Eat More Green: Toastmasters speech

The objective of speech no. 9 in the Toastmasters journey is simply: Persuade with Power.

So here goes.

The planet is creaking. Climate change is on the march. Our wildlife populations are crashing. And the FAO estimates that we only have 60 years of harvests left.

60 years.

There is something that every one of us here can do that would take a big bite out of these interconnected problems. Reduce our meat consumption.

So allow me now to give you a breakdown of what it is about raising extreme numbers of livestock that is so destructive. Allow me to explain the inefficiency of a meat-heavy diet, and the benefits of changing this.

What does it take to put a steak on your plate?

You need to start with land. A lot of it. A quarter of the planet’s ice-free land is used for grazing alone. Some of this was already grassland, stripped of wildlife, or it was once forest, or bog, or wetland. The result is that livestock production is known to be the single largest driver of habitat loss; while destroying so many trees and bogs releases massive amounts of carbon that were once locked up. And some land, once turned over to farm animals, turns irreversibly into desert. In China, the deserts are advancing at more than a thousand square miles per year, mostly because of over-grazing.

Once you have land, you need water and feed for your livestock. Raising them takes up nearly a tenth of our global water supply, and a third of our global crop production. And if you eat meat, here in the UK, then chances are, you’ve basically eaten dead rainforest – the EU imports millions and millions of tons of soy per year for feed, and most of this soy comes from South America.

You can probably guess that this is also quite bad for people. All over the world, but especially in developing countries, poor and indigenous people are being forced off their land so that livestock can move in. Last year, at least 23 activists were murdered because they tried to fight this, again, mostly in South America.

Similarly, the poorest in society will suffer the most from climate change, whether it’s rising sea levels, extreme weather events, or higher food prices, although we’re all going to be affected by these eventually. The meat industry contributes 15% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, which makes it a key climate change criminal.

And another threat lurks in our factory farms – super-resistant diseases that may well be born out our rampant over-medication of squashed-together animals with antibiotics. We face the very real prospect that our grandchildren or even our children could die of a paper cut, because of our choices today.

There you have it. Habitat destruction, carbon release, desert, animal and human suffering. Your recipe for a cheap, daily meat fix.

Now, while it’s of course true that even vegetarians and vegans still leave footprints on this planet, the crux of the matter is that whatever the costs of growing crops, these are vastly multiplied when you then use those crops to raise livestock, instead of putting them straight on people’s plates. Studies calculate that the amount of land that can support about 30 vegetarians, can only support 5 to 10 regular meat-eaters.

And what’s worse is that in places like the UK, people are eating way more meat than they need – about 50% more, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Innovations in technology and the conversion of oil into fertiliser means meat has become exorbitantly cheap, and we take it for granted. Changing your eating habits so that you get more of your nutrients from plant-based sources like chickpeas, beans and lentils, is brilliant for your health.

Eating less meat might sound daunting. It was for me, originally, but you know what? I love it. I eat meat about once a month now and the rest of the time I’m the most promiscuous omnivore. I try everything. Cutting down on meat forced me to think about my diet far more actively, and in doing so I’ve expanded my cooking repertoire, and my relationship with all food has deepened.

You don’t have to go as extreme as I have, but more and more people are moving to a diet that’s now being called ‘flexitarianism’. You can call yourself a flexitarian by having just one meat-free day a week. Start small, but think big. Diversify your diet. Buy better quality, organic meat as a treat. And you could always eat a little more fish instead, although you again do need to be careful – most fish stocks are now overfished or close to collapse, so always try to buy fish that has a blue label on it from the Marine Stewardship Council, because this ensures that the fish you’re eating is from a sustainable source.

The true cost of meat is terrifying. But we are not powerless. The meat industry only exists because of us. We can use the power of purchase to shift our food production towards a sustainable future. I can already see signs of this in the UK – the alternative protein company Quorn is steadily growing and experienced a huge jump in sales in the first half of this year, thanks to more and more people becoming flexitarians, and they’re so confident that they’re investing 150 million pounds into expanding their production in the UK.

Ultimately, when we eat less meat, we take less land and less water. We take less life.

However you feel having just listened to me, I’d to ask you to try at least one thing. The next time you walk into a shop to buy your lunch, pause. Think about whether you need meat right now. Browse the vegetarian options. Maybe you’ve never really looked at them before. Be adventurous. Be conscientious. Be responsible with what you eat, for your body and for the future generations of humans and other animals that I hope will be able to call this planet home.


Copyright of xkcd

(Here’s a poster I showed the audience at the beginning, with labels blocked out – I told them that the dark grey represented humans and the few green boxes represented mammalian, terrestrial wildlife, but no one could work out what all the pale grey represented)

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