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A Green Message From the Land of Rice and Curry

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Last week, I addressed a "green" conference on economic sustainability in Mumbai, India. The talk, other than the argument about whether we could survive in a room without air conditioning, was mostly about how much shucking and jiving the U.S. had done in Copenhagen, all in an effort not to commit to anything terribly serious regarding changes that nations must make to combat climate change. The Indians felt pretty good about their nation's commitments, particularly to cut emissions and to fund energy projects such as those using biofuel from plants. Activists returning from Denmark, with precious little to show from the conference except truncheon bruises, were united in the idea that if people want to make change happen, we have to do it ourselves and pass on what we know to others.

It shouldn't be news anymore that the most important thing that we can do for the planet is not to use less holiday gift wrap -- it is to go vegan. That's because it is impossible to be a meat-eating, milk-drinking environmentalist. Meat and milk are not "green," which makes it all the more shocking that our government has decided to help large dairy farms use newfangled machines to deal with methane gas burped up by all those cows rather than helping to wean America off its ugly, fatty, Earth-destroying dairy habit. Actually, meat and milk are anti-green! Of course, such remarks give those who have grown up with or acquired a taste for meat and cheese cause for consternation to add to their constipation. No one likes change. Witness the handwritten sign on a little jar at an airport coffee stand that read, "Afraid of change? If so, leave yours here."

How about some dry facts to go with the dry sherry this season? A 200-pound man will burn off at least 2,000 calories a day even if he stays in bed the whole time and watches food commercials or football. He consumes most of those 2,000 calories simply to keep his eyes open, breathe, and otherwise keep his body functioning. If he leaps up to scream at the screen when the other side does something untoward, he will burn even more calories. In the same way, most of what is fed to farmed animals in those crowded, filthy sheds is burned off, simply because animals have to breathe, stand, blink, and―because of the throat-burning ammonia vapors rising from the waste accumulating beneath them―cough and choke.

It's bizarre, really: In order to eat meat and drink packaged milk, we take a crop like soybeans, oats, corn, or wheat, which are all rich in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates―the things we need―and totally devoid of cholesterol and artery-clogging saturated fat―the things we don't need and shouldn't have. We feed it to a chicken or pig to create a product with no fiber or complex carbohydrates at all but with megadoses of cholesterol and saturated fat! All bad for us and bad for the Earth and bad for animals. It makes about as much sense as taking a glass of sparkling Evian, running it through a sewer, and then drinking it.

As most people must now be aware or should be, in November 2006, the United Nations released a massive report that details the environmental consequences of consuming animal "products." It's called Livestock's Long Shadow, and it concludes that raising chickens, pigs, and other animals for food is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every level, from local to global. So, no matter what environmental issue you're looking at―from land and crop use to water pollution to air pollution to climate change―funneling crops through animals in order to create meat is one of the top causes of the problem. So much for wrapping paper!

Here are some more facts: It takes about 6 to 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of animal flesh. If we have to grow massive amounts of vegetable matter―with all the tilling, irrigation, and herbicides and pesticides and other chemicals that are now used―transport all that grain and soybeans to factory-style farms and dairies, feed it to all the land animals raised for food, transport those animals to automated slaughter facilities and dairies, take the dead animals to processing centers, run the processing and packaging machines, and then take the packaged meat to food outlets and butchers' stalls―well, there's a lot of energy being used up at each one of those stages. And in case anyone is saying, "But they don't slaughter dairy cows," dream on! There is no retirement home for the millions upon millions of cows kept for milk, butter, and cheese.

If all this energy is being used, all these fossil fuels are being burned, and all this manure is being produced, then we're talking serious air pollution. Many environmentalists would sooner walk than drive in order to decrease air pollution, yet many eat meat and dairy products without realizing that they are paying for gas-guzzling animal-transport vehicles, refrigerated meat and dairy trucks, pollution-spewing processing plants, and so on. Where the environment is concerned, eating meat is like driving a 16-wheeler and leaving the engine running all the time. Eating a vegetarian diet is like riding a motorbike, and eating a vegan diet is like riding a bicycle.

More horrors: According to Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution author John Robbins, the average vegan uses about one-sixth of an acre of land to satisfy his or her food requirements for an entire year; the average vegetarian who consumes eggs and dairy products, like cow's milk, real cheese toppings on pizza, and even non-soy yogurt, requires about three times as much land; and the average meat-eater requires about 20 times as much land. Obviously, a lot more of the food grown on any given parcel of land can be made available to humans if it's not being funneled through animals first.

Raising animals for food also requires about as much water as all other water uses combined, even as many areas of the world are experiencing extreme drought conditions. Just outside Mumbai, farmers have been committing suicide in their dry, cracked fields, leaving widows with nothing: There are no government-sponsored bereavement benefits. It takes about four times as much water to feed a vegetarian as it does to feed a vegan and 14 times as much water to feed a meat-eater. And, if you have to feed animals, you have to irrigate the crops that you feed to them and you have to give them water too. You have to hose down the factory farms and slaughterhouses with water. It's all very water-intensive.

Raising animals for food is water-polluting as well. One "dairy cow" produces more than 100 pounds of excrement per day, and it is estimated that the animals raised for food in the U.S., for example, produce 130 times the excrement of the entire human population of our country. Add to this delightful image the fact that animal excrement is more concentrated than human excrement and is often contaminated with herbicides, pesticides, toxic chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and so on.

Massive factory farms generally don't have waste-treatment plants. Instead, the manure is poured onto land or into giant lagoons, where it often spills over into local waterways, killing fish and poisoning the drinking water that people depend on. All over the world, streams and rivers that once were clear and full of fish are now lifeless because of manure runoff from factory farms. In the Gulf of Mexico, there's an enormous "dead zone" the size of the entire state of New Mexico, where no fish or other animals can live. This is because of the enormous amount of animal waste that has flowed from filthy factory farms into rivers and streams.

As for the forests, they are being destroyed to create grazing space for cattle. Greenpeace published a report in 2006 specifically blaming the chicken industry for leading the way in the destruction of the Amazon, and it unveiled a banner in the Amazon that read, "KFC: Amazon Criminal," because that company's chickens were fed soybeans that had been grown in the rain forest.

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Finally, there is something fishy going on. One super-trawler is the length of a football field and takes in 800,000 pounds of fish in a single netting. These trawlers scrape along the ocean floor, destroying coral reefs and everything else in their way, and hydraulic dredges scoop up huge chunks of the ocean floor to sift out scallops, clams, and oysters. Most of what the fishing fleets get isn't even eaten by human beings. Half is fed to animals raised for food, and each year, about 30 million tons of dead sea animals are just tossed back overboard, disturbing the natural biological balance. Commercial fishing fleets are destroying sensitive aquatic ecosystems at a rate that is beyond comprehension. A major study found that in just the last 50 years, commercial fishing has reduced the populations of all large fish species by a staggering 90 percent.

The new "fishing" is aquaculture, which is increasing at a rate of more than 10 percent annually. This horrific invention takes up to 5 pounds of wild-caught fish to reap 1 pound of farmed fish. Farmed fish are often raised in the same water that wild fish swim in, but fish farmers dump antibiotics into the water and use genetic engineering to create unnaturally large fish. The antibiotics contaminate the oceans and seas, and the genetically altered fish sometimes escape and breed with wild fish, throwing delicate aquatic balances off kilter. Researchers at the University of Stockholm demonstrated that the horrible environmental influence of fish farms can extend to an area 50,000 times larger than the farm itself, an amazing indictment.

We demonstrate our environmental concern or lack thereof every time we sit down to eat by choosing to eat vegan, vegetarian, or non-vegetarian foods. A hand went up from the audience in Mumbai. "If I become a vegan, what can I eat?" said its owner. Being a lover of Indian food, I could only say this:

Papad, chapattis,

Dumplings and naan,

Channa and rotis,

Onion uttapam,

Masala dosa,

Green callaloo,

Gourd and samosa,

Corn and aloo.

Shalgam, bryani,

And channa masala,

Tomato soup,

That hits the spot.

Taka dahl and bhindi,

And okra fried hot,

Gobi pakoras, samba, idli,

And brinjal in a pot.

Yam and cassava,

Coconut stew,

Mangoes and guava,

Cornflakes, tofu,

Palaak and gaajar,

Shakkar kandi, nut roast,

Lotus root salad,

And garlic toast!

Chillis, bhaji, walnuts,

Peas and mint rissole,

Pine nuts and peanuts,
Sweet potato roll,

Cashew nut cutlets,

Okra in sauce,

Tamarind, turnips,

Mulligatawny, of course.

Banana-walnut pancake,

Mango floats,

Longan, orange, cherry cake,

Pineapple boats,

Paratha, puri, mooli,

Rajma, pomegranate,

Breadfruit pudding

With almonds on it.

Noodles and pancakes,

I eat all the time,

Veggie cutlets, palao,

Papaya with lime,

Melon, chickoo, pears,

Soya ice cream, litchee,

Loquat and apples,

Pistachio and lentil kedgeree ...

What was that question now?

What can we eat?

I think we'll survive

Without milk and meat.

In fact, it may be the only way to help the planet itself survive.

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