If the rest of the world caught up to the United States – where meat consumption averages 125.4 kilograms per person annually, compared with a measly 3.2 kilograms in India – the environmental consequences would be catastrophic.
According to recent research, if the world stopped producing crops for animal feed or diverting them to biofuels, it could not only end global hunger, but also feed 4 billion extra people – more than the number of projected arrivals before the global population stabilizes.
At any given time, the global livestock population amounts to more than 150 billion, compared to just 7.2 billion humans – meaning that livestock have a larger direct ecological footprint than we do. Livestock production causes almost 14.5 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and contributes significantly to water pollution. Meat consumption actually leads to more greenhouse-gas emissions annually than the use of cars does. Meat production is about 10 times more water-intensive than plant-based calories and proteins, with one kilogram of beef, for example, requiring 15,415 liters of water. It is also an inefficient way of generating food; up to 30 crop calories are needed to produce one meat calorie. Moreover, livestock production consumes one-third of the total water resources used in agriculture (which accounts for 71 percent of the world's water consumption), as well as more than 40 percent of the global output of wheat, rye, oats and corn. And livestock production uses 30 percent of the earth's land surface that once was home to wildlife, thereby playing a critical role in biodiversity loss and species extinction. Beef production alone requires, on average, 28 times more land and 11 times more water than the other livestock categories, while producing five times more greenhouse-gas emissions and six times more reactive nitrogen.
In order to ensure that their animals gain weight rapidly, meat producers feed them grain, rather than the grass that they would naturally consume – an approach that is a major source of pressure on grain production, natural resources and the environment. Making matters worse, the livestock are injected with large amounts of hormones and antibiotics. 80 percent of all antibiotics sold are administered not for treatment but as a preventative to livestock. Yet this has been inadequate to stem the spread of disease. In fact, with many of the new and emerging infectious diseases affecting humans originating in animals.
Though the environmental and health costs of our changing diets have been widely documented, the message has gone largely unheard. With the world facing a serious water crisis, rapidly increasing global temperatures and growing health problems like coronary disease, this must change – and fast.
This is not to say that everyone must become vegetarian. But even a partial shift in meat consumption habits – with consumers choosing options such as chicken and seafood, instead of beef – could have a far-reaching impact. Adopting a balanced, largely plant-based diet, with minimal consumption of red and processed meat, would help conserve natural resources, contribute to the fight against human-induced global warming and reduce people's risk of diet-related chronic diseases and even cancer mortality.
Some Socialists are vegetarians, but others are not. We have never seen a reason to take a stand on this issue as a party, however strongly some individual members may feel. What will become of the meat and dairy industry in socialism? At present the socialist case focuses necessarily on the emancipation of the human species from capitalist-induced oppression and suffering, while the ethical question of how we should regard and treat animals remains as one of the iceberg of other issues submerged below the waterline. What is clear to socialists if to nobody else is that humanity’s relationship to nature was never really anthropocentric but in fact ‘oligocentric’. Nature and everything in it including the vast majority of the human species existed for the sole purpose, use and disposition of the few members of the ruling elites. In the view of those elites, we humans were simply clever animals. Once this highly destructive oligocentric principle is overthrown, a new ethical framework will inevitably emerge in relation to resource exploitation. Quite what this will be and whether it will become genuinely anthropocentric or alternatively expand to encompass considerations beyond the species barrier is at present an open question. If socialists expect a large-scale meat industry they will have to face the fact that there is no ‘ethical’ way to do this. At all events, without a global revolution in the way society collectively owns and controls its resources people are never going to get the luxury of choice over this or any other resource question. Unless and until the welfare and humane treatment of humans is first attended to the question of the ethical treatment of animals must remain an issue waiting for its moment. Livestock are raised in ways designed to cut production costs to the bone, with little or no regard for the consequent suffering. There can be no dispute that many animals are treated abominably under capitalism. One question is to what extent their treatment is due to capitalism’s demands for profit and for constantly cheapening the costs of production. For it does not follow that mistreatment is a hallmark of all use of animals for food. It is perfectly possible that a Socialist society would involve less eating of meat and eggs, and any animals kept for food purposes would certainly be treated as humanely as possible. The author of Animal Farm, George Orwell stated: “Men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat”. The Socialist Party would agree with William Morris that “a man can hardly be a sound Socialist who puts forward vegetarianism as a solution of the difficulties between labour and capital, as some people do”. Cruelty to animals will go the way of all forms of cruelty, when a real civilised existence becomes a possibility to everyone.