The Silent Ark
14: A Matter of Environment
One reason for going to Kenya was to clarify my mind about the
future. Despite my position as Director of the Vegetarian Society,
decisions were being taken by the governing council which I found
disturbing. Two very distinct views on the direction in which we
should be heading had developed, with the majority of the staff
on one side and the council on the other. All the values I believed
in were, it seemed to me, being jettisoned in a stampede to commercialize
the organization. The council was dancing with the Devil, not to
try and change him, but to learn from him. I had to decide what
I wanted to do.
Another reason for going was to fulfil a lifelong ambition and
see wild animals on the plains of Africa. The trek from Mombasa
to the Amboseli Game Reserve is a tortuous and dusty one - and uncomfortable
as the minibus lurches, sways and bumps over kilometres of dirt
track and eventually crosses a black and desolate lava flow many
kilometres wide. This is the point at which vehicles draw together
in convoy for self-protection. Not from animals but from humans.
This is poacher territory and the same people who are prepared
to kill an elephant for its ivory are equally prepared to rob tourists.
A rhino had been killed the previous week so that its horn could
be sold to the Yemen for use by some wealthy oil producer as a dagger
handle. On this occasion, fortunately, the poachers didn’t
reveal themselves to us.
The first large animal I saw was one of the most bizarre sights
I have ever witnessed. Years of TV documentaries had not prepared
me for it. We were miles from Amboseli in open land, a mixture of
scrub, trees and grazing for Masai cattle. A giraffe, unconcerned
and uninterested, stepped out of the trees, loping as though it
had just learnt to walk. It looked huge and incongruous, like an
enormous bendy-toy, and its gaudy ginger mottled colouring offered
no camouflage but seemed to shout: ‘Here I am!’ It had
the look of something born of Walt Disney’s imagination rather
than a product of evolution. Behind it, the towering, conical peak
of Mount Kilimanjaro poked its summit through a ring of clouds,
like the bald head of a monk showing through the halo of his hair.
The creature looked completely vulnerable and totally unfitted to
an age of motor vehicles and rifles. It is an image which will stay
Eventually we arrived at the reserve and after checking into the
sheer luxury of a safari lodge, I began my first ‘game drive’.
The minibus came to a halt on the edge of a dusty track surrounded
by open plains but the driver kept the engine running. On three
sides, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but scrubby
grassland. Kilimanjaro occupied the fourth side. Swirls of warm
wind raised small clouds of dust. Occasionally they spiralled into
dust devils, tiny tornadoes which twisted and turned hundreds of
metres up into the air. The animals ignored the dust devils, ignored
us and appeared to ignore each other as they grazed on the sparse
Over to the left, a huge herd of elephants stood almost motionless,
so far away that they looked like little models. To the right, a
lone matriarch with a solitary tusk came towards us, heading home
to her herd. She may have been off seeking new pastures or perhaps
just visiting relatives. This huge, grey, prehistoric creature,
which lives by all the codes we associate with greatness - care,
concern, understanding, patience, compassion and love - continued
towards us, her pace unrelenting. With her huge bulk, her great
curving tusk and her small eyes, which seemed to look nowhere but
ahead, towards her family, she plodded on with remorseless weariness,
just as her ancestors have done for millions of years. I wanted
As this glorious creature receded into the distance I looked around
me. I was surrounded by buffalo and antelope, gnu and zebra, wart
hogs and giraffe. The beauty and diversity of this incredible planet
almost took my breath away. But when white men first discovered
the continent of Africa, they weren’t humbled by what they
saw. They barely wrote of its beauty; they didn’t contemplate
their minuscule part in all this majesty as some other great civilizations
have done. No, they took guns and killed as many creatures as they
could and called it sport. They made umbrella stands from elephants’
feet, carved useless trinkets from their tusks, made ashtrays from
the hands of gorillas, stuffed heads and placed them on their walls
to stare forever in glassy-eyed immobility. The people of Africa,
who for centuries had mostly lived in harmony with the other animals,
Back on the game reserve I glimpsed the head of a cheetah in some
patchy grass, 200 metres away. Suddenly, she sat up, alert, intent,
her eyes fixed on... something. In an unhurried, ambling walk she
came towards us, her head stretched forward, her long, lean body
tensed. As she drew level, the walk became a trot and she passed
us by, not even glancing in our direction.
Like a coiled spring being released, the trot then was transformed
into an electrifying burst of speed and within seconds the cheetah
was almost out of clear sight, a dusty trail marking her devastating
progress. Two other dusty trails - a mother Thomson’s gazelle
and its young - started up ahead of her and almost matched her for
speed - almost. After a short and frantic chase, one trail veered
off to the right and the other continued straight ahead. It was
this one the cheetah followed. There was a tumbling, cartwheeling
cloud of dust as the kill was made. Within seconds the plain had
returned to its timeless calm.
The cheetah has evolved to live almost exclusively on meat and
in particular on Thomson’s gazelles. The Tommies who are weak,
unwell or not sufficiently agile don’t survive into adulthood
to pass their inferior genes on to their offspring. There is a bond
between the two, between the hunted and the hunter. It is a bond
of dependence. Without it, neither would be the creature it is.
It is a bond based on need, not on cruelty.
People think they’re being terribly clever when they say
to vegetarians: ‘Well, animals eat each other, so why shouldn’t
we?’ Some animals live in holes in the ground or sleep in
trees or stick their noses up each other’s bottoms as a form
of introduction but fortunately we don't choose to do any of these
things. Yes, some animals do eat other animals, but they have no
choice and when they do dispense death they mostly do it quickly.
The African plains were wonderful but a dispiriting feeling grew
in me during my time there. It was the awareness that game parks
such as Amboseli, Savo and Shimba Hills are fast becoming the last
resort for Africa’s wildlife. The animals now live on our
terms, on land defined by us, under the constant gaze of human eyes
in the dozens of safari buses which daily chase around the parks.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the animals’
tenancy is likely to be a short one. I had the distinct feeling
that almost anything could threaten the existence of the parks,
but particularly the burgeoning human population. People will not
stand forever outside the perimeters, landless and hungry.
Even as I was writing this chapter, news came through that the
Ngorogoro crater, one of Africa’s most unique game parks,
is being put up for sale to Western buyers in order to raise hard
currency. Africa’s animals have become a commodity to be traded
on the international markets!
The pressure is coming from all sides. The animals which depend
upon migration are having their migration routes closed off by farmers.
Any creature which strays outside the artificial boundaries created
by humans is likely to be shot, not because it is dangerous but
because it eats grass and shrubs.
The poacher’s rifle, snare or poison dart spells death for
some - the elephant and the rhino - but the humpbacked, curving-horned,
doe-eyed, domesticated cattle of the Africa plains could eventually
spell the death of most wildlife. All around Amboseli, the Masai
Mara and other Kenyan game parks, the elegant, red-robed Masai tribespeople,
with their plaited hair and painted faces, tend huge herds of cows.
For centuries, when the cows they reared were only for their own
use, they largely lived in harmony with nature. But now that cow
meat is a commodity that can be sold to the wealthy and the white
(the majority of Africans can’t afford it), the number of
animals has increased dramatically. Alongside them have grown the
herds owned by wealthy ranchers and multinational corporations.
As the number of cattle increases, so do all the problems they bring
Many of the people who go on safari do so because of their love
of and concern for wildlife. They take pictures, buy T-shirts and
contribute to funds to save endangered species. But when they arrive
at the safari lodge in the evening, they eat their beef or pork
or chicken and fail to make the connection. By eating meat they
are killing the wildlife as surely as if they shot it with a rifle.
The only difference is that the method of death meat eaters bring
to wildlife is more permanent, more certain and more difficult to
reverse, because once the habitat is gone there is little chance
of a return.
Of course the single biggest loss of habitat is the destruction
of the rainforests. They say there is only one human-made structure
which can be identified from space and that is the Great Wall of
China. But there is a human-made catastrophe which astronauts could
see quite clearly in 1989. It was the billowing clouds of smoke
which stretched across thousands of kilometres of South America
as large sections of Amazonia were put to the torch in a never-ending
orgy of destruction.
It isn’t a new phenomenon. For a couple of centuries or
more we have used timber from the forests of the world. Britain
itself was once largely forest and almost the entire landscape that
we can now see was made by human hand. We have reduced our forest
cover from over 80 per cent to a mere 1.5 per cent - over half has
been-destroyed in the last 50 years. And we’re still cutting.
As late as 1950, about 14 per cent of the world’s surface
was cloaked in tropical forest. It is now down to less than 7 per
People talk about tropical rainforests with concern but they are
still something outside the experience of most of us and as such
it can be hard to feel personally involved with their destruction.
I’ve always wanted to see them for myself - partly because
I feel certain that they will not be here for that much longer.
In perhaps not the best decision of my life, I chose to go to
Belize in Central America, to the forests of what was British Honduras,
for my honeymoon. Sleeping in jungle camps, in dormitories and communal
shacks, rising at 5.30 a.m., bumping along dirt tracks with a driver
dressed in a sea captain’s uniform, serenading you with his
own karaoke, is not the stuff of romance. But there were compensations:
washing away the sweat by swimming in a chilled, deep pool beneath
a forest waterfall; watching the energetic dash of scarlet macaws
as they squawk to each other in tuneless enthusiasm; diving into
the deep green waters of a river with nothing but trees as the backdrop;
listening to the boom of a howler monkey - and dodging the sticks
thrown by it.
The forests of Central America are, like all rainforests, nature
in perfect balance. When the rain falls, it falls in stair-rods
with a hissing, roaring intensity, the spray from the droplets forming
a low-level mist. The forests help cause the rain and the rain sustains
the forests. The soil in which the trees stand is unusually thin,
but their roots and the leaf litter on the forest floor hold the
rain, quickly absorbing it and using it to carry nutrients up through
the trunk to the leaves which form the canopy before it evaporates
back into the atmosphere as water vapour. Those same leaves, when
they fall and rot and join the other litter on the forest floor,
provide that essential food on which the forest prospers.
These trees are the lungs of the planet. They draw carbon dioxide
(CO2) from the atmosphere and lock it into their structure, while
new growth releases life-giving oxygen in return. When the CO2 is
finally released it is only slowly, when the trees eventually die
The forest grows at three levels - the shrubs, bushes and new
palms at head height; full grown palms at mid-height; and then,
towering over everything, the huge mahogany and other hardwood trees.
Sunlight dapples through the foliage and although there is a sense
of life teeming all around there are few signs of it. Yet turn over
a stone and beneath it might be a tiny but deadly pink coral snake;
look carefully and, immobile on the end of a branch, you might see
the forest dragon, the prehistoric and entirely harmless iguana;
or listen carefully as the sun rises and you might, if you’re
lucky, hear the deepthroated purr of a jaguar, content with its
No one knows how many different plants and animals constitute
the flora and fauna of the forests because there are still innumerable
discoveries to be made, but it is estimated that at least one half
of all the world’s species lives here. Tropical forests are
the main dispensary of raw materials for modern medicines - antibiotics,
heart drugs, tranquilizers, ulcer treatments, hormones and many
others. Seventy per cent of the plants identified as having anti-cancer
properties are from the rainforests. Thanks to the rosy periwinkle,
a child suffering from leukaemia now has an 80 per cent chance of
survival instead of 20 per cent.
And what do we do with these extraordinarily vibrant ecosystems?
We chop them down to create grazing for cattle, which will largely
be exported to the developed world as frozen beef and hamburger
meat. The process known as ‘slash and burn’ eradicates
all growth in bonfires of insanity, unlocking centuries’ worth
of stored CO2 in minutes, permitting it to drift upwards into the
stratosphere and spread around the world in a mantle which traps
its radiated heat - global warming!
As for the people who live in the forests, they are pushed deeper
into the parts which remain, are shot, dispossessed and left to
die of alcoholism or diseases to which they have no resistance.
They are introduced to such developed and ‘civilized’
pursuits as prostitution, enslavement and begging.
The thin and infertile grassland which replaces the forest is
largely handed over to multinational corporations or supporters
of the ruling elites, who use it to grow soya beans to feed to cattle
or to graze cattle directly - not for the starving of their own
country but to sell in order to enrich themselves. The figures from
Guatemala show the truth of this statement. Seventy-five per cent
of the children under five years old are malnourished, yet every
year its ranchers export 20 million kilograms of beef to the US.6
Reports from countries throughout Central and South America are
equally depressing, as is the influence of the United States on
their trade and agricultural policies. Since 1950, two thirds of
lowland tropical forest in Central America have been cleared for
cattle ranching. Most of the beef is exported, 80 to 90 cent going
to North America. Because the meat is too lean for American tastes,
it is mainly used to make hamburgers for sale by fast food chains.
Here, too, the cattle trade has not helped the poor. In Costa Rica,
per capita beef consumption fell by more than 40 per cent between
1960 and 1979, while production rose 3.5 times.
Costa Rica was once almost entirely clad in forest and this tiny
land area is estimated to have held 5 per cent of the world’s
entire animal and plant species. After a 20-year period of rapacious
beef production, some of it insisted upon by the World Bank, only
17 per cent of the forests remain - and they are still being felled.
Just one hamburger made from Costa Rican beef is estimated to cost
the life of a large tree, 50 saplings and seedlings of some 20 to
30 different species, hundreds of species of insects and a huge
diversity of mosses, fungi and micro-organisms. It’s only
an educated guess, but it is thought that upwards of 1,000 species
of all kinds become extinct every year and most of these are - or
rather were - part of the rainforests.
The unwitting cattle who graze this denuded land add a further
twist to the spiral of environmental damage by belching out and
farting some 200 litres of methane each, every day, from their ruminant
digestive processes. Methane is 20 times more effective at warming
the globe than C02, which it joins above the Earth. Between them,
belching and biomass burning make the second largest contribution
to global warming after fossil fuel burning. Even the cleared land
adds further to the problem with the release of nitrous oxide from
fertilizers, one of the most potent warming agents and 150 times
more damaging than C02.
Perhaps one of the greatest ‘successes’ of the environmental
polluters and the Governments which represent them has been their
trivialization of the environmental changes taking place. In order
to avoid taking any action, they have belittled the science behind
the warning predictions and presented global warming as a bit of
a jolly thing, really. People in northern countries will get a Mediterranean
climate and be able to grow peaches. There might be a few tempests
and storms and Mauritius might disappear, but on the whole, not
too much to worry about!
What they omit to tell us is that no one knows the real impact
it will have. We do know that large areas of the globe will be flooded
as the ice caps melt and the oceans warm and expand. This will include
some of the most productive land and countries and cities with multi-million
populations, such as Bangkok, Egypt and Bangladesh, leading to mass
migrations of landless people and no spare land on which to support
them. Britain and Ireland will not escape - Bill Carter of the Department
of Environmental Studies, University of Ulster, identifies 25 places
at risk, including Aberdeen, Dublin, the coastlines of Essex, north
Kent and Lincolnshire.
The most chilling scenario of them all is the impact of warming
on the tundra regions of the world. These lands contain within their
frozen soil an incalculable amount of methane. As the soil defrosts,
billions of tonnes of the gas may be released to add to and increase
global warming. The more the Earth warms, the more methane will
be released in an uncontrollable, unstoppable phenomenon known as
positive feedback. Where it might end not even the forecasters dare
The cattle are the innocent party in all this, but nevertheless
their destructive influence is wider than just their flatulence.
Their comparatively huge weight can cause soil to be compacted by
their hooves, eventually destroying its structure. On ex-rainforest
land, which is thin and unproductive to begin with, it is only a
matter of a few years, seven or eight at the most, before the soil
deteriorates to a point where it can no longer support grazing and
is well on the way to becoming little more than a carbon copy of
the great dustbowl which devastated the American West between the
wars - and for similar reasons.
My own abiding memory of the tropical rainforests was a scene
just outside Belize City - called a city more in hope than in any
reflection of its size. Preserved from the almost total devastation
which has denuded Guatemala, Nicaragua and other Central American
countries, Belize still has 70 per cent of its forests, although
these, its Government has decided for commercial reasons, are to
be exploited until only 30 per cent remain. In fact the cleared
land I was looking at was not being grazed but lingered in bepuddled,
scrubby devastation. On the road in front of me was the writhing
body of dying snake. It was the beautifully marked but highly venomous
fer de lance and clearly visible were the tyre marks of a lorry
which had purposely swerved so as to run over this normally shy
and retiring reptile.
Standing motionless in the scrubland some 200 metres away was
the incongruously large jabiru stork, standing over 1.5 metres tall
and with a wing span of almost 3.5 metres. One of the largest birds
in the world, the jabiru is probably beyond salvation, certainly
in Belize, at the northern limits of its range, where only a few
dozen remain. The vulnerability of both snake and stork I found
When I looked back towards the town I had just left, I wondered
what on Earth had been gained from all the destruction. Poverty
you can smell, drunken men attempting to intimidate you into parting
with a dollar or two, a desperate scramble to survive? This is the
best that’s on offer for many and no one pretends that continued
destruction will produce anything better.
When we look at our own European or North American landscapes,
we tend to assume that all the major environmental problems lie
elsewhere. If only!
In Britain, for example, almost one half of all arable land is
at risk of erosion - its structure has been so destroyed that wind
and water can simply carry it away. One of the main reasons for
the breakdown is livestock production, which demands a staggering
90 per cent of all agricultural land either for grazing or fodder.
Sixty to 70 per cent of the vegetable crops grown in the UK are
fed to animals.
The growth in the number of animals since the Second World War
can only be supported by pushing the fertility of the soil to the
limits - and increasingly beyond. It is done with such an array
of chemicals - some 2,000 or more - that it is perhaps not surprising
that some of the biggest and most successfiil multinational companies
are now the pharmaceutical corporations. The onslaught is essentially
twofold: nitrogen-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The
old concept of rotation, growing different types of crop over a
four-year period, including one year in which the land is left fallow,
has largely been usurped by chemicals. Every year, a billion gallons
of pesticide spray lands on British crops. Around 50 of the 200
used are strongly suspected of causing cancer. More promote allergies,
birth defects and other health problems.
Look carefully at almost any part of the country, but particularly
East Anglia, the Midlands and South Downs, and you will see the
same crops grown on the same soil year after year, particularly
the huge monoculture fields of cereals. Repetition of the same crop
not only cannot be sustained without lavish applications of petrochemical
based fertilizers, but also allows the pests which live on those
crops to flourish in a way which would be impossible with rotation.
They have to be killed, as do the weeds which compete for moisture
and nutrients. Even with this massive chemical saturation, which
grows stronger as the target pests develop resistance, we cannot
grow enough food to feed the ever-increasing number of animals and
continue to import large amounts of high-protein fodder from the
The impact of this chemical cocktail is wider than its effect
on the fertility of the soil. Some of the nitrogen from fertilizers
runs off the land and into rivers, lakes and ponds, where it has
precisely the same effect on algae that it has on crops - it fertilizes
it. The algae grows rapidly and has the potential to produc toxic
‘blooms’, just as in the oceans, which can be lethal
to all animals, us included. When the plants that overgrow a lake,
river or part of the sea die, their remains are broken down by bacteria
that take oxygen from the water, suffocating other life. For example
in 1981, ‘83 and ‘86, numerous flatfish were found dead
in the North Sea, where this process had led to an 80 per cent decrease
in oxygen in bottom waters. This combination of effects is called
Some nitrogen is washed down into the ground water and eventually
into underground reservoirs from which water is extracted for our
use. There are now legal limits set - somewhat arbitrarily - for
the amount of nitrogen in drinking water because of its association
with ‘blue baby syndrome’, which is potentially fatal
destruction of the red blood cells in new born children. The nitrogen
can also transform into nitrites, which can combine with the proteins
in food to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.
Despite this knowledge, there is a tacit admission that the recommended
levels of nitrogen in ground water will, at some point, be dramatically
exceeded, particularly in the monoculture areas of East Anglia and
the Midlands. Quietly and with no publicity, emergency denitrifying
water treatment plants have been built for the time when levels
rise to alarming proportions. It is entirely consistent with the
Government’s age-old propensity to treat the symptoms and
not the causes.
As it is, drinking water frequently fails to meet the statutory
levels and Friends of the Earth estimate that four to five million
Britons sometimes drink water containing nitrate pollution higher
than the EC safety standards. Even higher levels have been found
in mineral waters, even those drawn from the deepest, water-bearing
strata. As it can take surface water up to 100 years to percolate
down this far, we have obviously not seen the worst of the problem.
The other players in this unsustainable assault on the land are
the pesticides - poisons designed to kill weeds, fungi, insects
and other life. Many are also directly poisonous to us. They nearly
all have alarming aspects, but perhaps the most worrying of all
are the organophosphate (OP) pesticides. These are based on the
incredibly toxic nerve gases pioneered by Nazi Germany and perfected
by the West after the war in combination with the same German scientists
who developed them. In their military form, OP pesticides can kill
in seconds or lead to permanent disability.
Many of them are currently in use, with sheep dip being one of
the most common. This has been used for decades in a totally uncontrolled
way against scab and blow fly, despite numerous reports of severe
and permanent ill effects on some farmers. The symptoms they experience
- dizziness, nausea, double vision, total lethargy - are absolutely
consistent with the symptoms of nerve gas poisoning. The compulsory
use of sheep dip was dropped in 1995, but it is still in use, with
some minor control requirements. Little research has been carried
out into its effects on the sheep - who are totally immersed in
a tank full of toxic solution.
The Institute of Comparative and Environmental Toxicology, New
York, estimates that there are over one million people affected
by pesticide poisoning each year, with 20,000 deaths world-wide.
In addition, longer term health effects, like cancer and birth abnormalities,
are not usually included in these statistics. If they are also taken
into account, the situation looks even more grim. Pesticide usage
is increasing by 12.5 per cent per year and in 1988 the sales of
British Agrochemical Association members totalled just over £l
It goes without saying that the widespread use of pesticides upsets
any concept of natural balance, but perhaps the most concerning
aspect is that we simply have no idea what their long-term effects
are - and that includes their effect on us, because every single
one of us has pesticide residues in our body, even newborn babies.
They infiltrate their way into the food chain in a way which concentrates
them the higher up the chain they travel. For example, a water bird
which lives on fish, which eat small crustaceans, which graze on
weeds, which absorb their nutrients from the water which surrounds
them, will have concentrations of pesticides in its flesh 80,000
times stronger than the water which started the whole thing off
in the first place.
Not quite as dramatic, but based on the same principle, is the
example of grazing animals such as cows, which have pesticide concentrations
14 times stronger than the vegetation they eat. The message is clear
- the Sunday roast has 14 times more pesticides in it than the potatoes
and parsnips which surround it.
The results of pesticide residue tests on meat and dairy products
make frightening reading. In 1988/9, tests of UK produced beef showed
that two in seven samples contained dieldrin. Dieldrin is an insecticide
rated ‘extremely hazardous’ by the World Health Organization
at levels above the EC limit. It can cause birth defects and cancer
and is very persistent in the environment, being highly poisonous
to birds, fish and mammals, including humans.
Dairy products are, however, the main dietary source of the highly
toxic organochlorine pesticides - a fact now accepted by the US
Government. In 1989, each dairy-eating person in the UK consumed
an average of 123 pints of fresh milk and cream and 56 pints of
skimmed milk. In 1988, residues of organochlorines were detected
in 44 per cent of 120 samples of UK milk. These were below the Government’s
safety limits. In 22 samples of UK UHT cream, five contained dieldrin.
Another environmental problem which comes from animals, literally,
is, to put it bluntly, their propensity to crap a lot. An awful
lot, as it happens. The estimate for the US herd alone is 115,420
kilograms a second! In Germany, more than three tonnes of liquid
manure is produced for every one of its 70 million citizens. In
the Netherlands, pork production is a major threat. The 14 million
animals in the south excrete so much manure that nitrate and phosphate
have saturated surface layers of soil and contaminated water supplies
in many areas. And it is the same, to a greater or lesser degree,
all over Europe.
The amount of manure now being produced by intensively reared
animals is such that the land will simply not absorb it all. So
what do we do with it? Rather like nuclear waste, we store much
of it and hope it will go away. And some of it does, by leaking
into rivers and streams where it can exterminate all life, and by
seeping into underground water supplies. We show great concern when
similar things happen with human sewage, but this stored animal
slurry is 100 times more polluting than our own effluvia. A process
takes place in these slurry storage lagoons which intensifies yet
another of the world’s great environments disasters. The large
amounts of ammonia in the slurry become breeding ground for bacteria,
which turn it into acid. This then evaporates, combines with nitrous
oxide from fertilizers and industrial pollution and forms acid rain.
Across virtually the whole of the northern-most parts of the northern
hemisphere, acid rain is souring soil, destroying forests and rendering
once prolific waters lifeless. The contribution made by livestock
slurry to this intractable destruction is central. In some countries,
such as Belgium and Holland, it is the primary cause of the acid
rain. In the animal-rearing Pel region of Holland, 97 per cent of
the entire forest is dead. In Britain, the highest levels of acid
rain are recorded in the intensive dairy-farming counties such as
Cheshire, but the effects can be seen all over the north of the
In whatever direction you raise your eyes and view the world’s
horizons, there is environmental collapse. The statistics for the
rate of degeneration are shocking, none more so than those which
document the spread of deserts. The Sahara, that once fertile region
which formed part of the lush granary that supplied the Roman Empire,
has extended its sandy fingers southwards into Africa by 320 kilometres
in the last 20 years alone. And its progress is accelerating. Like
the barren wastes of the Middle East, which were also once lush
and verdant, the cause was - and still is - livestock grazing.
As already mentioned, international capital demands the most productive
lands for its own interests, so poor people are increasingly pushed
onto marginal areas. The grazing of their sheep, goats, cattle and
camels there ensures the destruction of the vegetation which could
hold the desert at bay. The desert advances and they move on, chopping
down more trees to provide more grazing and accentuating the problem.
The climate itself responds as the reduction in water vapour prompts
permanent changes in the weather pattern, reducing rainfall levels
even further and ensuring there is no quick-fix solution to the
problem. The deserts are here to stay. And, according to the United
Nations, they’re growing at the rate of 207,200 square kilometres
annually - an area the size of England and Scotland.
But the problem of desertification is much more widespread and
complex than simply the relentless spread of existing deserts. It
is increasingly affecting the arid and semi-arid rangelands of the
sub-tropics, which girdle one third of the world. The grazing of
increasing numbers of cattle is breaking down the soil’s structure,
reducing its fertility and again making permanent changes to the
prevailing weather patterns. The land around established water sources
is amongst the most degraded, as cattle are herded here in ever-increasing
Elsewhere, the swelling human population, continued overstocking
and the elimination of grasses which hold the soil together and
their replacement by weeds are ensuring that one third of the world’s
entire surface is rapidly advancing towards becoming desert. As
a consequence, the great rivers of Africa - the Senegal, the Chari
and the Niger - are beginning to dry out. This has led to the greatest
mass migration in world history and by the year 2000, over half
of the world’s entire population will live in urban areas.
The prospect this holds out for the breakdown of social cohesion,
for the spread of disease, for the flourishing of abject despair
and misery and the blossoming of all the nastier human traits, is
really quite dispiriting.
To my mind, one of the most depressing realities of the meat culture
is the refusal of the most addicted country, the United States,
the wealthiest country the world has ever seen, to respond to the
huge problems on its own doorstep. These rank in importance with
many of the developing world’s problems and are, in many instances,
responsible for them.
Meat - and by meat I mean beef - is the macho symbol of American
manhood (and womanhood for that matter) and the eating of it is
considered as unassailable a right as the right to carry arms and
kill people with them. The US has exported its hamburger culture
to every corner of the world and, without a complete revolution
in thought and action, stands a very good chance of destroying it.
Of course, what you see on the surface does not always reveal
the reality beneath. There is an almost awe-inspiring beauty in
the agricultural regions of the Western states of the Dakotas. The
sky seems to extend forever over land on which it is often impossible
to see a human structure, let alone a human. To stand on elevated
ground and see into infinity almost hurts the imagination. This
is the country of Wounded Knee, the Badlands, the Black Hills, the
Sioux nation of Native Americans - the Ogallala and Rosebud tribes
of the Great Plains. It is also a country of agricultural desolation.
When you fly from Rapid City in South Dakota to Denver, Colorado,
it is in something resembling a cigar tube with two engines. But
the minuscule size of the aircraft means you fly at a comparatively
low height, with the changing landscape clearly visible below -
once you have torn your white knuckles away from the seat in front.
I was puzzled at first as to why all the cultivated patches were
completely round - as circular as though they had been drawn with
a pair of compasses. Then even I was able to work out that something
was operating from a central pivot - an automatic weeder, a fertilizing
boom, perhaps even a means of ploughing. What I didn’t immediately
realize was that every one of the thousands of fields I saw - and
there are millions of the same if you include the other states on
the same longitude - was a product of automatic irrigation. The
circles were created by the booms which dispense water drawn from
one huge, natural, underground acquifer. Its name, aptly taken from
the Native American, is the Ogallala acquifer.
It was only the presence of this huge source of water which allowed
US farmers to turn buffalo pasture into arable land. Now they have
drawn so much water from it that the rains cannot replenish it fast
enough and much of this artificially fertile land is being lost,
returning to its original state as buffalo pasture - but without
the buffalo. It took millions of years for Nature to form the Ogallala
acquifer and now water tables are dropping and wells going dry.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that at the current rate
of water usage, the aquifer may be exhausted in 30 years. If this
happens, the High Plains of the US will be uninhabitable to humans.
The reason for the decline is the same old story - grazing for cattle,
or cereals which are largely to feed to cattle. Every kilogram of
beef produced from this grain uses 3,000 litres of disappearing
water, many more times the amount needed to produce vegetable foods.
The figures produced by the University of California for that
state, where most agricultural land is irrigated, are even more
dramatic, placing water use for vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes
and carrots in the 20 to 30 gallon range for an edible pound of
food. For beef it is 5,214 gallons. The message is loud and clear:
vegetable and fruit production consumes a fraction of the water
used for beef cattle, their slaughter and the preparation of the
meat they provide. And yet only 2 per cent of the entire US arable
land is used for fruit and vegetables. In contrast, 64 per cent
is used to produce livestock feed. In the US, water shortages are
already at critical levels with 25 per cent more being taken than
Fresh water, once a seemingly abundant resource, is now becoming
scarce in many regions of the world. Between 1940 and 1980, world-wide
usage has doubled and 70 per cent goes to agriculture. In the US,
nearly half of all water consumed goes to grow feed for livestock.
But nothing is allowed to threaten the right of the beef producers
to carry on producing. When John Robbins wrote his excellent book
Diet for a New America (Stillpoint, 1987) and again when Jeremy
Rifkin wrote the well-researched Beyond Beef (Dutton, 1992; Thorsons,
1994), both books which catalogued the environmental collapse of
the US, they were belittled and attacked by the Cattlemen’s
Association while the Government simply ignored them.
So the destruction continues. Ten per cent of the publicly owned,
arid rangelands of the west have turned to desert while 70 per cent
of the remainder were classified by the US Bureau of Land Management
in 1990 as in ‘an unacceptable condition’. This love
affair with the beef cow is changing and damaging the US beyond
recognition. In the twentieth century alone it has lost half its
topsoil - the fertile top layer without which almost nothing will
grow. And it is continuing to blow and flood from the land at the
rate of seven billion tons every year." With luck, through
the decay of organic material and the erosion of rock and stones,
2.5 centimetres of topsoil maybe produced every 100 years - a losing
Eighty-five per cent of this loss is attributed to livestock rearing
and its effect has been to permanently remove from production one
third of all arable land. It’s probably worth remembering
that many previous and great civilizations have tumbled for precisely
I don’t want to bog this book with statistics, but I will
quote just a few more in order to paint clearly the picture of irresponsibility
inherent in a meat-based diet. Much is now talked about ‘sustainable
agriculture’ or ‘sustainable growth’ and the varying
amounts of energy expended on producing different types of food
show clearly why this talk needs to become a reality.
The total amount of forest cleared in the US for grazing or the
production of fodder is 260 million acres. The relationship between
meat production and deforestation is so direct that Cornell University
economist David Fields and his colleague Robin Hur estimate that
for every person who changes to a vegan diet, an acre of trees is
spared every year.
Livestock farming also devours fossil fuels. David Pimentel, a
specialist in agricultural energy at Cornell, states that 30,000
kilocalories of fossil fuel energy are burned to produce a kilogram
of pork in the USA - equivalent to the energy in four litres of
petrol. Plant foods are much more efficient. Corn or wheat provide
22 times more protein than feedlot beef. Soya beans are a huge 40
times more efficient.
But before we in Britain show any smug satisfaction at the US picture,
it’s worth looking at our own country. Five million acres
of arable land are threatened with erosion; 80 per cent of our chalk
downlands have been destroyed as has 80 per cent of limestone grasslands;
half our fens and mires have been drained and 90 per cent of our
ponds; nearly half of the tiny amount of remaining ancient woodlands
has been cleared since the 1940s and over the same period, enough
hedgerow (109,000 miles) has been grubbed out to circle the Earth
four times. Along with this has gone a devastation of our flora
and fauna. More damage has been done to the British countryside
in the last 50 years than in the previous 500, most of it by farmers
of meat and dairy products.
Speak to farmers, watch them at work and you will see that most
have little interest in the ecology of their land but an awful lot
in the money they can make from it - with a few honourable exceptions,
For me, the example which sums up the sad reality of the destruction
lies right on my own doorstep. It is a tiny wood no more than 500
metres long and, at its widest, a mere 150 metres, which slopes
down a hillside to the River Weaver. To walk through this little
patch of shade, to stop and listen, to wait quietly and observe
offers endless rewards that enrich me. Rabbits scamper as you approach
and on sunlit evenings the red tinge of fox can sometimes be seen
trotting between trees. The wood is home to weasels and voles and
every kind of mouse and the winter earth reveals the scratchings
of badgers looking for cockchafer grubs. Overhead are the huge nest
of a heron, the smaller one of a kestrel and hundreds of others.
The mocking laughter of a green woodpecker often follows you and
the lesser spotted woodpecker is even brave enough to come into
the garden. In early summer it is sometimes necessary to cover your
mouth with your hand to avoid inhaling insects from the myriad that
dart and dash and hover beneath the trees. Bluebells, wood anemones,
pink campions, Himalayan balsam, foxgloves and star of Bethlehem
take their turn to blossom.
One woodland boundary is the grassy embankment of a canal, beyond
which the valley continues but in a very different form. It is a
barren wasteland, devoid of every piece of vegetation so that cattle
can graze. A few clumps of grass cling to its steep sides, the cattle’s
hooves having torn most away to expose the sandy soil beneath. At
best the field can provide only a few mouthfuls of grazing, but
some farmer saw fit to fell everything which once existed here.
The wood that gives me so much pleasure was also once felled,
some 30 years ago, but has regenerated itself. I dread waking to
hear once again that most chilling of sounds - the wavering rasp
of a chainsaw as it destroys precious woodland for a few extra mouthfuls
This inexorable destruction both at home and around the world
is encouraged by subsidy, which ensures farmers and livestock producers
make money whatever they do. So they will go on doing it. In Britain,
according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the subsidies for beef,
sheep, pig and milk products in 1994 totalled £1.2 bfllion.
In Europe as a whole, they were more than £100 billion and
for fishing, £54 bfllion. Through-out Central and South America
and Africa the story is similar.
Power and control ensure that the wealthy West will be the last
to feel the effects of a dying world. That, unfortunately, delays
the necessary changes in policy required to stem the rot. But one
thing is certain - no one can avoid the eventual outcome.
The most frightening aspect of this predicted Armageddon is that
the point of no return will be passed long before the final collapse.
When that point will be we can only guess, but you have the ability
to take back control of your life at any time and make the decisions
which are necessary to reverse the decline. There is one thing within
your power which will have a huge and immediate impact - and that
is to change your diet. Stop eating meat and fish today, give up
dairy products, and you immediately remove yourself from the cycle
of exploitation and destruction. Even better, raise your voice in
protest, join with others such as Viva! and actively fight against
the grey men who will allow greed to destroy the globe.
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