The Silent Ark
13: Developed To Death
It’s amazing how easy it is to become blasé. My first
visit to Majorca, when I was 18, was a magical mystery tour of foreign
lands and foods, an unintelligible language and extraordinary blue
seas and golden sands. It didn’t take many years before all
European countries melded into an homogeneous blend of similar architecture,
identical advertisements and international food. It wasn’t
until I went to Kenya in 1993 that I again relived that feeling
of being abroad.
The coach from the airport to my hotel went through Mombasa and
I could almost feel my jaw sagging as, dazed with the time difference,
I perspired in a baking winter sun, breathed in new aromas, some
of them on the demanding side, and watched the throngs of people
going about their day. This was abroad, this was the developing
world, this was chaos. The 1930s art deco shop fronts, rusting corrugated
iron roofs, jostling black and Indian traders; the car horns, moped
engines, bicycle bells and the clamour of human voices selling and
buying and shouting; the awareness that this was normality and I
was the visitor, I was the foreigner.
This was the continent that the British, Germans, Belgians, French,
Italians, Dutch and Portuguese divided up between themselves in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to share out the
rich pickings. Ruler lines were drawn through large swathes of territory,
through the middle of tribal lands and customs and languages - French
to the left, British to the right, a wealth of culture and history,
knowledge and understanding reduced to the level of commodity suppliers.
The colonists arrived and ruled, learning almost nothing from
those they subjugated, integrating hardly at all. And here I was,
still part of that ruling culture. The pith helmets and white knees
of the infantry regiments might have gone, but the West’s
control is still absolute. It is now done through the United Africa
Company or Lohnro or Unilever or Rio Tinto Zinc and other multinational
These multinationals, which have grown up in the latter half of
the twentieth century, know no national boundaries and move production
to wherever it is cheapest or most friendly in terms of anti-trade
union legislation or wherever the most generous financial incentives
are being offered. Many individual corporations have greater financial
clout than some entire countries. They are a law unto themselves
and have only one overriding concern - to show a profit for their
shareholders. None of the other human, social, environmental or
political considerations which might exert some influence over national
companies are of any concern to them. They are heavily involved
in meat production and one of their greatest influences, often encouraged
by Governments hungry for hard currency with which to meet their
debts, has been to take control of huge areas of land right across
the world. Every new acquisition leads to more people being dispossessed
and in some countries it has affected one third of all rural people.
In Latin America it is more than 40 per cent.
Import tariffs are another part of the West’s control. For
the import of cheap cash crops into Europe we charge little in the
way of duties, but if African countries try to increase the value
of their exports by processing them, turning them into products,
raising their value, we impose heavy duties, pricing them out of
the market. We preserve the right to add that value ourselves, enabling
our industries to prosper. When we have done so, we often export
back to the same countries the products we originally obtained from
them but at inflated prices.
Also, we have encouraged the obnoxious Elites who rule so many
African and other ex-colonial countries, providing them with their
ethos as well as the loans with which to buy their armies and their
weaponry - usually from us - as insurance against revolution by
their own people. Once they are established in power and saddled
with debt, it is the poor of those countries who are pushed further
and further into a subsistence existence by having to pay the interest
off. Despite the overpowering wealth of Western countries, the net
transfer of money is from the developing world to the developed
It is disturbing, but no other economic system is on offer anywhere
in the world. From Borneo to Brazil, Somalia to Sumatra, profit
is now the global penicillin. And this philosophy which has created
a world of haves and have nots claims to be the only one which can
eliminate those divisions. It is tantamount to a seventeenth-century
quack physician prescribing bleeding for a patient dying from a
And of course it is a lie. Our leaders care little how many children
die from starvation or how impoverished are their parents. When
more than one million children die from measles every year for the
want of a 9p vaccine - total cost less than one year’s pay
increase for the chairman of British Gas it puts things into some
kind of perspective.
The world’s problems are discussed by suited men whose vocabulary
is lacking such words as 'vision’ and 'compassion’,
'care’ and 'concern’, 'honesty’
and 'trust’. All the great concepts which have exercised
philosophers through the ages have been reduced to profit and loss.
We have set the greatest store by the things of least value. And
with all the monumental challenges of the world to face, our leaders
can think no further than the next election. So they continue to
exploit anything which might provide some short-term advantage -
humans, other animals, the world’s resources. They have the
resources and knowledge to end hunger throughout the world, but
reduce their aid budget. They ensure that the gulf between rich
and poor widens at home, profess concern for the raging poverty
abroad and do nothing about either. There is no longer any dialogue
about development issues, only excuses and clichés and cynicism.
All these thoughts were no longer abstract in my mind as the coach
headed beneath the metal, elephant-tusk arch over the only dual
carriageway in Mombasa, out of the city and its bustle and along
the bush-fringed road towards Malindi. The hotel was on the coast
some 20 kilometres from the city, although it was in itself a mini
conurbation. Small blocks were distributed throughout the most wonderfully
colourful grounds, dripping with bougainvillaea, shaded by coconut
palms and tended by deferential hotel staff. It was, of course,
fenced off from the rest of the world and patrolled by tall, black,
silent, robed security men who looked like extras from the film
King Solomon’s Mines. Outside the fence was a complete mini-shanty
town from which the labourers to run the hotel were drawn. They
lived two families to a two-room shack with mud walls, papered with
the pictures cut from old newspapers. Worldly possessions amounted
to part-share of a small cardboard suitcase beneath a settle bed.
These and the people like them, we are told, are the cause of
the world’s great problems with their non-stop production
of children. These criticisms, of course, conveniently ignore reality.
A child of the United States will, in its lifetime, consume 12 times
as much of the world’s resources as the children born to these
Kikuyu tribespeople, huddled beneath the perimeter fence of a posh
hotel - 12 times as much oil, copper, zinc, water, steel and, most
importantly, land. In a world of profligacy, these people’s
struggle for survival is made worse by tourism. The demands of new
hotels, which stretch along the coast from both sides of Mombasa,
distort local food prices, driving them upwards and placing some
produce out of the hands of the poorest.
You could, however, feel the sense of community and sharing there.
They cooked communally, their food almost entirely free from meat,
and after their evening meal they sat together, talking, laughing
and listening to the BBC World Service. Crying babies were passed
from hand to hand until soothed and satisfied. And they talked proudly
of their beautiful, colourful country beneath the flaming scarlet
blossoms of a flamboya tree.
Meantime, inside the hotel, Europeans smeared themselves with
sun tan oil, ate European food, drank European drinks and spoke
infrequently to each other. At lunch and dinner they were carved
thick slices of meat from huge roast joints or helped themselves
to pieces from enormous baked fish. The clash of cultures was so
extreme that it could have been Martians and Venusians on an intergalactic
While the carvery was offering an inexhaustible supply of cooked
dead animals to a select few, much of the world’s population
was starving. This is a phenomenon which stretches across Africa,
Asia and South America, all continents which have been invaded and
Through the eyes of a visiting European, the problem looks exactly
as we have been taught - too many poor people struggling against
an inhospitable land and climate and producing too many children
as a form of insurance. That is only partly true. People with a
history older than our own and with a rich and vibrant culture could
not have spent that entire history struggling on the margins for
survival. And, of course, they didn’t. Many things have played
a part in the impoverishment of great tracts of the world and high
amongst them is the West’s addiction to meat and animal protein.
The little vignette of the carvery and its overloaded plates inside
the hotel and the meagre dishes of maize and rice outside lies at
the root of many of the world’s seemingly most intractable
When the early explorers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
landed in Africa they didn’t find starvation, but an abundance
of food. Everyone lived from the land and it was common for people
to have two or three harvests preserved or stored away. The whole
concept of buying and selling food did not exist.
The needs of our industrial revolution were for plentiful and
cheap raw materials and for those we scoured the world. When we
found them, not only did we take them away but also sovereignty
and independence, dispossessing unsophisticated people of their
land and then charging them rent for what had once been theirs by
right. In order to meet the demands of their landlords, these new
tenants were obliged to grow the crops which their masters valued
- cotton, hemp, cocoa - and it was the masters who determined the
price they would pay.
You don’t even need to go as far as Africa to witness the
effects of colonization, a simple trip across the Irish Sea will
do. The expropriation of land from poor farmers and its gift to
the landed gentry led to the depopulation of Ireland. When blight
destroyed the potato crop in the 1840s and country people could
not pay their rents, they were simply evicted from their homes and
the homes destroyed. One million died and two million emigrated,
while England imported twice as much food from Ireland as would
have been needed to feed the entire population of that country.
It was the same all over the world. The colonists took a system
which worked well for Africa or Asia, destroyed it and substituted
a system which worked for Europe. It set indigenous people on a
cycle of debt and dependency which was enforced by the elites of
their own kind, who were courted and flattered and shaped in the
image of the colonists. Once the countries became independent, these
elites continued that exploitative enforcement.
The first section of the road from Mombasa to Malindi is flanked
on either side by woods and bushland, with occasional villages surrounded
by small vegetable patches and coconut palms. This homogeny ends
dramatically, giving way to kilometre upon kilometre of sisal, neatly
planted rows of vegetation which are not for local use but for export.
How many villages were uprooted, how many people dispossessed, how
many vegetable plots ploughed under to provide the land?
This kind of scheme is frequently enforced by the World Bank or
International Monetary Fund as part of 'debt restructuring’
or to qualify for 'development loans’. But it is still
the West calling the tune and the rest of the world dancing to it.
And part of that control is to ensure that plentiful and cheap cattle
fodder is available to satisfy our enormous appetite for meat.
A set of simple statistics provides a perspective. One fifth of
the world’s population lives in extreme poverty and one third
of the world’s entire population of children is malnourished.
Over 12 million of them die every year from poverty and hunger-related
diseases. Meanwhile, one quarter of the world’s fish catch
is fed to animals, as is one third of the grain production. In
the US and EC, the figures are more startling - almost three quarters
of their grain is fed to livestock. It is now necessary to scour
the world in search of feed for the swelling numbers of livestock
- and with the human population expected to increase by almost 20
per cent in the next decade, the makings of a world-wide food crisis
are already in the offing.
In Britain, in 1946, approximately two million cattle, 7.4 million
sheep, 2.2 million pigs and about 40 million chickens were slaughtered.
In 1994 numbers had increased to 3.2 million cattle, 19 million
sheep, 15 million pigs and 676 million chickens. This growth is
reflected across the whole of the developed world, each country
swelling its meat production in an orgy of consumption which, in
many cases, has led to animal protein being consumed at virtually
every meal. There have not been corresponding increases in the human
population; in fact these have been extremely small in most countries.
There is not enough grass for the huge numbers involved and the
speed at which animals grow on this natural diet is too slow for
the profit-hungry producers. So it is substituted by grain, oil
seeds, soya, fish meal and often the ground-up remains of animals,
including their own kind.
In fact, 60 per cent of EC animal feeds and 90 per cent of the
protein concentrates used for animal feed in Britain are imported
from the developing world - the same countries whose children are
dying for want of protein - and much of that animal fodder is ideal
for human consumption. It has been estimated that the amount of
food required to eliminate the most extreme cases of hunger around
the world is about 40 million tonnes. The amount of grain which
developed countries feed to animals is some 540 million tonnes.
The answer to all these problems, we are told, is the market philosophy,
whereas it is, in fact, the cause. The same grains can be used to
feed either animals or humans, but they are not distributed on the
basis of need or the promptings of conscience but sold to the highest
bidder. The highest bidder is invariably the wealthy, the livestock
owners, the possessors of capital.
Most grain is produced in the West and some of it is exported
to the developing world, but the trade gap in food is all in our
favour. We import 40 per cent more high-quality protein from the
developing world than we export to it. Two of these foods - peanuts
and soya - are imported into Europe because that is cheaper than
buying animal feed which is grown here. India alone, with some of
the greatest health and malnutrition problems in the world, has
increased its exports of soya beans five-fold between 1974 and 1982.
This phenomenon is exacerbated by the growing inequalities in
wealth. The fewer people who can afford to buy the food grown in
their home countries, the greater the incentive for their own Governments
and landowners to grow cash crops for export instead, particularly
animal fodder as the demand seems inexhaustible.
Of all the Western appetites, the United States has the most voracious.
It is responsible for 75 per cent of the entire global production
of soya beans. Every vegetarian and vegan knows the extraordinary
value of soya beans and the huge variety of high-protein, low-fat
foods which can be made from them. Despite this, the US feeds almost
its entire crop to animals in the most inefficient, wasteful and
damaging addiction the world has ever seen.
According to Professor Colin Spedding of the University of Reading’s
Agriculture Department, a Western meat-based diet uses four and
a half times more land than is necessary for a vegan diet and two
and a quarter more than for a vegetarian diet. An analogy commonly
quoted is this: imagine an area of land the size of five football
pitches (10 hectares). It will grow enough meat to feed two people;
or maize to feed 10; or grain to feed 24; or soya to feed 61. There
is more than enough arable land to feed the present world human
population on a vegan diet, but nowhere near enough for the animal
produce centred American one.
For every 10 kilograms of soya protein fed to America’s
cattle only one kilogram is converted into meat, the remainder being
excreted. Almost the entire population of India and China, nearly
two billion people, could be fed on the protein consumed and largely
wasted by the United States’ beef herd.
When you take a global perspective, the problem assumes such proportions
that it is hard to comprehend. So much land in the poorer, developing
countries has been turned over to growing feed for livestock that
it now amounts to 14.6 million hectares - and that is solely to
supply the EC. If that figure leaves you cold, then try visualizing
the amount of productive land - not mountains or swamps or deserts
or jungles, but crop land - that would make up the entire area of
the United Kingdom. Add to that France, some four times our size,
then Italy and New Zealand and you have some idea of the area. That
in itself is a big enough problem, but compound it with the complete
lack of independence of those who produce the fodder and you have
the potential to turn disaster into catastrophe.
There are worrying portents for the future. After 40 years of
steady expansion, the world’s grain harvest began to fall
in the late 1980s. From a position where stocks amounted to 459
million tonnes, enough to feed the entire world for 101 days, stocks
have reduced to 240 million tonnes, only enough to last 54 days.
Part of the problem is the reduction in soil fertility after so
many years of monoculture supported by saturating the soil with
chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. As grain stocks
reduce, if there is not a change in philosophy, cattle will further
take precedence over people and the downward spiral of starvation
and poverty will be given another vicious twist.
Not satisfied with imposing its greed and economic system on the
world, the West is now increasing the demand for animal fodder by
exporting the abhorrent factory-farming systems which were responsible
for the explosion of meat eating in the West. Throughout the Indian
sub-continent, battery hen systems and broiler houses have become
widespread. Employing almost no people and consuming valuable protein,
these systems don’t even begin to address the needs of the
population, the majority of whom can’t afford to buy the eggs
and meat. But that was never the intention. Apart from satisfying
its own middle classes, much of the produce is exported to the Gulf
States, providing even more and cheaper animal protein to countries
already saturated with choice.
People are not starving because of a shortage of food there is
more than enough for everyone. The problem is one of use and distribution.
The incredible inefficiency of animals in converting vegetable protein
into animal protein - a ratio which can be as high as 16:1 - is
obviously one of the most significant factors at work. It is encouraged
by the all-pervasive concept that West is best. Quite naturally,
people who are impoverished look at our affluence and think they
would like some of what we have. And we encourage the rest of the
world to emulate our habits, practices and tastes - including eating
meat. For them it is a totally unachievable aspiration.
The present population of the world is about 5,600 billion people.
On a plant-food diet every single person could receive the 2,360
Kcal (calories) daily necessary to live a healthy life. In fact,
even with the amount of food currently grown, another 600 million
people could be fed on a vegan diet. However, if 35 per cent of
those calories are supplied by animal protein, the world can support
only 2,500 billion people.
In simple, brutal terms, the world can feed less than half its
present population using a typical US, meat-based diet. With the
population expected to grow by 90 million a year for the next 40
years, the prospects are dismal.
The problem of overconsumption is a problem of the West, while
the problem of overpopulation is a problem of the developing world
- and the two are intimately linked. The cure for overpopulation
is security, sufficient food, stability, access to health care and
the possibility of fulfilling aspirations, all of which remove the
need for 'insurance’ births. Meantime, however, exploitation
I visited Thailand in 1994 and its capital city, Bangkok, is a
monument to the 'thrusting’, 'dynamic’, 'successful’
economies of the Pacific Rim. On the other hand you could call it
a concrete jungle with the worst traffic problems in the world -
a monument to capitalism unhindered by the costs of little things
like health services, secondary education or even fundamental welfare.
One of the most shaming and highly visible failures of this philosophy
is the seemingly endless supply of teenage prostitutes of both sexes.
They are on display in the bars and clubs of Pat Pong and Sukhumvit
and at the tourist resorts of Patia and Phuket, while almost every
newspaper and magazine is filled with not-so-discreetly worded advertisements
for their services. They arrive most days at the huge and crowded
Hualumpong station, nearly all on trains from the north.
Along the road beside the station are the offices of numerous
agents who sign up young people with promises of wealth and then
sell them into virtual slavery in backroom factories. The sex industry
recruiters are more subtle, usually having struck deals with the
children’s parents before they have even left home.
I spoke to some of these very young people, most of them high
or slurring on drugs or drink. Their stories were all individual
but had common threads running through them. They were all the sons
and daughters of northern rural families who had become impoverished
through loss of land, failing water supplies or low prices. Typical
was the great tapioca fiasco.
Over the 10 years to 1985, thousands of square kilometres of rainforest
were cleared in order to grow tapioca for the ECs livestock. When
beef and pork production levelled off and mountains of unused meat
began to grow, the EC simply stopped buying Thai tapioca. People
who had impoverished themselves to buy farming equipment to help
them meet the demand suddenly found themselves without an income.
I was assured that some were so poor that they would scrape slime
from the bottom of ponds and eat it because of the nutrients it
Meantime in Haiti, officially designated as one of the world’s
poorest countries, much of the best agricultural land is used for
growing alfalfa. In an act of complete obscenity, multinational
beef concerns fly cattle from Texas to Haiti to graze and fatten
on the alfalfa before flying them back to Texas as carcasses for
Poor, dispossessed Haitians have been pushed on to the mountain
slopes where they try to live by farming the poorest soil on the
island. The result is overgrazing, soil depletion and a drop in
soil fertility leading to environmental degradation. A disaster
from whatever perspective, it is one which is being repeated all
over the world. Increasingly, the poorest two thirds of the planet
is sliding inexorably deeper into a life of starvation and poverty
in order to support the wealthiest one third.
So our much-vaunted lifestyle based around 'choice’
is not choice at all, because the true effects are hidden from us
and choice without information is valueless. In reality it is the
right of large companies and national Governments to prosper on
the backs of starving and increasingly impoverished people and to
threaten the existence of the planet in the process.
Prior to its Sandinista revolution, Nicaragua was the leading
Latin American supplier of beef to the US but it also had huge social
problems which remained largely ignored by its right-wing dictatorship.
The condition on which the US extended aid to Nicaragua had nothing
to do with helping the poor but everything to do with increasing
beef supplies. As a consequence, 1,000 kilometres of rainforest
was destroyed annually to provide grazing for cattle.
Similarly in Costa Rica, another big supplier of beef to the US,
hamburgers took precedence over the preservation of vital forest.
The World Bank, which holds the ultimate levers to world finance,
would only advance loans in the 1970s on condition that rainforest
was cleared, again to supply beef to a section of the world which
is drowning in a surfeit of the stuff.
Between 1971 and 1977, over $3.5 billion in loans and technical
assistance poured into Latin America for cattle farming. This is
part of a systematic effort by multinational corporations to control
the world’s industries for the benefit of developed nations
at the expense of the poor. These loans have been responsible for
dispossessing the powerless and catastrophic environmental damage.
Countries like Mexico are hardest hit by this newest form of neocolonial
exploitation, as more and more land is converted to grassland for
cattle. Mexico ships much of its cattle to the USA, where it is
killed for meat.
In Brazil, 23 per cent of agricultural land is currently used
to grow soya beans, of which half are for export. This has resulted
in less food for the native people as staple foods become increasingly
expensive, as farmers switch to growing soya for the more lucrative
international animal feed market.
The latest batch of statistics from the World Health Organization,
in its report entitled Bridging the Gaps (1995) reveals that the
shaming problem of impoverishment is getting worse:
Poverty wields its destructive influence at every stage of human
life, from the moment of conception to the grave. It conspires with
the most deadly and painful diseases to bring a wretched existence
to all who suffer from it.
The report shows a gulf developing between rich and poor, north
and south, men and women, employed and unemployed, young and old.
It even identifies the same problem in the wealthy, developed nations,
where the poorest, most disadvantaged groups are falling further
and farther behind:
The unemployed are a potent reminder of the dangers of assuming
that the general prosperity of a country will trickle down to all
There has been a disproportionate flow of resources from the developing
to the developed world - poor countries paying money to rich ones
- because of debt servicing and repayment and as a consequence of
prices for raw materials that favour the latter at the expense of
the former. Structural adjustment policies [that is, IMF and World
Bank loan conditions] aimed at improving economic performance of
poor countries have, in many cases, made the situation worse.
What the report is describing is a global catastrophe.
A similar damning report was produced in the late 1970s by the
Brandt Commission, headed by the ex-German Chancellor Willie Brandt.
Ex-British Prime Minister Edward Heath was also on the commission.
The conclusions were that unless there was a dramatic change in
the attitude of the wealthy countries of the world towards the poorer,
and a major shift of resources, there would be famine, bloodshed
and catastrophe on a scale never before seen in history.
It was ignored, just as this latest report will be ignored. Governments
will not change their policies because to do so would threaten the
control and resources which maintain them in power. Fortunately,
we, as individuals, can do something. Meat consumption is obviously
not the only reason for world hunger, but it is high up there in
the major league. It is also something which we don’t need
permission to do something about. We can wield an immediate influence
today, simply by changing our diet. By not eating meat or fish,
vegetarians reduce the need to import food from poor countries,
but a vegetarian diet does more than that. It throws down a challenge
to the established order and breaks the cycle whereby people go
hungry while ever-increasing numbers of appallingly treated animals
are fed huge amounts of food in a hopelessly inefficient system.
Vegetarians, and even more so vegans, use far fewer of the world’s
resources of food, land and energy, and offer the only feasible
example for the future. Unless there is a positive global move towards
this way of living, the expanding world population will be condemned
to disease and suffering on an unimaginable scale. In a desperate
search for protein, all the living creatures on the globe will be
hunted and killed. The wonderful diversity of living things, the
last of a species, the most beautiful of creations, will mean nothing
more than a mouthful of food to get a family through another day.
And we will wring our hands and ask how on Earth it happened.
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