Climate, Grub and Politics

The airlines, the airlines, the airlines. And of course the cars. This, in summary, is how the great climate scapegoats have been listed until recently. Here, Lisa Gålmark focuses on a climate question we would rather like to forget: the one about food.

According to the UN, the world’s livestock contributes more to the emissions of greenhouse gases than the whole transport sector – still we defend ourselves against making politics out of what is found on the plate. At last the public, that is to say the media, has opened its eyes to the fact that the problems of the world demand personal and everyday decisions. The weather forecasts became heated, one environmental film after the other was aired on state television, and people in cities on the borders of our biggest lakes realized that their city could at any time find itself under water. Even people in Stockholm were beginning to sense that an escape to Helsinki with one’s belongings in plastics bags may in fact become reality. And swish – suddenly it was possible to talk about carbon dioxide equivalents, rationing and changes of electric light bulbs.

So far, so good. However, well ingrained lines of thinking do not disappear straight away, well ingrained patriarchal lines of thinking where one measure is prioritized and blamed for the whole debacle, like a modern scapegoat, to be shoved away, thereby saving the Western world from ruin. For the climate question, the scapegoat is the airlines. It is the airlines that are the bad guys, environmental organizations and journalists assert, most lately the British author George Monbiot in his book Heat. Monbiot calculates and finds that if we only make a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, the Western world may continue to enjoy today’s standard of living and still save the planet. With one exception: the airlines. We can’t go on flying because the airlines emit enormous quantities of green house gas which in due time lead to the fall of poor human beings. “Porto Alegre – goodbye”, the Swedish writer Andreas Malm wrote in his review of Monbiot’s book in Dagens Nyheter 13/11 2006.

So then we should stay at home. Draw a line through global network meetings, concerts and conferences. Forget about flying over the seas and experiencing what it is like to be in a cultural and linguistic minority. Forget about creating peaceful human relations in foreign places. But what if this is the wrong measure? Or: what if this is the right measure but not enough as a measure? What if the climate problems demand a broader outlook that entails the whole of industry, the economic order, our Western patriarchal culture, how it counts only the finished product and rarely the environmental, human and animal costs of production? What if it even affects how we nourish ourselves, the supposedly neutral and trivial food on the table? Reproduction. The consuming sector. The traditionally feminine, sensitive and politically ignored food industry. Maybe it is here one should get rid of one’s blinkers if the aim is to clear away climate threats and at the same time show solidarity with the poor people of the world.

Food is part of culture, and in the Western world much of the food consists of animal ingredients, that is to say, meat, egg and milk products from the animal industry. Ever since hunting in the Stone Age contributed at most twenty percent of the food intake, and had as its prerequisite weapons that in turn could be pointed towards humans, meat from animals has been culture’s highest-valued protein. Meat from killed animals was traditionally nutrition for men in power, and it was not until the late 19th century that animal meat became everyday food for the masses. The meat normativity of the West – the institutions, structures, relations and acts which uphold the norm that perceives other animals as objects for humans to do whatever they want with, especially to produce and consume as everyday “meat” – is today spreading around the world through advertisements and export of agricultural systems.

For a long time, this norm went free from critique by people otherwise interested in environmental and social issues. Why? Unequivocally it has something to do with the reproductive status of food, its trivial and animal-like status. The grub, the nosh, the food that mother so naturally, self-evidently and home-sweet-homely prepared and served – could it really have a political bearing? Should mother have been an important negotiating part in the political problems of the world? Should she not just put the ham sandwiches on the kitchen table and remind us that it is getting late? Can it be that the 20th-century Western housewife actually had a decisive impact on the state of the world today? Maybe it is due to such patriarchal blinkers – priorities ascribing exclusive political weight to masculine-coded questions– that the whole of Swedish media miss when the FAO’s latest report, Livestock’s Long Shadow (November 2006) shows that the world’s livestock for food production is one of the three largest contributors to environmental destruction and – just listen to this – that it contributes more to climate change by emissions of greenhouse gases than the whole transport sector, including airlines and cars.

Those who wish to show solidarity with the poor of the world, and at the same time desire to do something about the climate problem, should ask themselves: How is environmentally sound agriculture to be organized to sustain a continually increasing human population? Which direction should the food industry take in order not to become a security problem when oil prices climb to a hundred dollars a barrel? Over the last thirty years the number of wild mammals has decreased to half due to shrinking nature areas, hunting and environmental poisoning. The big fish species in the world seas are near depletion. In forty years all of the fish species used for human food will be gone. Simultaneously, one billion human beings are undernourished. Seven million children die every year because they lack access to food and clean water. According to the WWF’s Living Planet Report, the major part of the growing ecological footprint that humans are putting on the earth – that is to say the production and consumption of the West – is due to the increasing usage of fossil fuel, a usage that has risen nine times since 1961.

The sixties was the period when the intensive animal industry, and with it meat normativity, made its breakthrough in Europe. Since the end of the 19th century, the slaughter industry was the first to use the assembly line and – with the aim of increasing efficiency and turnover – animal factories with small areas and confinement were introduced. This meant: increasing efficiency and turnover in a sector contributing greatly to fossil fuel consumption. Just a few years ago, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that the amount of energy needed to produce one kilo of Swedish meat from a pig would transport the same amount of energy in the form of beans three and a half times around the earth by ship. Still, today four billion people sustain themselves on a plant-based diet while two billion live on an animal-based diet. Concurrently with the Western export of agricultural systems to Asia, Africa and South America, the human consumption of animal flesh is projected to double by 2050. Today, soy beans and maize are given to cows that naturally eat grass and almost all – ninety-five percent – of the global production of soy beans become food for animals in the animal industry. China has gone from consuming a little over 13 kilos of animal meat per person per year in 1980 to 53 kilos in 2004. Between 1992 and 2002, China accordingly increased its import of grain by over 70 percent, most of it to use as fodder in the animal industry.

When more and more animal products are consumed by more and more people – the number of animals raised and slaughtered per year has already reached fifty billion – the demand for energy rises at a high speed. So does the demand for grazing and fodder grain areas. Where are the areas to be taken from? The coasts that disappear in the wake of climate changes? The deserts that develop as a consequence of forest felling and over-grazing? The above mentioned George Monbiot said in an article in The Guardian in 2002 about world starvation that the world in ten years will be forced to make a choice: either agriculture growing food for animals or agriculture growing food for people directly. Here, Monbiot had a point: to do something about starvation in the world it is no longer only the distribution of food, ownership and capital that is important; the type of food that is produced is just as important.Recently the Swedish scientist Lisa Deutsch showed that in Swedish animal meat production the animals raised are given fodder up to 80 percent based on raw materials from areas in other parts of the world, for example soy from cleared rainforests in South America and palm oil from rainforests in Asia.

A change of agricultural policies – from an animal industry to a mainly vegetable industry –directed from parliament could be used as a model globally, and this in more ways than the positive effects on climate, seas, rainforests, oil consumption and area demand. The problem of animal ethics – alarming in itself – may at last find a happy solution. A world without slaughter and animal industries is a world that also takes animals without human language into consideration, thereby relieving itself of a heavy moral burden. The phasing out of the animal industry would lead to less environmental pollution and poisoning when nitrate from manure would no longer leach into the groundwater and rivers and streams, turning into algae bloom and eutrophication. The high content of phosphorus in human excrement would become less with more vegetable production instead of animal production. For example, as a study from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology shows, the water in Stockholm would immediately be one-third cleaner if half of the animal ingredients in people’s food were replaced with vegetables.

The neglected FAO report focuses not only on the consequences of the animal industries on climate change and the environment in general, it also shows that these industries are one of the biggest factors behind the world’s decreasing supplies of fresh water: The production of one kilo of vegetable protein requires 98,000 less litres of fresh water than the production of one kilo of meat from cows. And this in a world where already more than one billion people lack access to clean water. Thus, huge economic gains may be made if society abolishes the subsidies that are given today to the animal industries: 350 billion dollars per year is granted in support of world agriculture. In the 2004 budget of the EU, half of the tax money was spent on various forms of agricultural subsidies. These state subsidies and credits could be used for more urgent needs than to support an environmentally destructive, energy-consuming and uneconomical agricultural system. What about looking over the tiny investments on women’s shelters, integration, elderly care, pre-schools, animal welfare, and culture? It would not be hard to find activities on which to invest the billions now granted to the animal industry.

That is the measure on a national and international level. The private and the state levels should not be played out against each other. Both may be good politics, and to choose between them is rather a counter-productive result of an antiquated line of thinking: the logic of either-or. Sweden, Swedish companies and households have, all in different ways, backed provincial meat food into becoming the global norm. For those who wish to do something about their personal part in the climate crisis and starvation in the world, there are more alternatives to choose from than the recommendation: “the only thing you have to do is to give up flying.” Recently, the scientists Gidon Eshel and Pamela A. Martin at the University of Chicago found that the amount of carbon dioxide, from production to distribution to cooking and eating, is considerably lower in a vegan diet than in the standard American diet. The vegetable diet causes one and a half tons less carbon dioxide per person per year compared to standard food. Giving up a couple of eggs and a few steaks and hamburgers every week does make a difference and is a good start, the scientists say. This choice can be made three times a day.

How do we stop regarding problems of environmental and social justice as isolated from each other? How does the threat to our world become a start for new ideas and better alternatives? How do we continue to open the borders of the world – in a sustainable and socially justifiable way? How do we make it possible for more people to travel and meet each other? What can we do to help the peasants of the world, 70 percent women, in sustaining themselves and live a good life? More trains and boats, taxes on airlines, research on environmentally sound aeroplane motors. Phased-out subsidies to the animal industries, abolished tariffs on imported refined food stuffs to the EU, a Tobin tax, written-off national debts. Rehabilitated vegetable and sustainable food cultures spread over the world. Etcetera – feel free to add to the list. It is time to demand more than one thing. It is time to look over the whole system. It is time to invite your mother to a dinner of veggie meatballs and root vegetables au gratin.

Published in Arbetaren no 4 2007

Copyright: Lisa Gålmark