Fri, 23 Mar 2018
HONG KONG - A recent study by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission found each person in Hong Kong eats on an average about 102 kilograms of meat a year; surprisingly this is more than either Europeans or North Americans.
Published in the Journal of Hydrology, the study showed that excessive consumption of meat, especially the red variety, is known to cause health problems and raises serious environmental issues related to deforestation, excessive water consumption and global warming.
On the health front, the medical consensus is that regular red-meat intake may lead to such problems as obesity and heart disease caused by saturated fats which raise blood cholesterol levels. Sodium and nitrates in beef also cause insulin resistance and can lead to type 2 diabetes while daily consumption of red or processed meat increases colorectal cancer risk.
Processed meats - such as sausages, bacon and salami - are known to be unhealthy and should be eaten sparingly. Moreover, livestock are routinely fed antibiotics and growth hormones which accumulatively can have a bad effect on humans.
Raising animals for food, especially livestock farming, uses huge amounts of land, fodder, energy and water. At a time when many parts of the world experience serious water shortages (Cape Town in South Africa is in danger of running dry) it is estimated that it takes about 18,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef.
The United Nations estimates livestock farming - both meat and dairy - uses a third of the world's farmland, a third of its available fresh water and accounts for a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases. No other single human activity has a bigger impact on our planet. For some years the UN has been promoting one meat-free day a week and they say the best way to reduce our carbon footprint is to eat less meat.
It is a fact that most of the Amazon rainforest clearance since 1970 has been done to create pasture for grazing livestock. In the United States today, about 22 million hectares of land are used to grow animal feed while less than 2 million are used to grow plants for humans to eat. It also takes 20 times more land to feed people on a meat diet than on vegetables.
Perhaps we should consider cutting out the middle man (or animal)! This is an astonishingly inefficient use of land, and with a projected 9 billion mouths to feed on Planet Earth by 2050 it would seem the present demand for meat and dairy products will soon become unsustainable.
Moreover, many governments - including those in Europe and the US - actually subsidize livestock production. If those subsidies were removed then, given the dwindling global resources of available pasture and water, it may be that meat once again will become only affordable for the rich.
Put simply, the world just cannot afford to continue eating so much meat, which is why many people are turning to a vegetarian or vegan diet. For some it is a lifestyle or environmental choice, while others are genuinely concerned about the suffering of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Vegetarian food is quite popular in Hong Kong, driven by the requirements of Buddhists, and over the past few years an increasing number of vegan restaurants have started to offer meat substitutes made from soy or tofu products.
With increasing sophistication in their preparation, you can now eat vegetarian food without sacrificing flavor, and bland taste is one of the main objections to a vegan diet. There are also experts who maintain vegans need to ensure adequate protein and nutrient intake for health reasons. In addition, there is the middle option, known as "flexitarian" where people simply eat less meat and more fish and vegetables.
What of the future? It is possible that in a few years' time we might eat cultured meat, grown in vitro in the laboratory using animal stem cells. A number of startups in the US do just this to culture artificial meat and fish by using tissue - engineering techniques developed in regenerative medicine. Right now such products are prohibitively expensive but scientific advances will likely bring costs down.
Do we really need to eat meat every day? Most people in Hong Kong do so but it would not be a great hardship to introduce at least one meat-free day a week (maybe Monday) into our daily lives. If we ate less meat our health would improve, we would reduce our water and carbon footprints and we would make a positive contribution to tackling climate change.
Finally, the icing on the cake for vegetarianism is the considerable evidence linking vegetarian diet to less aggression. At Alabama's highest-security prison, for example, prison operators found that serving inmates vegetarian meals as part of a violence-reduction program resulted in a significant decrease in behavioral problems. This latest finding confirms other experiments using food type to modify behavior in kindergarten children. Less meat could create a more peaceful planet too!
The author is a retired senior administrative officer who served in a wide range of capacities for the HKSAR Government.