This month marks my two year anniversary as a [cheating] vegetarian. Quite appropriately I have just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. If I wasn’t a vegetarian I more than likely wouldn’t have been able to get through the first chapter. It reminds me of how I felt when I read White Lies by Nick Davies when I was a teenager. The racism, hatred and ignorance captured in Davies’ writings frustrated me to the point where the book was literally thrown to the floor – it took me several months the finish a book that would normally be read in one week. Similarly the treatment and disregard for animals displayed in Safran Foer’s book makes me want to yell. But will these feelings last?
I didn’t become a vegetarian because of a deep resolve regarding animal rights or disgust with the lack of animal welfare evident in the industry. It was just a point in my life where everything added up and it made perfect sense to wean off the meat. An image of a huge truck on the highway in China stacked high with cages with a pig packed tightly in each was etched into my consciousness. I was becoming increasingly interested in environmental issues hence increasingly aware of the environmental damages caused by factory farming and transporting. According to the UN FAO the livestock sector generates 18% of the greenhouse gases produced - more than the transport sector. Additionally livestock uses 30% of the earth’s entire land surface. And finally I visited a local farm in my hometown (not for interest in the animals but in search for their manure for a composting project) where I saw where the pigs lived. My original plan was to only eat local, free-range meat, as well as wild fish. But when I started this new diet I was home in the Bahamas where local, free-range meat wasn’t clearly advertised, so my free-range only diet became a veggie only diet and very quickly I was turned off the whole idea of eating meat at all. I don’t really understand why; I promise myself at least once a month I’ll eat less chocolate, but I can never find the willpower to stop. Maybe it’s because the moral aspect of vegetarianism is stronger than the image and health argument against chocolate?
Safran Foer’s book brilliantly captures this moral aspect through the portal of factory farming industry in the US – the inhumane, filthy, unhealthy and ‘adulterous’ practices of the trade. Safran Foer himself became a vegetarian during his research and his book advocates for vegetarianism but also for ‘another, wiser animal agriculture and more honourable omnivory’. While he mentions environmental as well as labour arguments for changing the industry, his main focus in on animal rights and/or welfare. A section of the book entitled The Life and Death of a Bird vividly captures the life and death of a chicken in a factory farm step by step – from the early days of unending light so they are tricked into thinking they can and should eat all as much as possible, to the diseases and deformities they live with (three out of four birds will have some degree of walking impairment, one out of four have significant trouble walking), to the way they are stuffed into crates to travel to the slaughter house (“30 percent of all live birds arriving at the slaughterhouse have freshly broken bones”), to the electricity shower that is supposed to render them unconscious but usually just immobilises them leaving them awake and aware (about four million birds each year in the US reach the scalding tank still alive and conscious), to the soaking of the chicken meat in a bath where the ‘faecal soup’ is absorbed into the meat (about 11% of the chicken meat sold in the US is essentially this faecal soup).
According to the Vegetarian Society there are about four million vegetarians in the UK – about 7 percent of the population. People become vegetarian for a handful of different reasons: health concerns (“vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fibre, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals”), religious restrictions (Hinduism and Buddhism hold vegetarianism as an ideal as well as Seven Day Adventists and Jains), environmental degradation (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gases), and food safety (about 5,000 people die a year in the United States from food borne diseases like e.coli and salmonella). However, the main and most popular reason remains moral – vegetarians force themselves to “remember” as Safran Foer describes it.
A lot of what Safran Foer writes forces me to look at things that I normally consciously try to ‘not remember’. I have somewhat divorced the idea of me not eating meat from everything else in my life. My husband is a very active meat-eater and just last Sunday, in the middle of reading Eating Animals, I prepared a roast dinner of a lamb breast joint. It was surprisingly easy to just not think about it, unroll the baby sheep breast, stuff it, roll it up, and put it in the oven. I had no desire to eat it, but I had no problem cooking it. What does this mean for my conviction? We eat less meat in our household because we’ve compromised to cook two vegetarian meals weekly, but otherwise it’s eating as usual. Do I not remember enough?
During my two year journey I have always been a [cheating] vegetarian. I have never stopped eating fish or conch (a popular mollusc and dish in the Bahamas). When I am home most of the fish I eat is caught by someone I know, a lot of the time by my father who is the captain of a boat. I was or am able to justify it to myself by arguing that you can’t get any more local than that and the fish have a good life before… right? I have also been fishing since I was a toddler. And it struck me hard while reading Safran Foer’s book that I never really considered the suffering of the fish I pulled up. Of course I experienced a pang of guilt and turned my head when my dad was taking the hook out of the mouth, but it never really bothered me to the point that I would change the fact that the fish we caught were thrown into a bucket or the floor of the boat left to suffocate and suffer. How was I able to disconnect myself from that, even as a vegetarian? Is it because I’ve disassociated fish from feeling animals, or because I’ve always been around it and have become desensitised? I just don’t know.
I have somewhat come to the conclusion that I will stay away from fish while I’m living in the UK. But what about when I go home? Fish is a huge part of my diet, of my culture. Many Sundays my dad spends hours in the kitchen preparing his famous stew fish. It is tradition that every Boxing Day our extended family and friends come to our house for boiled grouper, stewed fish and chicken souse. Where would I stand if I didn’t share in this food companionship? Safran Foer focuses on this too and how eating meat together is a tradition, a form of familial companionship.
He suggests breaking this tradition of eating meat and making it into something better where eventually it will turn around completely and our kids will say ‘how did they eat that stuff?’
Will we remember enough?
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) has just released news that they are to invest $1billion into India this year. The organisation which is a member of the World Bank and more commonly known for its involvement in poverty alleviation through private sector investment, has recognised the importance of investing in climate change in India.
Today India is one of the world’s major agriculture and forestry producers, employing 60% of the total workforce and accounting for 16.6% of the GDP (2007). With a growing population (now approximately 1.2billion), India no longer has the capacity to produce sufficient rice and wheat to feed itself, increasingly purchasing grain from overseas. Changes in weather patterns and decreasing ground water levels (mainly from poorly regulated/allocated ground water irrigation) could further impact on food security, expected to reduce agricultural output by a 30% by 2080.
Responding to this, the Government of India recently proposed a $1.2billion water distribution project which would link 37 Himalayan and Peninsular rivers to transport water through an additional 12,500km of canals. This is expected to generate 34Gigawatts of hydropower, add 35million ha to India’s irrgigatable areas and generate a large network of inland navigation potential. A paper written by S. Verma, D.A. Kampman, A.Y. Hoekstra, P. van der Zaag and M.S. Krol of the Water Footprint Network proposed an alternative to this in 2008. They identified that the current flow of virtual water was actually exacerbating water scarcity with crops grown in water scarce areas and transported to water rich regions. Greater efficiencies were possible when growing crops in areas where water is available, however, as a result of externalities such as; government policies and land prices, water has not to date been an influencing parameter.
IFC will invest almost $60million into a water footprinting project with Jain Irrigation, an Indian company which assists local farmers in increasing productivity of crops and developing efficient water systems.
This move demonstrates the importance that IFC is placing on effective management of natural resources, emphasising the benefits of water conservation to the sustainability of farms. This will be the first Indian company to measure the water footprint of operations and should provide the environment for water footprinting to be used as both a localised water management tool and also influence national agricultural policy.
The approaching food shortage has reached such urgency that the India Prime Minister, Monmohan Singh has called for a second green revolution, with the Chatham House Research Institute calling for it “to be more efficient in its use of water, in its use of energy, in its use of fertilizer and land.”
The US Geological Survey has released statistics which show that personal water use in America has decreased in the 5-year period from2000 to 2005, with the total fresh water use per capita below that of the 1950’s.
Water savings are a result of increased efficiencies, principally in industry and agriculture. Alarmingly, however, water use for the provision of energy is growing. With increased population and demand for energy, water use is set to increase, placing more stress on limited water resources.
According to the USGS, the single largest use of water in the United States goes towards the cooling of power plants, accounting for 49% of all freshwater withdrawals, surprisingly beating agricultural irrigation at 37%. In the water footprinting world there has been a great deal of dialogue on the water footprint of biofuels. However, little has been said about the large water footprint of other forms of energy production.
Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute said, “in terms of energy, far more water is required for nuclear and fossil-fuel energy systems than for most renewable energy systems. Water availability will increasingly limit our energy choices as climate change accelerates and population continues to grow.”
Reviewing environmental data from a large UK energy producer, average water use varied dramatically depending on the power station type. Rough calculations comparing the water use per kwh produced showed that coal power stations used the least water per kwh, while peat power stations use the most. This data does not take into account the treated wastewater returned to the hydrological cycle and requires more information from the energy producer (tackling the E.ON switchboard is needless to say a Herculean task).
Looking at renewables, an article in the New York Times this week shared information that Pacific Gas and Electric (provider for northern and central California) had just announced that it would buy 500 megawatts of electricity from two solar power plant projects in the California desert. The plants use solar trough technology (solar power tech that uses parabolic mirrors to heat water, create steam and drive a turbine) with the ‘wet cooling’ technique (hot water flows through a cooling tower, where the excess heat is released to the atmosphere, and system water is lost to evaporation, requiring constant replacement) as opposed to ‘dry cooling’ (which uses fans and heat exchangers to reduce the temperature. Much less water is used (approx 90% less water) but the capital costs are greater and efficiencies are reduced.
The wet cooling is expected to use in the region of 4.9 billion litres of water a year, using between 5 and 20 percent (varies depending on the source of information) of this desert’s available water, posing a huge threat to water resources.
Solar trough plants are most effective in areas where the weather is hot but water is often scarce. For the plant operator, it makes neither environmental nor economical sense (in the long run) to wastewater, however the present day capital and operational costs of water cooling appear in many cases to exceed the price of water, and without supporting economics may restrict the use of closed loop or dry cooling systems.
According to the World Business Council of Sustainable Development, recent Californian Legislation has changed which allows renewable energy plants to use drinking water for cooling providing that certain conditions are met. This appears to be a step in the wrong direction, and according to Terry O’Brien, a California Energy Commission deputy director, removes incentives to minimise water use.
Water districts in California are starting to become more aware of to the heavy water use and are forcing energy companies to adopt water efficient technologies (as in the case of the Solar Millennium project in Ridgecrest, California which was refused the supply of 815 million gallons of water required by the plant). The price of water is generally low throughout the world, which does not reflect the true costs of water, and as a result does not act as a strong incentive to reduce consumption. Permits to operate and government restrictions do, however.
Power plants, whether fuelled by fossil fuels or renewables, will have to review water consumption as dependency becomes more critical and demand pressures increase.
A recent report published by Luxe Research “Global Energy: Unshackling Carbon from Water” has mapped out conventional and alternative energy sources against their water and CO2 intensity. This shows that many of the new energy sources and extraction methods may reduce carbon but are water heavy. The conclusions from the report found that;
- ‘Crude oil, diesel and gasoline are carbon-intensive but do not require much water
- Alternative fossil fuel sources, such as shale bed natural gas, coal to liquids and bitumen from tar sands perform worse on carbon, water or both
- Renewable fuels also have their demons, specifically biofuels derived from crops and other forms of biomass, which have low carbon impact but exact a much greater demand for water’
As renewables energies address the need for alternatives to fossil fuels, and go some way to reducing global warming, the thirst of this power production has the ability to increase water usage if policies and best practices do not demand water to be taken into account.
Efforts are being made in the industrial and agricultural sectors to increase efficiencies, reduce wastage, and implement more efficient plant engineering and technologies such as drip irrigation. However, the Pacific Institute recognises that there are sectors such as the power industry that continue to use water at the same volumes as 10 years ago. Households also play an important role in reducing water consumption.
At the household level, approximately 150litres of water is used per person per day. The carbon emissions associated with this, occur mainly within the house (89%) where water is heated, in comparison water treatment and distribution which in comparison is minimal (abstraction 0.4%, treatment 2% and distribution 1.6%).
The energy used to heat water, as above is made using ( in many cases), substantial quantities of water, which needs to be properly measured, and seen in light of the water availability in the area of production. Therefore, water reductions can be made through the installation of low flow taps etc. behaviour change (shorter showers, turning the tap of when brushing your teeth etc.) but also with energy efficiency.
What is currently lacking from the energy sector is detailed water measurement and sharing of information on water consumption with reference to the water availability in the region of energy production, in a transparent and accountable way. Water footprinting offers this opportunity and needs to be extended beyond the agricultural sector.
Looking ahead, water usage will become an increasingly important factor for consideration in the production of clean energy. The link between carbon emissions and water is inextricably linked, from the creation of energy and the water resources required, to impacts of climate change on the hydrological cycle expressed in droughts, floods, intense storms and sea level rise.
In addition to it being blog action day, today is also Global Handwashing Day. Aimed principally at children and schools, the objective of the Global Handwashing Day is to:
- Foster & Support a global and local culture of handwashing with soap
- Put a spotlight on the state of handwashing in every country
- Raise awareness about the benefits of handwashing with soap
Tonight, as part of the day, London is hosting the Golden Poo Awards (yes, you heard right!) . This is a film festival for handwashing related short films.
- A Film About Poo - Emily Howells & Anne Wilkins
- Dancing in the Loo - Delphine Mandin
- For Your Convenience - Dan Castro
- Poo In Passing - Peter J Speed
- Are You Spreading Poo? - Rob and Tom Sears
- Why Wash - Staffordshire University
My favourite so far is:
If you think that that is something only important for developing countries, this research by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine might shock you!
The Dirty Hands Study
The Dirty Hands Study was conducted in order to provide a snapshot of the nation’s hand hygiene habits, as part of the world’s first Global Handwashing Day today. Commuters’ hands were swabbed at bus stops outside five train stations around the UK (Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Euston and Cardiff).
The results indicated that commuters in Newcastle were up to three times more likely than those in London to have faecal bacteria on their hands (44% compared to 13%) while those in Birmingham and Cardiff were roughly equal in the hand hygiene stakes (23% and 24% respectively). Commuters in Liverpool also registered a high score for faecal bacteria, with a contamination rate of 34%.
Dr Val Curtis, Director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, comments: ‘We were flabbergasted by the finding that so many people had faecal bugs on their hands. The figures were far higher than we had anticipated, and suggest that there is a real problem with people washing their hands in the UK. If any of these people had been suffering from a diarrhoeal disease, the potential for it to be passed around would be greatly increased by their failure to wash their hands after going to the toilet’.
So be sure to wash your hands after going to the loo, being on the tube, and before eating food!
As this blog action day is all about climate change. I felt that it was important that I also raise an issue which many overlook when thinking about sea levels rising and icebergs melting. Safe water, sanitation and hygiene are intrinsically linked to water availability and climate change.
In a conference last night, Robin Farrington of WWF projected that as weather patterns change, upto 7 billion people in 60 countries across the world could be living in water scarce areas by 2050. This will be vastly increased by uncontrolled pollution destroying water sources, greater population densities, changing diets and poor water governance.
Last year U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, here he focussed, not on the global economic recession but on the world’s water crisis. He said that firstly “A shortage of water resources could spell increased conflicts in the future,” and that this is likely to increase as populations increased and concentrated around economic hubs, and as the effects of climate change are greater felt.
Thats all for now folks - but I’ll update you soon on the gossip from the ‘brown carpet’ from tonights awards!