Age of the Sandton peasant

2008-06-14 00:00

Eco-fascists who imagine that sneering at 4x4 drivers and changing to biodegradable detergents will save the world from ecological disaster are due for a harsh wake up.

The most immediate ecological danger is not environmental pollution from the West. Nor is it from global warming caused by the massive economic development taking place in China and to a lesser extent India.

It is that like a plague of locusts the 1,3 billion Chinese are simply eating the rest of us off the planet. Food, especially meat, is the issue, not Sandton tractors.

Elliot Wilson, writing in the British magazine, The Spectator, makes the point that the biggest single impact on food prices, greater than climate change, is China.

With growing wealth, the Chinese have moved from simple, healthy diets rich in pulses and rice to Western-style diets rich in meat proteins and imported vegetables. In 1978, when Beijing started opening up to the outside world, the country was largely self-sufficient in food. Now increasing quantities are imported.

China consumes 18% of the world’s wheat supply, 15% of beef, more than half of all pork and it imports around 60% of the world’s soya beans. Within half a dozen years, its beef consumption will outstrip that of the United States, with all that implies — it takes eight kilograms of grain to produce a kilogram of beef. This has resulted in rapidly rising world food prices and shortages. At the same time Chinese domestic food production has dropped. It makes for perilous times. Chinese companies are looking to buy up land in Africa, South America and parts of Southeast Asia to try to ensure domestic food security.

As Wilson notes, “Any attempt to acquire foreign acreage to fill Chinese mouths would stir international fears. Even worse, the plan envisages shipping hundreds of thousands of under-employed Chinese farmers to Argentina, Venezuela or Zaire — a move that would certainly be seen as neo-colonialism, Chinese-style.”

What is happening in China is being replicated, albeit on a smaller scale, throughout the developing world.

Meat, because of its scarcity, is a valued commodity. The transition from poverty to relative wealth is accompanied everywhere, including in Africa, by an increase in red meat consumption, with its high input demands — and at the other end of the beast, high methane output.

The crisis around global warming and growing food shortages will demand more of the Western world’s middle classes — in which for this purpose we can include South Africans — than any other group.

Why the middle classes? Call it conscience or informed self-interest, but they are the only socio-economic group likely to try consciously and individually to counteract what is happening in the developing world.

The developing world’s new middle classes have waited a long time for their pound of flesh and they want it medium rare with exotic imported delicacies on the side.

Nowhere, developed or developing world, are the rich going to change their behaviour. They won’t do without their Kobe beef because they just don’t give a damn. Their personal creed is that wealth will always provide a safe haven.

The developing world is poor don’t give a damn either. They just want to fill their bellies and, when and if things improve, to replicate the gastronomic tastes of their economic betters. Sustainability means frugality.

The whole world cannot eat like the West. If the whole world insists on doing so, it is the Western lifestyle that will have to change. That means less meat, more pulses and home-grown veggies, rice or mealies — a peasant diet.

How the world turns. Pass the samp and beans, and another glass of Chardonnay.

• See the Elliot Wilson article in The Spectator at spectator.co.uk

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