion will be 7:1. The global conversion average from grain to edible meat is 2:1 – not a bad arrangement since cows convert something we do not eat – grass – into milk, butter, cheese and beef.
Once the diet of pigs largely consisted of crop residue and food waste, neither of which were any use to humans. Now, more for reasons of marketing efficiency than health, the waste is incinerated or put into landfill. The food we throw away every year in the UK could feed enough pigs to produce 800,000 tonnes of pork, the equivalent of one-sixth of our annual meat intake.
It was a convincing enough argument to persuade at least one advocate of ethical veganism, George Monbiot, to recant but, sadly for meat-lovers, the environmental case against a carnivorous diet is stronger than ever
This week a paper published by Canada’s National Academy of Sciences has concluded that, simply to remain in the same position as we are today, global per capita meat consumption will have to be reduced by between 19 and 42 per cent before 2050. There is, say the authors, “a profound disconnect between the anticipated scale of potential environmental impacts associated with projected livestock levels and even the most optimistic mitigation strategies”. Which, being translated, means that we are chomping our way to disaster.
All this is much too tricky for our politicians to address. Fearful of seeming nannyish or prim, they prefer to parade their environmental credentials by sounding off about energy, fossil fuels and other subjects which are safely removed from the domestic lives of most voters. The argument that the mass production of cheap meat is ecologically harmful, not to mention inhumane, has this one huge disadvantage: it involves people changing their habits.
New Zealand’s real-life Alan Partridge is comedy gold
As Steve Coogan’s greatest creation proved, the on-air behaviour of a sublimely thick professional can be comedy gold. There is something irresistibly funny about watching a TV presenter trying to be more interesting and authoritative than his limited brainpower will allow him to be.
A perfect example of a broadcasting disaster worthy of Alan Partridge has been delighting New Zealanders. A breakfast TV presenter called Paul Henry has, in the mistaken belief that he has the popular touch, taken to making remarks that are pointlessly rude. His idea of wit has been to describe Susan Boyle as “retarded” and to suggest that a female guest from Greenpeace was wearing a moustache.
He has been in cracking form lately. Referring to the country’s governor-general, Sir Anand Satyanand, whose family is originally of Fijian-Indian origin, he asked when the country was going to have a real New Zealander in the job. Before the fuss had died down, he was overcome with amusement on air at the name of the Indian Foreign Minister Sheila Dikshit. Unwisely trying to explain his giggles, he said that the name was “appropriate because she’s Indian”.
The face of his female co-presenter, fixed smile in place, eyes flashing an increasing sense of panic, will become a television classic.
Sadly for lovers of comedy, Henry has now been forced to resign. The row he caused with his half-baked antics will doubtless make it slightly more difficult for the truly stupid to get a job in broadcasting. It may be a healthy development, but the world will be a less funny place.
Is ‘The X Factor’ turning into ‘Supermarket Sweep’?
One of life’s niggling little curiosities is that, while it is regarded as bad form if a television interviewee plugs a book he has written or the company where he works, the same rule rarely applies to our largest supermarket. In broadcast discussions, the name “Tesco” can be repeated mantra-like by its champions as often they like.
It seems that the supermarket has become such a national institution, like the Queen or the Post Office, that its name can be dropped without any hint of disapproval. In the current series of The X Factor, for example, there have been no fewer than eight mentions of the supermarket over the past few programmes.
One of its staff has done rather well in the programme, reaching the final, but all the same the repetition of her employer’s brand name over and over again might seem to some a touch excessive. Tesco, by a fortunate coincidence, has an exclusive contract to sell the programme’s promotional magazine.