In 1994 people took to the streets all across Britain. They were determined, passionate and outraged and their actions struck a chord in the hearts of millions. For the first time in memory, animal welfare made headline news every day for months.
The reason for the demonstrations, of course, was the transportation of live animals to Europe ñ sheep to be fattened for a few days in France or Spain and then killed and labelled ëhome produced'; calves, little more than a few days old, to be placed in solitary crates and killed after a few months and sold as veal.
Consistent campaigning had led to P & O Ferries, Stena Sealink and Brittany Ferries, the main cross-channel ferry operators, dropping the export of live animals for slaughter and the street demonstrations were aimed at preventing other, opportunist companies from picking up the abandoned business. These elusive merchants tried every possible outlet by air and sea, using the cover of dawn and dusk to move their fragile cargoes. But everywhere they went, at whatever time of day, people were there to greet them, to stand in their way, to lie in the road, to attack their consciences, to prevent their trade and to thrust the issue into the living-room of every home in the country.
Those who joined together in outrage defied stereotyping. There were middle-aged, middle-class women who had never protested publicly about anything before in their lives, young women in Doc Martens with rings through their noses, senior citizens, young men in combat jackets with dogs on pieces of string. What they had in common was their anger at the denial of even the most fundamental compassion to living creatures. This unity defied the 16 years of British Government philosophy which proclaimed there is no such thing as society, only individuals, which replaced care and concern with greed and profit, gave legitimacy with exploitation and claimed that only a free market can answer the world's problems ñ most of which were created by the free market in the first place.
After years of being told that they shouldn't care, these dedicated groups were shouting at the tops of their voices that they did care. Not only did their actions challenge Government cynicism, but they also did something much more fundamental: they made previously complacent people confront the intricate relationships between the meat and dairy industries and what is placed on our dining tables.
After an interview I did for BBC TV's Money Programme at the start of the demonstrations, the camera operator asked me what was wrong with drinking milk. Like millions of other people he believed that cows naturally gave milk like chickens lay eggs. He was clearly taken aback when I explained that, just like a woman, cows have to be made pregnant before lactation takes place and their calves are removed so that we can have their milk.
The camera operator wasn't unique. Most of the population were ñ and largely still are ñ lacking even the most basic knowledge of where their food comes from, the circumstances of it's production and the wider impact it has on the environment and the impoverished of the world. But the live exports coverage has, I believe, started a process of enquiry which is irreversible ñ it is the beginning of a voyage of discovery.
We have to hope that this voyage will be a rapid one because it is impossible to sustain the anarchy and chaos of a meat-based diet which is literally devouring the Earth. Vegetarianism/veganism is not some old hippy concept rooted in a cannabis-induced nirvana but an idea that as been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. It lies at the heart of virtually every great philosophy and religion and what began as a moral stand now has a frighteningly convincing scientific legitimacy.
Livestock production is at the heart of almost every environmental catastrophe confronting the earth, from acid rain to global warming, desertification to deforestation. Soil erosion, loss of habitat and water depletion are all intricately woven into the fabric of meat dependency. Meanwhile, two thirds of the world's oceans tremble on the brink of ecological collapse due almost entirely to commercial fishing.
The West has developed a meat culture which reaches it's zenith in the USA but has also spread throughout Europe and is now infecting virtually the whole globe. It is a diet which requires almost 40 per cent of the world's grain harvest to be fed to animals, inefficiently converting 10 kilograms of vegetable protein into only one kilogram of meat.
It is a diet which uses four and a half times more land than is necessary for a strictly plant-based diet ñ two and a quarter more than for a vegetarian diet.
Because of our complete control over the economies of developing countries we require them to produce fodder to feed our animals while their children starve to death. Meat is intimately linked with famine and starvation. Through the stranglehold of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund we impose both our philosophy and our economics on cultures which have survived for centuries, legitimizing greed and destruction.
There could, perhaps, be some remote justification for all this if meat were an essential part of our diet and necessary for our development. But the reverse is true. Much as we might find it difficult to acknowledge, we are primates, closely related to the great apes. Like them, our teeth, hands, toes, gut and digestive processes are those of a fruit eater, a herbivore, designed to cope with nuts, seeds and plants.
In fact the rapid increase in meat consumption since the Second World War had seriously damaged out health. Despite all the doom-laden caution about vegetarianism, vegetarians live longer and suffer less from a whole range of diseases. Every major survey confirms this. The major killer in the West is heart disease and vegetarians are up to 50 per cent less likely to die of it.
Cancer is the second biggest killer and vegetarians stand up to 50 per cent less risk of developing any kind of cancer.
Two of the essential elements recently found to preserve human health ñ dietary fibre
- are not present in meat.
Meanwhile pigs are tethered in barren stalls, so deprived of stimulation that they frequently go mad. Calves only days old are separated from their mothers, transported to crates where they can barely move and are purposefully made anaemic in solitary confinement. Chickens, naturally restless, strutting creatures, are crammed five to a wire cage little bigger than a microwave oven.
It all culminates in the barbarity of slaughter were cruelty is casually dispensed on an unimaginable scale ñ spinal columns of conscious sheep severed with the probings of a domestic screwdriver; paralysed bullocks urged to stand with 70,000 volt shocks to the testicles; fully conscious lambs slashed across the throat because time is of the essence. In all, more than 750 million animals are slaughtered in Britain every year in a production line of destructive misery.
The casual indifference towards the suffering of creatures brutalizes those who carry it out and those who allow it to happen in their name. It denies all our claims of being civilised.
Throughout this book I know I am going to be accused of anthropomorphism, but that's much too easy and not accurate. I do, I admit, adore animals and the natural world and I am fascinated by the amazing adaptability of nature, in particular how animals have reached such perfection in their own sphere. To me it is self-evident that their lives are equally important to them as ours are to us.
We kid ourselves about the extent of our knowledge, pretending we have reached a peak of understanding, arrived at through superior intellect, but the truth is much more prosaic, much less complacent. The earth has existed for nearly five billion years, during which time various life forms have developed and evolved. One common thread runs through this extraordinary phenomenon and that is the ability of individual species to live within their environment, part of it and dependent upon it. In evolutionary terms human beings have been here for little more than a twinkling of light. But already we have begun to tear and break the individual strands which go to make up this fine web of existence.
Modern Western teaching, both political and religious, places us above and beyond the rules by which all animals live, as though they simply don't apply to us, as though we are not animals ourselves. As a species we have looked at the world and said that nothing matters but us and all it's glories are there to be exploited ñ and if they can't be exploited then they count for very little. We destroy without knowing the long-term effects of such actions, and even when we do know, we continue to destroy because today is much more important than tomorrow. It is by today's achievements, today's boasts, today's profit margins that we are judged.
As a consequence, Governments look at the problems which surround us and are frozen into immobility. They must know that the only effective cure is an approach to life based on co-operation and concern, on conservation rather than consumption, on real education rather than exam-passing. But they can do nothing because such a philosophy threatens the ethos which grants them power, wealth and influence. The very ethos which has brought the planet teetering to the edge of environmental destruction is, the same philosophy which will save us.
So every supposed agreement, whether to limit fishing or to reduce logging, is quickly ignored in the scramble to make money. When it comes to a choice between preservation and destruction, if the short-term interests of multinational corporations are involved it is invariably the latter which triumphs. We know, for instance, that smoking is the biggest avoidable killer and yet every high street is littered with adverts for cigarettes and we even spread the contamination to the developing countries. We know that a vegetarian diet is much healthier than a meat-based diet and yet it is the livestock farmers and the cattle feed farmers who receive most of the government subsidies. We know that poverty destroys people, but the gap between rich and poor constantly grows wider. Knowledge and understanding have ceased to be signposts to the future and have become minor obstacles to be circumvented in the quest for profit.
As a species we have set ourselves up as the arbiters of the globe in an act of such breathtaking arrogance that it usurps the role of gods and creates a monstrous imbalance in the natural order. We slaughter owls, hawks, crows and magpies so that grouse or pheasants can be reared in large numbers. We then slaughter them by sending lead shot ripping through their flesh ñ and call it sport. We destroy rabbits as vermin and then demonize the foxes which live on them. We then hunt the foxes. We gas badgers because they might have TB; we trap and kill rooks because we don't like their habits; chase hares with dogs for entertainment; do anything we like to rats and mice; shoot pigeons in their tens of thousands. We determine which animals we will eat and deny them everything; we determine which will be vermin and try to annihilate them; we allow others the comfort of our hearth. Across the globe we chase whales and harpoon them for cultural reasons. We destroy dolphins and seals because they dare to eat fish. There is hardly a species which will not exterminate if their interests and ours collide.
By selective breeding, genetic manipulation and dietary interference we are producing food animals which are increasingly incapable of life without our intervention. As factory farming intensifies so medical intervention with antibiotics and other powerful drugs increases and alongside the increase goes a resistance to the very drugs vital to the animals survival. We are producing animals with a tenuous grip on life and at the same time are destroying the wild gene pool from which they evolved.
By so cavalierly playing with the fate of other animals we are risking our own. It seems we are incapable of understanding that every living creature has its part to play in maintaining the glorious fabric of our world. None of the animals which we slaughter, even those we demonize as vermin, pose any threat to the survival of the planet. It is not they which threaten its existence but us.
The only hope we have is to fundamentally reassess our role and our attitude to the plant and the living creatures which share it with us. When a calf is prodded and dragged into the killing pen, wide-eyed and terrified, with the stench of blood and death in its nostrils, we are all demeaned. When the captive bolt shatters its forehead, there is no compassion. When the slaughterer's grabs the muzzle of the lamb to stifle its bleating and applies the knife to it's throat, there is no compassion. And without compassion there is little hope for any of us.
What is the first step? Vegetarianism is one of the few individual acts you can perform that has an immediate impact. It is the first step in ending the daily cruelties handed out to farm animals. It is the first step in allowing the planet to heal itself. But it is much more than all of these. It is a political act and a clear expression of a belief in a different way of doing things, a different kind of world ñ a better world.
One by one we are extinguishing the voices which fill this ark in space. For we all know it maybe the only ark in space. Those voices that can still be heard, including the human ones, are increasingly sounding stressed and tortured. Unless there are dramatic changes in the way we live our lives, it will become a totally silent ark.
D. Pimentel, Food, Energy and the Future of Society, Wiley, 1979, p.26 L. R. Brown, ed., State of the World 1990, Worldwatch Institute, 1990, p.4
F. Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, Ballantine Books, 1982, p.69 C. R. W. Spedding, Food for the 90's: The impact of organic foods and vegetarianism, 1990, pp.231-41 M. L. Burr and P. M. Sweetnam, ëVegetarianism, dietary fibre and mortality', The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 36, 1982, pp.873-7
M. L. Burr and B. K. Butland, Heart disease in British vegetarians, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 48, 1988, pp.830-2
J. Chang-Claude et al., ëMortality pattern of German vegetarians after 11 years of follow-up', Epidemiology, 3, 1992, pp.395-401
D. A. Snowdon, R. L. Philips and G. E. Fraser, Meat consumption and fatal ischaemic heart disease, Preventative Medicine, 13, 1984, pp.490-500 Chang-Claude, op. cit.
M Thorogood et al., ëRisk of death from cancer and ischaemic heart disease in meat and non-meat eaters', British Medical Journal, 308, 1994, pp.1667-70 P. Cox, Peter Cox's Guide to Vegetarian Living, Bloomsbury, 1995 J. Potter, ëHow vegetables fight cancer', Living Earth and Food Magazine, January-March 1995, pp.8-9 The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, United Kingdom, Slaughter Statistics, London, 1994