We need to eat less meat - and the G8 should say so

Instead of feeding starving humans, we funnel huge amounts of crops through the animals we use for food. G8 leaders must call for change at next week's summit.

In Davos this April, David Cameron outlined his priorities for the UK's presidency of the G8 this year. He talked about advancing trade, ensuring tax compliance and promoting greater transparency, all with the goal of creating "lasting global prosperity". It's a noble goal – lifting people out of poverty and making corporations accountable for their actions. It's reassuring to see these issues receive international attention.

But there is one obvious issue that is not being talked about, which should be at the top of the G8 agenda: animal agriculture and its contribution to world hunger, environmental degradation and skyrocketing healthcare costs, all of which affect the global economy.

There is more than enough food being grown around the world to feed the entire human population. So why are more than a billion people going hungry? Because instead of feeding starving humans, we funnel huge amounts of crops through the animals we use for food. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat. And an astounding 97 per cent of the world's soya crop goes to farmed animals rather than to hungry people.

We could eliminate the worst cases of world hunger with about 40 million tonnes of food. And it would be easy enough to find: nearly 20 times that amount of grain, 760 million tonnes, is fed to animals on factory farms every single year. Compare this to biofuels, which account for only 100 million tonnes. Tens of thousands of people marched in London on Saturday in support of Enough Food IF, a laudable campaign which highlights biofuels as one of the "bad guys" in the fight to end global hunger – and yet, inexplicably, it doesn't have animal agriculture as one of its key themes.

By cutting our meat consumption and slowing the rate at which animals are bred, we could redirect the crops that they would have consumed to the people who need them most. That's why the prestigious Worldwatch Institute maintains that "[m]eat consumption is an inefficient use of grain – the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world's poor". Therefore, raising animals for meat creates a disturbing social-justice issue.

And as meat-based diets spread to developing countries, subsistence farmers are being driven off their land. Efficient, plant-based agricultural models are being replaced by intensive animal agriculture, which also pollutes the air and water and leads to desertification that renders the once-fertile land barren.

The United Nations reports that the meat industry is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global". And it's easy to see why. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are the principal agents of climate change – and raising animals for food is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide and the largest source of both methane and nitrous-oxide emissions. When you add up all the energy-intensive stages of raising animals for food, slaughtering them and processing and storing their flesh, it's clear why producing 1 calorie of animal protein requires more than 11 times as much fossil fuel as producing 1 calorie of plant protein. In addition, Greenpeace estimates that in a single crop season, more than 2.9 million acres of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil are destroyed to make more room to grow crops to feed farmed animals.

The water footprint of the livestock sector is also huge. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat requires only 25 gallons. You save more water by not eating a pound of meat than you do by not showering for six months!

Not surprisingly, the United Nations Environment Programme concluded  that "[a] substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products".

Environmental issues, in turn, have a serious impact on our economy. Heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels and other problems caused by climate change can ruin crops and result in increased food prices. Major storms, a developing trend that scientists have also linked to environmental destruction, often do billions of pounds in damage. Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change, which has been the reference work for politicians and journalists throughout the last 10 years, warns that if we do not reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it will take less than 40 years for climate change to cause up to a 20 per cent drop in the world's gross domestic product. He fears that it could be "market failure on the greatest scale the world has seen".

Then there are the skyrocketing healthcare costs that are attributable in large part to the increase in human consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products. Loaded with artery-clogging cholesterol and saturated fat, these products have been linked to cancer, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and obesity. These top killers burden the National Health Service and necessitate that billions of pounds be spent searching for cures and medications to relieve disease symptoms. They also claim a huge number of lives.

Aside from their environmental and health impacts, the meat, dairy and egg industries cause immense suffering to more than a billion animals every year in the UK alone, most of whom spend their entire lives crammed inside dark, filthy sheds. They don't get to breathe fresh air until they are on their way to the abattoir, where many have their throats slit while they are still conscious.

"Lasting global prosperity" can be attained only through sustainable growth – otherwise, we will simply compound current environmental and economic problems. World leaders at the G8 Summit must take into account the devastating impact of animal agriculture in order to encourage global food changes that will be the catalyst for such growth.

The UN reports that the meat industry is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems". Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.