Tag Archives: ecology

Eating Meat

Yesterday, more than 150 million animals were slaughtered for human consumption. The same number will die today. This is a worldwide number, and it doesn’t include marine life.

It’s a veritable animal Holocaust, happening everyday, out of sight, out of mind. And I use the H-word advisably here, not in any original way. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Jewish, Nobel Prize-winning author who in 1935 fled the growing Nazi threat in Warsaw for New York, referred to our daily massacre of animals as “an eternal Treblinka.”

It arises from something called speciesism, the notion that humankind enjoys a set of rights which all other living species do not. It’s applied unevenly of course, without any real logic. We kill and eat cows, chickens and pigs, but protect cats, dogs, horses and… great apes, that is select wild animals. Lest you immediately think the concept is truly wacko, I would remind you that, only 50 years ago, a large number of people believed that all members of another race enjoyed considerably fewer rights than did we white folks. If we track back 200 years we find that nearly everyone in the West believed this.

Back to great apes for a moment, as we consider the wacko-ness of speciesism. Are you entirely comfortable with the idea that we capture and imprison a mountain gorilla for our edification and viewing enjoyment? Me neither. The next question would be, why not? (Sure, zookeepers argue protection of an endangered species, but if that was the only reason we would put all our resources into protecting gorillas in place.)

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Back in 2006, Dr. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas published a book called The China Study, rightly subtitling it “The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted.” Dr. Campbell is a Professor Emeritus from Cornell University, and The China Study was conducted through that University, Oxford, and The Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine in Beijing. The gist of the massive study’s findings might be summarized as diets with higher meat and dairy consumption correlate directly and significantly with higher rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the so-called ‘diseases of affluence.’ Likewise with obesity, same sort of correlation.

The typical Chinese diet contains less fat, less protein, more fiber and iron, and much less animal foods than does the typical American diet. And the incidence of the most common killers in North America is far lower. Interestingly, the average Chinese citizen actually consumes more calories than does the average American, indicating that it’s not how much you eat, but what, plus how active you are.

What’s more, Dr. Campbell and his cohorts discovered that, if you were already afflicted with the diseases of affluence, a plant-based diet is in fact effective treatment of those diseases.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard more of this study, you might want to read Dr. Campbell’s chapters on “Why Haven’t You Heard This Before?” The experience he describes directly parallels the too-long successful campaign by the fossil fuels industry to obfuscate the climate change debate—essentially the meat, dairy and egg industries pay for research which contradicts The China Study, succeeding not in refuting the evidence presented, but in simply ‘muddying the waters,’ causing you to think there is no conclusive case to be made, either way.

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The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald's
The Factory Farm: Old McDonald meets McDonald’s

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the devastating ecological effects of the livestock and fishing industries worldwide, and how the big environmental organizations like Greenpeace, in their own selfish interests, avoid criticizing these industries. With the possible exception of our global abuse of fresh water resources, no single factor contributes as much to our environmental peril as do the farmed animal industries. You likely have only to think about habitat loss, factory cattle and hog farms, and the water-born runoff of pollutants to grasp the enormity of the destructive impact, including the industry’s contribution to climate change.

There is really no doubt about it, whether you come at it from a moral, health or environmental perspective, there is no good reason for our continued consumption of animal-based foods. There is, of course and however, one overriding explanation as to why we continue to eat meat: habit.

Invasive Schminvasive

A couple of years ago I noticed a new plant growing on our island property, up near an old woodpile. It was sprouting so vigorously into a small heap of green, corrugated leaves that it immediately caught my attention, and I began watching its growth with interest, wondering what it would become.

It became a multi-stemmed plant about chest high, with a cluster of little yellow flowers atop, similar to yarrow. I’ve since tried to properly identify the plant, but thus far with no success.

My point being that I had never seen this plant before that day, in some 20 years of messing about on our wooded acreage. And it has since sprung up all around.

As it appears now. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo
As it appears now.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo

And it’s not alone in this sort of botanical victory. When we first bought the property there were no daisies growing anywhere. I’d see them growing by the side of the road in other areas on the island and think, a little wistfully, that they might look quite nice in the meadow above our home.

Those daisies now grow in all the open spaces near us. When I mow I leave some of them standing in white, fountain-like sprays.

Ranging further afield, as a young man I don’t recall seeing great blue herons mincing about the beaches of Vancouver, as they do now, while nesting noisily in considerable numbers in Stanley Park. As a child I don’t recall seeing red foxes within the bounds of Grande Prairie, or wild rabbits within Edmonton’s limits, as I do now when I visit those cities.

My greater point being that, in just my adult life, I’ve seen that Nature is a fluid system. Certain species come and go. (Blue birds seem to have disappeared from Alberta.) Especially it seems, certain species have learned to adapt to the urban landscape.

So when folks get worked about so-called ‘invasive species,’ I tend to get a little skeptical. A few years back purple loosestrife was the invasive danger of the day, said to be poised to assault and entirely conquer all the wetlands of Canada. Japanese knotweed seems like it may be the current favourite among those who get agitated about Nature’s changing patterns. On Galiano, some residents have actually proposed campaigns to eradicate Scotch broom, an introduced species that has infested the Garry oak meadows so characteristic of the southern Gulf Islands. But as anyone who has ever witnessed the power of that particular plant to spread and prosper could tell you, such a campaign is hubris of an extraordinary dimension.

But such hubris is precisely what characterizes us as a species. We have hugely altered the planet’s surface; astonishingly, the Geological Society of America estimates that we have now modified more than 50% of the Earth’s land surface. And as we all know, the two words most often mentioned when ascribing causes to the elimination of animal species on our planet are ‘habitat loss.’ And guess who is responsible.

We alter the landscape because we can. We seem to possess an irresistible urge to change, adjust and otherwise ‘improve’ the environment that exists immediately around us. Certainly I am among the guilty. Our bit of rural paradise has been revised by me in any number of ways in the time we have ruled over it; trees have been felled, gardens planted, even a creek dammed. Sometimes this had been done for practical purposes, storing water or providing heat, but, as often as not, it has been done for what can only realistically be described as ‘aesthetic’ reasons. We humans feel safer in open, controlled spaces, even when no real dangers exist.

Red foxes have moved into cities because of the food supply they find there. Rabbits find that the cities support fewer of the predators they fear, although coyotes may have more to say about that in future. The daisies first appeared on our property after a trench was dug for the water line which runs from the well to our home. And this is how it is with the great majority of the species which so concern us. They almost always arrive with the disturbances that we humans bring.

No, the truth is that, when it comes to invasive species, we have some nerve to even mention the supposed problem. The only true invasive species is us.

Rewilding Galiano

When the British writer George Monbiot moved in 2007 to a small town in Wales located on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, he was excited about the chance to explore this largely uninhabited ‘wilderness area.’ The Cambrian Mountains Society describes it as an “unspoiled landscape with a rich cultural history and vibrant natural beauty.”

'The Cambrian Desert?" Brother Magneto photo
‘The Cambrian Desert?”
Brother Magneto photo

When he ventured out onto this landscape, however, Monbiot instead found what he quickly came to see as “the Cambrian Desert,” an ecological disaster area with a severe paucity of wild animals and a much degraded diversity of plantlife. Where a variety of trees and flowering plants once grew, there was now mostly just heather. Few birds were to be seen; even insects were hardly present. The suburban cityscape Monbiot had left behind, he discovered, was in fact richer in wildlife than his new locale.

Why? Well, animal husbandry, by and large. The area had originally been cleared for crops and pasture lands. Sheep and cattle had replaced the previous fauna, and over time these domesticated ungulates grazed the land into a condition of enduring ecological impoverishment.

Monbiot is one of the chief proponents of ‘rewilding’ parts of our world, an intriguing concept which calls for the reforestation of large tracts of land and the reintroduction of now extinct megafauna—bison, elephants, wolves, etc. A number of rewilding projects have been successfully carried out in Europe, as well as in North America (the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park is a prominent example; here’s video on that success), but, as you can imagine, it remains controversial. Such efforts in the U.K., for instance, have been effectively curtailed by agricultural interests.

Living on Galiano, I know of what Monbiot speaks. The condition he describes in Wales begins as a result of our hunting the ‘apex predators’ in a region to extinction. Evidence suggests that, as we humans moved out of Africa and into all other areas of the world, millennia ago, we went about eliminating these predators at a prodigious rate, and not always for reasons of safety or the provision of food. We did it because we could.

As I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, on Galiano there are no wolves or cougars, and so the deer proliferate in great numbers. They seem to build up in number until some sort of plague breaks out, they die off in significant numbers, and then the cycle begins again. This because, on Galiano, there is no ‘trophic cascade,’ no predation from the apex on down.

The westcoast rainforest is too vigorous for the deer to degrade in the way sheep have the topography in Wales, but nevertheless, as a gardener on Galiano, I’m fully aware of how limited a vegetative palate can survive their constant grazing, at least not when those plants are small. Nothing like an introduced shrub or flowering plant (with the blessed exemption of daffodils) can survive their appetites, except within a tall fence.

And the native vegetation which survives them is indeed restricted. The leathery leaves and smothering underground creep of salal thrives. Ferns get a severe haircut but manage to persist. But there’s not a lot of variation in the undergrowth beyond that.

Rewilding Galiano with the reintroduction of wolves or cougars, thus to encourage the development of a more diverse ecology? ‘Not likely’ hardly begins to describe that prospect. Cougars have been known to hunt smaller children, of which there are a fair number running about on the Island.

One of the related phenomena Monbiot describes in his book Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea and Human Life is termed “The Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” It’s a process whereby we judge whatever condition we grew up with to be the norm, the original condition. But, as Monbiot points out, what we grew up with may well already have been seriously reduced. We just weren’t around to see that happen.

Certainly this would seem to be the case with the ocean waters which surround Galiano, where sea life is reportedly not nearly as rich or plentiful as it once was. Regardless, it’s a concept we should all be aware of and appreciate. The sad fact is that, because of our seemingly irresistible urge to meddle in the ecosystem which encompasses us, we are all now living with loss.