Science, economics and politics have a strong correlation. Whether it is the continuing debate on international trade or the growing heat on global warming, it is invariably politics that determines the final agenda.
So when R K Pachauri, chief of the Nobel prize winning UN Climate Change panel, appealed for a one day abstinence in a week from eating meat, it was expected to stir a hornet’s nest or should I say was expected to literally shake up the barn. And it did. Beef farmers in the United States and Europe have already launched a stinging attack. In the days to come I wouldn’t be surprised if the debate gets still murkier with cow dung being splashed all around.
I am not sure whether Dr Pachauri anticipated this. But the fact remains that whenever someone has dared to challenge the western lifestyle, there has been a quick and sharp retaliation. No wonder, in the entire debate on climate change, what is being tossed around is that global warming will bring massive destruction to the developing world – more floods, more droughts and freak storms in a devastating fury. You don’t hear of what it entails for the rich and industrialised countries
The underlying message therefore is loud and clear. The developing countries must protect and help in safeguarding the environment. Since the poor are going to be the worst sufferers, they must behave. And that makes me wonder when were the developing countries not suffering from incessant rains, floods and drought? Why has the world suddenly become so benevolent towards the poor? I will revert to the politics behind the climate change debate sometimes later, but first let us take a look at the bovine controversy.
Dr Pachauri quotes the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to say that meat production accounts for nearly 18 per cent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, expected to double by the year 2050. The UK National Beef Association has debunked this analysis saying that the 18 per cent figure has since been discredited. The analysis, it says was based on the clearing of the Amazon forests for rearing cattle and that too took the peak year figure of 26,000sq kms for rainforests cleared in 2004.
Whether the greenhouse gas emissions are 18 per cent or 15 per cent or less, the fact remains that about 70 per cent of the foodgrains produced in America are fed to cows and pigs for meat purposes. No wonder, meat industry proliferates in the US, and to a larger extent in other 30 rich and industrialised countries forming the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). To ensure that animals grow faster, cows and pigs are routinely fed with foodgrains and other nutrient feeds and not allowed to graze. In fact, the belief is that allowing cattle to graze saps their energy levels. And so the meat factories conserve and preserve the animal energy by keeping these animals confined to small enclosures.
An average American consumes about 125 kg of meat, including 46 kg of poultry meat. While the Indians are still lagging behind, the Chinese are fast catching up with the American lifestyle. The Chinese on an average consume about 70 kg of meat, inclusive of 8.7 kg of poultry meat every year. The Indian average is around 3.5 kg of meat, much of it (2.1 kg) coming from poultry. If you put all this together, the Chinese are the biggest meat eaters, and for obvious reasons devouring close to 100,000,000 tonnes every year. America is not far behind, consuming about 35,000,000 tonnes of meat in a year. India is trailing far behind with not more than 3 million tonnes of annual meat consumption.
The methane gas released by the meat animals is considered to be 23 times more potent as a climate change agent than carbon dioxide. Multiply this with 55,000 million cattle that are reared the world over for meat consumption, and you will have a fair idea of how much additional heat is being generated. Imagine if China and America alone were to reduce its meat consumption by just ten per cent every year, wouldn’t the world’s environment be much cleaner and cooler?
And this brings me to another aspect of the global warming debate. Cultivation of rice too is blamed for releasing methane into the environment. With 97 per cent of world’s rice grown in Asia, the Asian rice paddies are being accused of adding on to global warming and also sucking the land dry. Since 5000 litres of water is required to produce one kilo of rice, Asian farmers are blamed for the falling groundwater levels. In the recent past, there have been suggestions to reduce the rice plantings so as to not only conserve water but also to save the world from warming up.
Rice cultivation is linked to billions of livelihoods and rice also happens to be the major staple food for the world. On the other hand, livestock farming for meat consumption is certainly not something that cannot be done away with. After all, meat is not a staple food and it is also an inefficient way of converting protein from foodgrains. In any case, as much as 16 kg of grains is required to produce one kilo of beef.
Still more devastating is the water requirement for meat consumption. Hold your breath, 70,000 litres of water is required to produce one kilo of beef. Isn’t it ironical that while the world blames the small farmers in Asia for sucking the planet dry, no one seems to be perturbed at the way the meat factories are guzzling water. Why blame the Asian paddies, and not beef production? You guessed it right, because it affects the western lifestyle.
Charity they say begins at home. It is high time the moral guardians of the world begin to look inwards, and see what changes they need to make so that the world becomes a safe and a cool place for everyone. It is widely accepted that the western lifestyle leaves a devastating ecological footprint on the planet. Unless the western lifestyle undergoes a drastic change the world will continue to warm up. It is no use blaming the poor. The fault lies with the rich and the beautiful. Dr Pachauri’s suggestion therefore must be followed in true letter and spirit.