The planet is groaning under the weight of our demands

Covid be damned. As the carol tells us, this is the season to be jolly, and there’s nothing jollier than feasting together – especially with a big, tasty, savoury dish in front of us based on the cooked flesh of an animal which has died so that we can eat it.

No, this is not about giving up a meat diet, but living within one’s means. Like everything to do with today’s big issues, diet is complicated. Getting together our daily food supply, animal or vegetable, is bound to make a mess with so many mouths to feed. 

The classic case against eating meat has always been about killing animals that would prefer to stay alive. That argument has been around as long as we’ve been evolving – because it was eating animal flesh that helped us become the thinking, talking mammals we are today.

Big, complex brains need a lot of energy, and protein-rich meat is a concentrated source of food energy. And it takes less energy to digest meat, especially cooked meat, than plant food, so we have also evolved a smaller gut than plant-eaters.

In other words, we’re primed by evolution to eat meat.

But things have got out of hand. Everything in moderation, they say, but there’s nothing moderate about global meat production of over 300 million tonnes a year. Besides the impact of animal husbandry on natural ecosystems and the climate, we also have to consider the health risk from antibiotics and hormones used in mass meat production. 

Help is at hand. Research into cultured or “lab” meat is ramping up. Some laboratories use plant or fungal cells as a starting point to make “meat” that tasters have described as remarkably like the original. Others take a tiny sample of meat cells from living animals (which remain very much alive) and “feed” the cells with a growth medium.

Laboratories in various parts of the world including Australia are now making not just hamburgers but solid cuts of steak, complete with muscle and fat cells. The next big challenge is finding an economical way to cultivate cells on the enormous scale needed for a mass roll-out.

Even so, this has to be a better option than what our animal and plant monocultures are doing to Earth’s precious biodiversity. A scientific survey of Earth’s biomass published in 2018 by the US National Academy of Sciences found that the total biomass of humans and their livestock adds up to nearly 95 per cent of the biomass of all the world’s birds and mammals.

Poultry, which dominates tables in the festive season, is in total nearly three times the weight of all the wild birds on the planet. If that’s not disturbing enough, the total biomass of mammals reared to feed humans, mostly cattle and pigs, amounts to a staggering 14 times that of wild mammals.

Most telling of all: total human biomass is close to seven times the combined biomass of all wild birds and mammals – including whales and other marine mammals. Seen from this angle, overweight takes on a whole new meaning.

Nearly 300 years ago Jonathan Swift published an essay, “A modest proposal”, about the perennial problem of hunger in his homeland, Ireland. The essay’s extended title explained that he wanted to discuss how children of the poor might become a benefit to society.

In the earnest tones of a social reformer he explained how an American had assured him “that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.” He went on to detail the economic value of his idea.

Needless to say, the target of Swift’s biting satire was not babies but people who offer simple, neat solutions to difficult problems – also a feature of today’s climate debate.

Just before Covid struck, at a town hall meeting convened by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a noisy interjector echoed Swift. “Save the planet, eat the children” was the slogan on her T-shirt. Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice for a greener planet, did not respond as the young woman was quietly sat down, but it was clear by her face that she knew not to make a joke.

The grim truth is that the planet is groaning under the weight of humanity and its demands. Leaders addicted to economic growth are only adding to that terrible burden. It is the question of our age, and we have hardly begun to address it.

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