Why the stuff on your plate is destroying the planet

If you’ve never considered the damage that food production could cause to the planet, these two books could change your way of thinking.

The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Norton) essentially traces the journey from vegetarianism to veganism. We all know about the horrors of the abattoir, but are the processes of milk and egg production any better?

Well, no, they aren’t. In fact, the torture cows go through to produce milk and chickens to produce eggs may be worse than simply being killed.

They don’t live much longer than those destined for a roast, anyway.

Masson, who edited the Freud-Fleiss letters (and is a key figure in Janet Malcolm’s brilliant book of reportage, In the Freud Archives) is the bestselling author of When Elephants Weep, about animals’ emotions.

In The Face on Your Plate he makes sure we learn all about the lives of animals and why we should empathise with them. The chapter on fish, especially, is an eye-opener.

It’s not always a pleasant read, but The Face on Your plate is at least short and reasonably well written, even entertaining at times. In the final chapter, though, Masson’s self-regard emerges as he describes in loving detail the righteously healthy vegan life he lives with his wife (much younger than he is) in idyllic New Zealand. It’s enough to make you want to rush off and eat a rare steak.

An excellent companion volume, if you feel strong, would be The End of Food: The Coming Crisis in the Food Industry by Paul Roberts (Bloomsbury). Just over 200 years ago Thomas Malthus predicted that the world population would soon outgrow the Earth’s capacity to feed it, but his prophecy didn’t come true. That was mostly because humanity invented new methods of industrial-scale food production—and now agribusiness itself is a threat to our survival.

Apart from its dreadful environmental impact (climate change, pollution of rivers, deforestation, insecticides and so on), Big Agri is also failing to feed everyone. Whereas many in the industrialised nations, particularly the United States, are overfed, in the rest of the world millions go hungry.

Roberts shows in exhaustive detail, and with due consideration of trade, development, politics and other issues, that this situation is simply not sustainable. We must love the Earth or die.

The End of Food is a dense read, packed with facts and figures, and it drives one to ask Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” If only it could make tofu taste better.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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