Today marks the end of World Week for the Abolition of Meat – an appropriate time to ask ourselves what would happen if those of us who live in the developed world, with its ample choices, opted for a beet burger instead of a beef burger every time we sat down to eat. (Hint: cows would not take over the world.)
The world's hungry would no longer be hungry
Yes, your beef or pork may be locally grown, but what about the animals' feed? Vegetarians and vegans aren't gobbling up all the grains and soybeans - cattle are. A staggering 97 per cent of the world's soya crop is fed to livestock.
It would take 40 million tons of food to eliminate the most extreme cases of world hunger, yet nearly 20 times that amount of grain is fed to farmed animals every year in order to produce meat. In a world where an estimated 850 million people do not have enough to eat, it is criminally wasteful to feed perfectly edible food to animals on farms in order to produce a burger rather than feeding it directly to people, especially when you consider that it takes roughly six pounds of grain to produce one pound of pork. As long as a single child goes hungry, this kind of waste is unconscionable.
There would more land available for our growing population
Countries around the globe are bulldozing huge swathes of land in order to make room for more factory farms to house all the additional chickens, cows and other animals as well as for the huge quantities of crops needed to feed them. But when you eat plant foods directly, instead of indirectly eating bushels and bushels of grain and soya that have been funnelled through animals first, you need a lot less land.
Vegfam, a charity which funds sustainable plant-food projects, estimates that a 10-acre farm can support 60 people by growing soybeans, 24 people by growing wheat or 10 people by growing maize, but only two by raising cattle. What's more, Dutch scientists predict that 2.7 billion hectares of land currently used for cattle grazing would be freed up by global vegetarianism, along with 100 million hectares of land currently used to grow crops for livestock.
With the population of the UK expected to exceed 70 million by 2030, we'll need all the land we can get to accommodate the extra demand for living space and food.
Billions of animals would avoid a lifetime of suffering
On many industrial farms, animals are kept in cramped conditions and will never raise families, forage for food or do anything else that is natural and important to them. Most won't even get to feel the warmth of the sun on their backs or breathe fresh air until the day they are loaded onto lorries headed for the abattoir. There is no better way to help animals and prevent their suffering than by choosing not to eat them.
The risk of dangerous antibiotic resistance would reduce
Factory-farmed animals are disease-ridden as a result of being crammed by the thousands into filthy sheds, which are a breeding ground for new strains of dangerous bacteria and viruses. Pigs, chickens and other animals on factory farms are fed a steady diet of drugs to keep them alive in these unsanitary, stressful conditions, increasing the chance that drug-resistant superbugs will develop.
A senior officer with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation called the intensive industrial farming of livestock an “opportunity for emerging disease”, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe”.
Sure, the overprescribing of antibiotics for humans plays a part in antibiotic resistance. But eliminating the factory farms from which many antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerge would make it more likely that we could continue to count on antibiotics to cure serious illnesses.
The NHS would be under less strain
Obesity is literally killing British people. The NHS has warned that, if left unchecked, the country's obesity rates will bankrupt the health service. Meat, dairy foods and eggs – all of which contain cholesterol and saturated fat – are the main culprits in obesity, which contributes to the UK's top killers: heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and various types of cancer.
Yes, there are overweight vegetarians and vegans, just as there are skinny meat-eaters. But, on average, vegans are about one-tenth as likely to be obese as their meat eating counterparts. Once you replace high-fat animal-derived foods with healthy fruits, veggies and grains, it becomes a lot harder to pile on the pounds. What's more, many health problems can be alleviated and even reversed by switching to a plant-based diet.
Going vegan might not make the world a perfect place, but it would help make it a kinder, greener, healthier one.
Mimi Bekhechi is director of animal welfare charity PETA
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