France, 11 december 2016

The verb "to work" followed by a direct object can have different meanings depending on how it's used. For example, you can work a piece of metal to give it a new shape or you can work a horse to get something done. You can also use it to complain about being given too much to do by saying that your boss is working you to death.

The other day, driving through the countryside and seeing the bare, ploughed fields started me wondering about the phrase "working the land." If you look at the picture below, you also might wonder whether it was worked to give it a new shape, worked to give a useful result or worked to death.

(Photo bare fields)

Compare those bare fields to untouched, unworked, pasture.

(Photo our field)

They look dead and sterile: what food and shelter do they provide to the wildlife? The soil lies bare to the elements: losing water faster than if it had a protective cover of plants. Drying out it becomes friable and more susceptible to erosion, allowing the fertile soil to be picked up and blown away by the wind. The habitat of the vital earthworm has been disturbed, reducing their numbers and the natural predators of crop pests will have had their numbers reduced as well.

Yes, in a few months the fields will probably bloom with new crops, but only a single variety of plant, a monoculture, that will satisfy the needs of a limited range of wildlife. And they will most probably be treated with herbicides and pesticides to ruthlessly prevent unruly Nature from interfering with the generation of a profit.

It's all so unnecessary: we subsidise the farmers so that they produce as much as possible and then we waste vast amounts of food. A major source of waste is not what is left on the shops' shelves or what you leave on the side of your plate. In the developed world, a huge amount of food is wasted by giving it to animals to eat, so that we can then eat the animals. Does it really make sense to feed anything up to fifteen calories to a cow to produce one calorie of meat?  To be fair, there are more feed efficient types of meat, such as poultry and pigs who have better “conversion ratios” of two or three to one.

It's only possible because we don't look at the hidden costs of eating meat: I've already alluded to the loss of habitat and the ensuing loss in biodiversity. To those we have to add excessive use of water: anything between 5 to 20 tonnes is needed to produce one kilo of beef. It seems too incredible to be true, but you can save more water by refraining from eating a single hamburger, than by giving up washing for a month... and your entourage will probably appreciate it more.

There's pollution as well: greenhouse gas emissions in the air, excess nitrogen and phosphorous waste in the water and toxic residues from herbicides and pesticides in both the soil and the water.

Another hidden cost is due to the overuse of antibiotics in livestock raising: apparently 50% of the antibiotics used in the UK are given to animals: in the USA it's nearer 80%. This is worrying health experts who are concerned that this is leading to an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria that could render many antibiotics ineffective.
An issue that is much closer to all of us is our own personal health: the mainstream scientific opinion seems to be that eating meat is not good for you. Of course, over the years, we've all heard so many various media reports of things that are good or bad for us that we tend to take such warnings with, if I dare, a pinch of salt.

But why not give it a go anyway and see what happens? January is the month of good resolutions and the initiative is one of them. Why not try to give up meat for the rest of the month? It's good for the environment, it's better for your wallet and your health and it's best for the animals!