Put down that chicken leg

You’ll be do­ing the world a favour – be­cause meat is very en­vi­ron­men­tally un­friendly.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thestar.com.my Man­gai Balasegaram Man­gai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into any­thing on be­ing hu­man. She has worked with in­ter­na­tional pub­lic health bod­ies and has a Masters in pub­lic health.

WHEN it comes to sav­ing the world, we hope that our lead­ers can steer us in the right di­rec­tion. Many peo­ple were dis­ap­pointed when US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pulled out of the 2015 Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment. No doubt, the im­pli­ca­tions to the planet are for­bid­ding. (See an­other view of Trump’s de­ci­sion op­po­site, from Big Smile, No Teeth colum­nist Ja­son God­frey.)

But here’s the thing. While we can’t con­trol what lead­ers do, we still have the power to make a dif­fer­ence. With re­spect to cli­mate change, there’s one sin­gle ac­tion we can eas­ily take: eat less meat.

Sure, plant­ing a tree, rid­ing your bike, and driv­ing less help too. But the im­pact of skip­ping meat once a week prob­a­bly has far more im­pact and is vastly un­der­es­ti­mated, es­pe­cially if done en masse.

If every Amer­i­can skipped one meal of chicken a week and ate veg­e­tar­ian food in­stead, the car­bon diox­ide sav­ings would be equiv­a­lent to tak­ing more than half a mil­lion cars off the roads, ac­cord­ing to US En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense.

Meat is a ma­jor pol­lu­tant. It re­quires so much land, en­ergy, and wa­ter to pro­duce, in part be­cause of feed crops, and also causes much pol­lu­tion. The live­stock in­dus­try ac­counts for 15% of all emis­sions of green­house gases – the gases that warm the planet and lead to cli­mate change.

Many peo­ple do not re­alise that meat pro­duces more green­house gases than all trans­port com­bined – yes, all cars, planes, trains and ships. And that was a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate from the United Na­tions Food and Agri­cul­tural As­so­ci­a­tion (FAO) in 2006.

To­mor­row is World No Meat Day. Peo­ple all over the world are cut­ting out meat for the day. Some are even go­ing ve­gan (no meat nor dairy). If you’ve ever needed a rea­son to change your diet, here it is.

Sav­ing the world starts with choos­ing what’s on your plate.

We, as Malaysians, par­tic­u­larly need to do this. We’re one of the high­est meat con­sumers per capita. De­pend­ing on the year, data, and coun­tries in­cluded, we are the 10th top meat-eat­ing coun­try (2013 World Eco­nomic Fo­rum ta­ble) or the 13th (2015 ta­ble from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-Op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment, or OECD).

In the re­gion, we’re the se­cond big­gest meat eaters af­ter Hong Kong (which is the num­ber one meat eater world­wide) per capita, ac­cord­ing to re­search by busi­ness in­tel­li­gence com­pany Euromon­i­tor. We eat more than twice as much meat as the Thais, and more than four times as much as In­done­sians, ac­cord­ing to 2015 OECD data . It’s our chicken con­sump­tion that is huge. We’re the fourth big­gest chicken con­sumers world­wide per capita, com­ing just af­ter bar­be­cue-lov­ing Aus­tralia, Is­rael, and the United States, the 2015 OECD data show.

It’s time for us to ad­dress our glut­tonous love of chicken. For the fu­ture of this planet, we have to. With pop­u­la­tion growth and an ever-in­creas­ing ap­petite for meat, we’re get­ting to a point when we sim­ply won’t have enough re­sources on this planet to meet the de­mand for meat.

As it is, the vast ma­jor­ity of the earth’s arable land is not used to raise grains, fruits, and veg­eta­bles that hu­mans can eat, but for feed for an­i­mals – and this while al­most a bil­lion peo­ple do not have enough to eat. Con­sider: 1ha of land might only yield about 100kg of beef, but about 10,000kg of carrots or even more toma­toes. Meat pro­duc­tion is highly in­ef­fi­cient.

With­out a shift in diet, we won’t meet the global tar­gets to con­tain global warm­ing. An­i­mal waste re­leases meth­ane and ni­trous ox­ide, green­house gases which are, re­spec­tively, 25 and 300 times more po­tent than car­bon diox­ide. Roughly 1.5 bil­lion cows world­wide are pass­ing out meth­ane.

There are also 50 bil­lion chick­ens, with a fair few of them here. But a vis­it­ing alien wouldn’t see them; they’re all shut­tered up. The in­ten­sive farm­ing in which an­i­mals are reared is in­cred­i­bly cruel; of­ten their lives are mis­er­able from birth to death, un­able to move freely or rear their young. As they’re prone to sick­ness, we pump them up with chem­i­cals, in­clud­ing an­tibi­otics.

Con­di­tions are so bad that some Amer­i­can states have banned jour­nal­ists (the “Ag-gag” laws) from writ­ing about them. To me, how we treat our an­i­mals re­flects our own (in) hu­man­ity.

If go­ing veg­e­tar­ian is too big a step, con­sider flex­i­tar­i­an­ism – re­duc­ing but not elim­i­nat­ing meat con­tent. Sim­ply cut­ting down on meat and also not wast­ing food is a step for­ward.

Many coun­tries now have a “Meat­less Mon­day”, when for one day a week, peo­ple skip meat. Many restau­rants and schools in Hong Kong, for ex­am­ple, now of­fer veg­e­tar­ian op­tions. So what about Malaysia, then? Who’s with me for a meat-free day to­mor­row on World No Meat Day?

Meat pro­duces more green­house gases than all trans­port com­bined – yes, all cars, planes, trains and ships.

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