If I ruled the world: Peter Singer

Reduce suffering and save the world—I'm making you all go veggie
January 23, 2013

© Derek Goodwin

Here is my first decree, as Ruler of the World: we’re all going vegetarian, folks! Well, if you’re one of the small proportion of the world’s population who can’t get enough to eat without meat—perhaps you live in an area where not much grows except grass, on which you graze animals—you can still have some. And if the scientists work out how to grow meat in the lab, maybe that will be acceptable too. Otherwise, a plant-based diet is the direction for the whole planet. Why? For four powerful reasons: climate change, human health, increasing available food, and reducing animal suffering.

First, no other single step could do nearly as much, in a short period of time, to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and buy us time for saving the planet from catastrophic climate change. A few years ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released a report showing that livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector—cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes. That raised some eyebrows. But a more recent study by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang found that the FAO report underestimated, by a factor of three, the contribution methane emitted by livestock will make to climate change during the critical next 20 years, when we are likely to pass the point of no return; that is, the point at which climate change will spiral out of control, making the scorching summer that the United States had last year, and Australia is having right now, the average—and the above average summers far worse.

Getting rid of meat, especially beef because cattle are the biggest methane producers, is something we can do much more rapidly, and at much lower cost, than trying to replace all the coal-burning power stations with non-fossil fuel alternatives.

That brings me to the second reason: there really is no cost at all to getting rid of most meat production. On the contrary, it is a benefit. After my decree comes into effect, we will see a decline in cancer and heart disease. Many studies have shown that meat is a factor in these diseases, but the clincher came last year in a large study led by Professor Frank Hu of Harvard University and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The headline on a New York Times report of the study summarised its findings succinctly: “More red meat, more mortality.”

The third reason is that food will also become more plentiful. At the moment we are feeding about 750m tons of grain to animals and wasting most of its food value in the process, because when we eat the edible parts of the animals to whom we feed it we get back only a small percentage of the food value of that grain. The same is true of protein-rich soybeans, and the majority of exports of these beans go to feed animals. Ending factory farming will dramatically lower food prices, making it easier for the poor to buy the food they need to survive and reducing the pressure on our forests, which are now being cleared to make more grazing land.

So far, I haven’t even mentioned the benefit to animals. That’s the last, but not least, reason for the world to stop raising animals for food. Since the majority of the more than 60bn animals killed for food each year are factory farmed, they are regarded as mere machines for converting cheap grains and soybeans into more expensive flesh. No concern is given to their welfare and they lead utterly miserable lives. When we stop eating them, that vast universe of suffering will come to an end.

So my first decree will change many things. Perhaps ceasing to depend on the slaughter of animals will even contribute to making us kinder and gentler people—but everything else I have been saying is factual, and that, I admit, is speculation.

With whatever energy I have left from promulgating my first decree, I’ll end extreme poverty by developing a global welfare safety net. The world is wealthy enough to ensure that everyone has enough to eat, sanitation and safe drinking water, can send their kids to school, and get some basic health care. It wouldn’t take much, maybe 1 or 2 per cent of GDP from the rich nations, if we did it effectively. Since I rule the world, there won’t be a problem of obstruction from corrupt leaders who are not interested in the welfare of their people. Sorry, Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang, your time is up.