Know Your Food
“Eating takes place inescapably in the world, so how we eat determines how the world is used.” - Wendall Berry
The food that we eat has massive impacts on the world around us, and the choices that we make can alter that impact significantly, for not all foods are equal in the impact they have on the world around them. This page helps highlight the choices that we can make to help reduce the ecological footprint that our food has, whether it is through greenhouse gas emissions, water use, protein wasteage or more. In doing so we hope to help you to become a responsible consumer and decrease your negative impact on the natural world, and those who depend on it.
These figures are all averages and by eating local, for instance, by going to the Saturday Farmer's Market outside of the Old Gaol, we can help reduce our ecological footprint. Nonetheless reducing our negative impact on the world can be supported by a change in our diets.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions:
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, the food sector, including input manufacturing, production, processing, transportation, marketing and consumption, accounts for approximately 30 per cent of global energy consumption, and produces over 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with estimates from the World Bank going as high as 51%. With Greenhouse Gases driving potentially dangerous climate change, it is clear that shifting to less energy intensive modes of eating can make a signficant difference to our contribution to climate change. Below is a table indicating the relative greenhouse gas emissions of the food we eat, as measured by the Environmental Working Group and Clean Metric.
Embedded Water Footprint
You might find it surprising to find out how much water goes into producing the food that you eat. For instance 1kg of Beef needs about 13,600 litres of water, whereas 1kg of potato needs only 900 liters of water. Generally vegetarian foods have a significantly smaller emedded water footprint than meats and dairy. For more information on the embedded water footprint of the food you eat visit this easy-to-use tool developed by National Geographic at the following link:
Many of these ecological indicators suggest that a diet with less meat and/or a vegetarian or vegan diet is better for the environment than others, however, a concern that might arise is the impact that such a diet change will have on our health. Supporters of the non-vegetarian diet believe that vegetarians are in general weaker because a vegetarian diet lacks the nutrition available in plenty from fishes, meat and eggs. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that fish, meat and eggs are nutritious foods in their own ways; however, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t get an equal amount of nutrition from fruits and vegetables. In fact many studies have found that vegetarians actually get far better nutrition than non-vegetarians. Furthermore vegetarians get larger amounts of fiber, iron, many vitamins and other cancer-fighting compounds than meat eaters. Consider, for instance, the following quote: “I now consider veganism to be the ideal diet. A vegan diet – particularly one that is low in fat – will substantially reduce disease risks.” (T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D, Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University) For more information on healthy vegetarianism or veganism click here
A good portion of livestock production today consumes grains tha could be more effectively used for direct human consumption. For example, according to James Sterba, 90% of the protein, 99% of the carbohydrate, and 100% of the fiber value of grain is wasted by cycling it through livestock." Thus by adopting a more vegetarian diet, people generally could significantly reduce the amount of farmland that has to be kept in production to feed the human population, and its accompanying environmental degradation, soil erosion, chemical pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.
As regards the protein in our food, we may find it prudent to be mindful of the following. The ‘conversion ratio’ for beef cattle and veal is a considerable 21 to 1- i.e. we feed these animals 21 kilograms of protein in the form of grain to get back only 1 kilogram in the form of meat. (In other words we get only 5% of the protein we feed to these animals.) The conversion ratio for other animals is less extreme but significant nonetheless; the average conversion ratio is 8 to 1. Indeed, in the United States livestock animals consume 5 times more grain than the entire American population. Besides grain, animals reared for food are sometimes fed plant protein, this method is however similarly wasteful: for every 1 kilogram of high-quality animal protein produced these animals need to be fed approximately 6 kilograms of plant protein. We can conclude that the eating of meat entails substantial protein wastage. We might also bear in mind that millions of our world’s people are unable to acquire sufficient protein- is it fair that we waste mountains of protein when it is so urgently needed? How might we provide good reasons for why we do this? In the end, the less efficient the conversion ratio the more of an impact your food has, by virtue of its need for more resources.
For more (fascinating) info on the effects of rearing meat see: http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/meat-wastes-natural-resources.aspx
The ocean stocks are in grave danger of depletion as current fishing practices are vastly unsustainable, so much so that 85% of the world's fishstocks are either overexploited or exploited to their maximum. If you love eating fish so much that you can't stop eating them but want to choose the more sustainable option, then the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative provides a guide to more sustainable eating, just click here
For more information visit: www.wwfsassi.co.za
Meat Free Monday
Due to the pernicious effects of eating meat, many concerned citizens world wide are supporting the Meat Free Monday campaign. It's not a solution, to be sure, but it's a necessary step in the right direction. Moreover many people are coming to understand that eating meat is by no means necessary; and that alternatives are tasty as well as perfectly adequately nutritive. To join other thoughtful and concerned citizens of our world by taking the pledge, or simply to find out more about this important initiative, see www.supportmfm.co.za
Most of us assume that the animals whose flesh we find on our plates were treated more or less humanely. Sure, we sometimes witness cattle or pigs transported on trucks in a manner which offends our sensibilities; however, we assume that this discomfort is brief and not representative of how these animals are ordinarily treated. This is often called the ‘bucolic myth’; i.e. a false romanticised view of how ‘farmed’ animals are treated.
For info on the animals we eat see: http://animalrightsafrica.org/AnimalsAsFood.php
This site (‘Beauty Without Cruelty) is also informative and contains info regarding, for instance, chickens, pigs, cows, foie gras, fish and sheep: http://www.bwcsa.co.za/issues/animals-as-food/chickens
Some of us may, to our appropriate horror, have been exposed to the cruelty endured by animals. I’m taking about youtube footage of battery cages and slaughter houses or those emetic (makes you want to cry and vomit) and moving films like ‘Earthlings’ and ‘Meet Your Meat’. And perhaps we think ‘How barbaric! What a shame! Sick! That’s scandalous!’ and then go on to (comfortingly) think But that’s the US and other so-called first world countries, it isn’t like that in South Africa (surely). My uncle’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s aunt’s ex-girlfriend’s next door neighbour owns a cattle farm and apparently he says it’s just not like that in South Africa. The animals are treated well.
This, generally, is empirically false.
But also logically problematic. Consider:
The meat industry exists first and foremost to make money or at least it must make money.
Exploiting animals is an easy way to increase profit. (Less space for each animal=more animals=more money, any old slaughter method, cramped, shameful living conditions, noxious anti-biotics, and unconscionably dirty cages, for example.)
Crudely, if two large companies sell chickens and thus compete against each other for buyers, and one of these companies adopts inhumane methods to lessen their costs (increase their profits) then the other company has roughly two choices.
1) Adopt similar cruel methods and so continue to compete with the other company.
2) Refuse, on moral grounds, to treat their animals inhumanely and so bankrupt their company. (Because, generally, buyers buy what is cheaper without enquiring minutely, for instance, into the animal’s travel arrangements or the novelistic details of how the creature is slaughtered.)
We know as an empirical fact that certain large companies in South Africa treat their animals inhumanely.
Therefore, we have strong reason to believe that large meat industry companies in South Africa, by the very fact that they exist (are not bankrupt –i.e. or nonexistent), are treating their animals inhumanely.
So, we’ve seen that if just one major meat rearing company adopts cruel methods, other competing companies are compelled to follow suit for fear of bankruptcy.
On the (official though seldom respected) South African law with regard to these concerns, see:
Animal Protection Act 1962 (South Africa), available at
Meat Safety Act (South Africa) 2000, available at
And as animal activist and philosopher Dr. Les Mitchell has pointed out “although animals are supposed to be treated "humanely" that is [at any rate] a rather flexible description.”