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 with me.
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 pastures.
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 to cry.
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, they enslaved.
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 with them.
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 cent.
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 and decompose.
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 night-time kill.
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 predict.
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 acutely painful.
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 developing world.
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 ‘eutrophication’.
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 billion.
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 country.
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 numbers.
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 replenished.
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 battle!
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 this reason!
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, of course.
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 of grazing.
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.