It’s amazing how easy it is to become blasé. My first visit to Majorca, when I was 18, was a magical mystery tour of foreign lands and foods, an unintelligible language and extraordinary blue seas and golden sands. It didn’t take many years before all European countries melded into an homogeneous blend of similar architecture, identical advertisements and international food. It wasn’t until I went to Kenya in 1993 that I again relived that feeling of being abroad.
The coach from the airport to my hotel went through Mombasa and I could almost feel my jaw sagging as, dazed with the time difference, I perspired in a baking winter sun, breathed in new aromas, some of them on the demanding side, and watched the throngs of people going about their day. This was abroad, this was the developing world, this was chaos. The 1930s art deco shop fronts, rusting corrugated iron roofs, jostling black and Indian traders; the car horns, moped engines, bicycle bells and the clamour of human voices selling and buying and shouting; the awareness that this was normality and I was the visitor, I was the foreigner.
This was the continent that the British, Germans, Belgians, French, Italians, Dutch and Portuguese divided up between themselves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to share out the rich pickings. Ruler lines were drawn through large swathes of territory, through the middle of tribal lands and customs and languages - French to the left, British to the right, a wealth of culture and history, knowledge and understanding reduced to the level of commodity suppliers.
The colonists arrived and ruled, learning almost nothing from those they subjugated, integrating hardly at all. And here I was, still part of that ruling culture. The pith helmets and white knees of the infantry regiments might have gone, but the West’s control is still absolute. It is now done through the United Africa Company or Lohnro or Unilever or Rio Tinto Zinc and other multinational corporations.
These multinationals, which have grown up in the latter half of the twentieth century, know no national boundaries and move production to wherever it is cheapest or most friendly in terms of anti-trade union legislation or wherever the most generous financial incentives are being offered. Many individual corporations have greater financial clout than some entire countries. They are a law unto themselves and have only one overriding concern - to show a profit for their shareholders. None of the other human, social, environmental or political considerations which might exert some influence over national companies are of any concern to them. They are heavily involved in meat production and one of their greatest influences, often encouraged by Governments hungry for hard currency with which to meet their debts, has been to take control of huge areas of land right across the world. Every new acquisition leads to more people being dispossessed and in some countries it has affected one third of all rural people. In Latin America it is more than 40 per cent.
Import tariffs are another part of the West’s control. For the import of cheap cash crops into Europe we charge little in the way of duties, but if African countries try to increase the value of their exports by processing them, turning them into products, raising their value, we impose heavy duties, pricing them out of the market. We preserve the right to add that value ourselves, enabling our industries to prosper. When we have done so, we often export back to the same countries the products we originally obtained from them but at inflated prices.
Also, we have encouraged the obnoxious Elites who rule so many African and other ex-colonial countries, providing them with their ethos as well as the loans with which to buy their armies and their weaponry - usually from us - as insurance against revolution by their own people. Once they are established in power and saddled with debt, it is the poor of those countries who are pushed further and further into a subsistence existence by having to pay the interest off. Despite the overpowering wealth of Western countries, the net transfer of money is from the developing world to the developed world.
It is disturbing, but no other economic system is on offer anywhere in the world. From Borneo to Brazil, Somalia to Sumatra, profit is now the global penicillin. And this philosophy which has created a world of haves and have nots claims to be the only one which can eliminate those divisions. It is tantamount to a seventeenth-century quack physician prescribing bleeding for a patient dying from a haemorrhage.
And of course it is a lie. Our leaders care little how many children die from starvation or how impoverished are their parents. When more than one million children die from measles every year for the want of a 9p vaccine - total cost less than one year’s pay increase for the chairman of British Gas it puts things into some kind of perspective.
The world’s problems are discussed by suited men whose vocabulary is lacking such words as 'vision’ and 'compassion’, 'care’ and 'concern’, 'honesty’ and 'trust’. All the great concepts which have exercised philosophers through the ages have been reduced to profit and loss. We have set the greatest store by the things of least value. And with all the monumental challenges of the world to face, our leaders can think no further than the next election. So they continue to exploit anything which might provide some short-term advantage - humans, other animals, the world’s resources. They have the resources and knowledge to end hunger throughout the world, but reduce their aid budget. They ensure that the gulf between rich and poor widens at home, profess concern for the raging poverty abroad and do nothing about either. There is no longer any dialogue about development issues, only excuses and clichés and cynicism.
All these thoughts were no longer abstract in my mind as the coach headed beneath the metal, elephant-tusk arch over the only dual carriageway in Mombasa, out of the city and its bustle and along the bush-fringed road towards Malindi. The hotel was on the coast some 20 kilometres from the city, although it was in itself a mini conurbation. Small blocks were distributed throughout the most wonderfully colourful grounds, dripping with bougainvillaea, shaded by coconut palms and tended by deferential hotel staff. It was, of course, fenced off from the rest of the world and patrolled by tall, black, silent, robed security men who looked like extras from the film King Solomon’s Mines. Outside the fence was a complete mini-shanty town from which the labourers to run the hotel were drawn. They lived two families to a two-room shack with mud walls, papered with the pictures cut from old newspapers. Worldly possessions amounted to part-share of a small cardboard suitcase beneath a settle bed.
These and the people like them, we are told, are the cause of the world’s great problems with their non-stop production of children. These criticisms, of course, conveniently ignore reality. A child of the United States will, in its lifetime, consume 12 times as much of the world’s resources as the children born to these Kikuyu tribespeople, huddled beneath the perimeter fence of a posh hotel - 12 times as much oil, copper, zinc, water, steel and, most importantly, land. In a world of profligacy, these people’s struggle for survival is made worse by tourism. The demands of new hotels, which stretch along the coast from both sides of Mombasa, distort local food prices, driving them upwards and placing some produce out of the hands of the poorest.
You could, however, feel the sense of community and sharing there. They cooked communally, their food almost entirely free from meat, and after their evening meal they sat together, talking, laughing and listening to the BBC World Service. Crying babies were passed from hand to hand until soothed and satisfied. And they talked proudly of their beautiful, colourful country beneath the flaming scarlet blossoms of a flamboya tree.
Meantime, inside the hotel, Europeans smeared themselves with sun tan oil, ate European food, drank European drinks and spoke infrequently to each other. At lunch and dinner they were carved thick slices of meat from huge roast joints or helped themselves to pieces from enormous baked fish. The clash of cultures was so extreme that it could have been Martians and Venusians on an intergalactic weekend break.
While the carvery was offering an inexhaustible supply of cooked dead animals to a select few, much of the world’s population was starving. This is a phenomenon which stretches across Africa, Asia and South America, all continents which have been invaded and colonized.
Through the eyes of a visiting European, the problem looks exactly as we have been taught - too many poor people struggling against an inhospitable land and climate and producing too many children as a form of insurance. That is only partly true. People with a history older than our own and with a rich and vibrant culture could not have spent that entire history struggling on the margins for survival. And, of course, they didn’t. Many things have played a part in the impoverishment of great tracts of the world and high amongst them is the West’s addiction to meat and animal protein. The little vignette of the carvery and its overloaded plates inside the hotel and the meagre dishes of maize and rice outside lies at the root of many of the world’s seemingly most intractable problems.
When the early explorers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries landed in Africa they didn’t find starvation, but an abundance of food. Everyone lived from the land and it was common for people to have two or three harvests preserved or stored away. The whole concept of buying and selling food did not exist.
The needs of our industrial revolution were for plentiful and cheap raw materials and for those we scoured the world. When we found them, not only did we take them away but also sovereignty and independence, dispossessing unsophisticated people of their land and then charging them rent for what had once been theirs by right. In order to meet the demands of their landlords, these new tenants were obliged to grow the crops which their masters valued - cotton, hemp, cocoa - and it was the masters who determined the price they would pay.
You don’t even need to go as far as Africa to witness the effects of colonization, a simple trip across the Irish Sea will do. The expropriation of land from poor farmers and its gift to the landed gentry led to the depopulation of Ireland. When blight destroyed the potato crop in the 1840s and country people could not pay their rents, they were simply evicted from their homes and the homes destroyed. One million died and two million emigrated, while England imported twice as much food from Ireland as would have been needed to feed the entire population of that country.
It was the same all over the world. The colonists took a system which worked well for Africa or Asia, destroyed it and substituted a system which worked for Europe. It set indigenous people on a cycle of debt and dependency which was enforced by the elites of their own kind, who were courted and flattered and shaped in the image of the colonists. Once the countries became independent, these elites continued that exploitative enforcement.
The first section of the road from Mombasa to Malindi is flanked on either side by woods and bushland, with occasional villages surrounded by small vegetable patches and coconut palms. This homogeny ends dramatically, giving way to kilometre upon kilometre of sisal, neatly planted rows of vegetation which are not for local use but for export. How many villages were uprooted, how many people dispossessed, how many vegetable plots ploughed under to provide the land?
This kind of scheme is frequently enforced by the World Bank or International Monetary Fund as part of 'debt restructuring’ or to qualify for 'development loans’. But it is still the West calling the tune and the rest of the world dancing to it. And part of that control is to ensure that plentiful and cheap cattle fodder is available to satisfy our enormous appetite for meat.
A set of simple statistics provides a perspective. One fifth of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty and one third of the world’s entire population of children is malnourished. Over 12 million of them die every year from poverty and hunger-related diseases. Meanwhile, one quarter of the world’s fish catch is fed to animals, as is one third of the grain production. In the US and EC, the figures are more startling - almost three quarters of their grain is fed to livestock. It is now necessary to scour the world in search of feed for the swelling numbers of livestock - and with the human population expected to increase by almost 20 per cent in the next decade, the makings of a world-wide food crisis are already in the offing.
In Britain, in 1946, approximately two million cattle, 7.4 million sheep, 2.2 million pigs and about 40 million chickens were slaughtered. In 1994 numbers had increased to 3.2 million cattle, 19 million sheep, 15 million pigs and 676 million chickens. This growth is reflected across the whole of the developed world, each country swelling its meat production in an orgy of consumption which, in many cases, has led to animal protein being consumed at virtually every meal. There have not been corresponding increases in the human population; in fact these have been extremely small in most countries.
There is not enough grass for the huge numbers involved and the speed at which animals grow on this natural diet is too slow for the profit-hungry producers. So it is substituted by grain, oil seeds, soya, fish meal and often the ground-up remains of animals, including their own kind.
In fact, 60 per cent of EC animal feeds and 90 per cent of the protein concentrates used for animal feed in Britain are imported from the developing world - the same countries whose children are dying for want of protein - and much of that animal fodder is ideal for human consumption. It has been estimated that the amount of food required to eliminate the most extreme cases of hunger around the world is about 40 million tonnes. The amount of grain which developed countries feed to animals is some 540 million tonnes.
The answer to all these problems, we are told, is the market philosophy, whereas it is, in fact, the cause. The same grains can be used to feed either animals or humans, but they are not distributed on the basis of need or the promptings of conscience but sold to the highest bidder. The highest bidder is invariably the wealthy, the livestock owners, the possessors of capital.
Most grain is produced in the West and some of it is exported to the developing world, but the trade gap in food is all in our favour. We import 40 per cent more high-quality protein from the developing world than we export to it. Two of these foods - peanuts and soya - are imported into Europe because that is cheaper than buying animal feed which is grown here. India alone, with some of the greatest health and malnutrition problems in the world, has increased its exports of soya beans five-fold between 1974 and 1982.
This phenomenon is exacerbated by the growing inequalities in wealth. The fewer people who can afford to buy the food grown in their home countries, the greater the incentive for their own Governments and landowners to grow cash crops for export instead, particularly animal fodder as the demand seems inexhaustible.
Of all the Western appetites, the United States has the most voracious. It is responsible for 75 per cent of the entire global production of soya beans. Every vegetarian and vegan knows the extraordinary value of soya beans and the huge variety of high-protein, low-fat foods which can be made from them. Despite this, the US feeds almost its entire crop to animals in the most inefficient, wasteful and damaging addiction the world has ever seen.
According to Professor Colin Spedding of the University of Reading’s Agriculture Department, a Western meat-based diet uses four and a half times more land than is necessary for a vegan diet and two and a quarter more than for a vegetarian diet. An analogy commonly quoted is this: imagine an area of land the size of five football pitches (10 hectares). It will grow enough meat to feed two people; or maize to feed 10; or grain to feed 24; or soya to feed 61. There is more than enough arable land to feed the present world human population on a vegan diet, but nowhere near enough for the animal produce centred American one.
For every 10 kilograms of soya protein fed to America’s cattle only one kilogram is converted into meat, the remainder being excreted. Almost the entire population of India and China, nearly two billion people, could be fed on the protein consumed and largely wasted by the United States’ beef herd.
When you take a global perspective, the problem assumes such proportions that it is hard to comprehend. So much land in the poorer, developing countries has been turned over to growing feed for livestock that it now amounts to 14.6 million hectares - and that is solely to supply the EC. If that figure leaves you cold, then try visualizing the amount of productive land - not mountains or swamps or deserts or jungles, but crop land - that would make up the entire area of the United Kingdom. Add to that France, some four times our size, then Italy and New Zealand and you have some idea of the area. That in itself is a big enough problem, but compound it with the complete lack of independence of those who produce the fodder and you have the potential to turn disaster into catastrophe.
There are worrying portents for the future. After 40 years of steady expansion, the world’s grain harvest began to fall in the late 1980s. From a position where stocks amounted to 459 million tonnes, enough to feed the entire world for 101 days, stocks have reduced to 240 million tonnes, only enough to last 54 days.
Part of the problem is the reduction in soil fertility after so many years of monoculture supported by saturating the soil with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. As grain stocks reduce, if there is not a change in philosophy, cattle will further take precedence over people and the downward spiral of starvation and poverty will be given another vicious twist.
Not satisfied with imposing its greed and economic system on the world, the West is now increasing the demand for animal fodder by exporting the abhorrent factory-farming systems which were responsible for the explosion of meat eating in the West. Throughout the Indian sub-continent, battery hen systems and broiler houses have become widespread. Employing almost no people and consuming valuable protein, these systems don’t even begin to address the needs of the population, the majority of whom can’t afford to buy the eggs and meat. But that was never the intention. Apart from satisfying its own middle classes, much of the produce is exported to the Gulf States, providing even more and cheaper animal protein to countries already saturated with choice.
People are not starving because of a shortage of food there is more than enough for everyone. The problem is one of use and distribution. The incredible inefficiency of animals in converting vegetable protein into animal protein - a ratio which can be as high as 16:1 - is obviously one of the most significant factors at work. It is encouraged by the all-pervasive concept that West is best. Quite naturally, people who are impoverished look at our affluence and think they would like some of what we have. And we encourage the rest of the world to emulate our habits, practices and tastes - including eating meat. For them it is a totally unachievable aspiration.
The present population of the world is about 5,600 billion people. On a plant-food diet every single person could receive the 2,360 Kcal (calories) daily necessary to live a healthy life. In fact, even with the amount of food currently grown, another 600 million people could be fed on a vegan diet. However, if 35 per cent of those calories are supplied by animal protein, the world can support only 2,500 billion people.
In simple, brutal terms, the world can feed less than half its present population using a typical US, meat-based diet. With the population expected to grow by 90 million a year for the next 40 years, the prospects are dismal.
The problem of overconsumption is a problem of the West, while the problem of overpopulation is a problem of the developing world - and the two are intimately linked. The cure for overpopulation is security, sufficient food, stability, access to health care and the possibility of fulfilling aspirations, all of which remove the need for 'insurance’ births. Meantime, however, exploitation continues.
I visited Thailand in 1994 and its capital city, Bangkok, is a monument to the 'thrusting’, 'dynamic’, 'successful’ economies of the Pacific Rim. On the other hand you could call it a concrete jungle with the worst traffic problems in the world - a monument to capitalism unhindered by the costs of little things like health services, secondary education or even fundamental welfare.
One of the most shaming and highly visible failures of this philosophy is the seemingly endless supply of teenage prostitutes of both sexes. They are on display in the bars and clubs of Pat Pong and Sukhumvit and at the tourist resorts of Patia and Phuket, while almost every newspaper and magazine is filled with not-so-discreetly worded advertisements for their services. They arrive most days at the huge and crowded Hualumpong station, nearly all on trains from the north.
Along the road beside the station are the offices of numerous agents who sign up young people with promises of wealth and then sell them into virtual slavery in backroom factories. The sex industry recruiters are more subtle, usually having struck deals with the children’s parents before they have even left home.
I spoke to some of these very young people, most of them high or slurring on drugs or drink. Their stories were all individual but had common threads running through them. They were all the sons and daughters of northern rural families who had become impoverished through loss of land, failing water supplies or low prices. Typical was the great tapioca fiasco.
Over the 10 years to 1985, thousands of square kilometres of rainforest were cleared in order to grow tapioca for the ECs livestock. When beef and pork production levelled off and mountains of unused meat began to grow, the EC simply stopped buying Thai tapioca. People who had impoverished themselves to buy farming equipment to help them meet the demand suddenly found themselves without an income. I was assured that some were so poor that they would scrape slime from the bottom of ponds and eat it because of the nutrients it contained.
Meantime in Haiti, officially designated as one of the world’s poorest countries, much of the best agricultural land is used for growing alfalfa. In an act of complete obscenity, multinational beef concerns fly cattle from Texas to Haiti to graze and fatten on the alfalfa before flying them back to Texas as carcasses for US hamburgers.
Poor, dispossessed Haitians have been pushed on to the mountain slopes where they try to live by farming the poorest soil on the island. The result is overgrazing, soil depletion and a drop in soil fertility leading to environmental degradation. A disaster from whatever perspective, it is one which is being repeated all over the world. Increasingly, the poorest two thirds of the planet is sliding inexorably deeper into a life of starvation and poverty in order to support the wealthiest one third.
So our much-vaunted lifestyle based around 'choice’ is not choice at all, because the true effects are hidden from us and choice without information is valueless. In reality it is the right of large companies and national Governments to prosper on the backs of starving and increasingly impoverished people and to threaten the existence of the planet in the process.
Prior to its Sandinista revolution, Nicaragua was the leading Latin American supplier of beef to the US but it also had huge social problems which remained largely ignored by its right-wing dictatorship. The condition on which the US extended aid to Nicaragua had nothing to do with helping the poor but everything to do with increasing beef supplies. As a consequence, 1,000 kilometres of rainforest was destroyed annually to provide grazing for cattle.
Similarly in Costa Rica, another big supplier of beef to the US, hamburgers took precedence over the preservation of vital forest. The World Bank, which holds the ultimate levers to world finance, would only advance loans in the 1970s on condition that rainforest was cleared, again to supply beef to a section of the world which is drowning in a surfeit of the stuff.
Between 1971 and 1977, over $3.5 billion in loans and technical assistance poured into Latin America for cattle farming. This is part of a systematic effort by multinational corporations to control the world’s industries for the benefit of developed nations at the expense of the poor. These loans have been responsible for dispossessing the powerless and catastrophic environmental damage. Countries like Mexico are hardest hit by this newest form of neocolonial exploitation, as more and more land is converted to grassland for cattle. Mexico ships much of its cattle to the USA, where it is killed for meat.
In Brazil, 23 per cent of agricultural land is currently used to grow soya beans, of which half are for export. This has resulted in less food for the native people as staple foods become increasingly expensive, as farmers switch to growing soya for the more lucrative international animal feed market.
The latest batch of statistics from the World Health Organization, in its report entitled Bridging the Gaps (1995) reveals that the shaming problem of impoverishment is getting worse:
Poverty wields its destructive influence at every stage of human life, from the moment of conception to the grave. It conspires with the most deadly and painful diseases to bring a wretched existence to all who suffer from it.
The report shows a gulf developing between rich and poor, north and south, men and women, employed and unemployed, young and old. It even identifies the same problem in the wealthy, developed nations, where the poorest, most disadvantaged groups are falling further and farther behind:
The unemployed are a potent reminder of the dangers of assuming that the general prosperity of a country will trickle down to all its members.
There has been a disproportionate flow of resources from the developing to the developed world - poor countries paying money to rich ones - because of debt servicing and repayment and as a consequence of prices for raw materials that favour the latter at the expense of the former. Structural adjustment policies [that is, IMF and World Bank loan conditions] aimed at improving economic performance of poor countries have, in many cases, made the situation worse.
What the report is describing is a global catastrophe.
A similar damning report was produced in the late 1970s by the Brandt Commission, headed by the ex-German Chancellor Willie Brandt. Ex-British Prime Minister Edward Heath was also on the commission. The conclusions were that unless there was a dramatic change in the attitude of the wealthy countries of the world towards the poorer, and a major shift of resources, there would be famine, bloodshed and catastrophe on a scale never before seen in history.
It was ignored, just as this latest report will be ignored. Governments will not change their policies because to do so would threaten the control and resources which maintain them in power. Fortunately, we, as individuals, can do something. Meat consumption is obviously not the only reason for world hunger, but it is high up there in the major league. It is also something which we don’t need permission to do something about. We can wield an immediate influence today, simply by changing our diet. By not eating meat or fish, vegetarians reduce the need to import food from poor countries, but a vegetarian diet does more than that. It throws down a challenge to the established order and breaks the cycle whereby people go hungry while ever-increasing numbers of appallingly treated animals are fed huge amounts of food in a hopelessly inefficient system.
Vegetarians, and even more so vegans, use far fewer of the world’s resources of food, land and energy, and offer the only feasible example for the future. Unless there is a positive global move towards this way of living, the expanding world population will be condemned to disease and suffering on an unimaginable scale. In a desperate search for protein, all the living creatures on the globe will be hunted and killed. The wonderful diversity of living things, the last of a species, the most beautiful of creations, will mean nothing more than a mouthful of food to get a family through another day. And we will wring our hands and ask how on Earth it happened.