My Beef With Beef
Claire Mathieson discusses the ethical choices she has made regarding eating meat especially in the light of the latest data on drought
Every day I am becoming more and more conflicted about some of my lifestyle choices.
My parents raised me on the principles of experiences over possessions and service to others — and on meals of meat and two veg. To this day, my lifestyle remains fairly similar — indeed, these choices weren’t really made, I’ve simply continued to do what I’ve always done.
But can I continue to do so?
I still believe in experiences over possessions and certainly still believe in service, or charity. But what about meat? I’m increasingly aware that the daily carnivorous ritual is having dire consequences for the planet.
In fact, if I consumed less, I’d be doing a far greater service than whatever else I do.
South Africa is plagued by drought, but this is unlikely to be a temporary thing. The grey water systems we’re adopting, our pool covers, showering with buckets, and brown lawns will henceforth be commonalities in South Africa. Water is a luxury — one we don’t have in abundance. And the science suggests it’s going to continue.
Parts of southern Africa will become increasingly dry. And when the rain arrives, it’s likely to be more extreme. We’re in a precarious situation.
The good news — despite recent international political appointments with less-than-climate-friendly intentions — is that scientists, government, NGOs and even the Church are hard at work in helping South Africans adapt.
And there is most certainly a role for each of us to play. I’ve been encouraged by people calling in to local radio stations and sharing their water-wise tips; I’ve seen joy on social media of people who have reduced their water consumption dramatically — a selfless and vital thing to be doing. Even I have caught myself smiling smugly as our patch of vegetables is growing strong purely through the use of grey water.
Social education is at play all around me. The message is clear: water is not finite; use it sparingly. And many are taking heed.
As the dams’ levels continue to drop and our population continues to rise, I pray that more will join this sensible revolution. This is not a short-term, once-off problem, and the more water-wise we get, the better.
I had a moment of reckoning while attending COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco, in November. This is the international gathering on everything climate change, where the world comes to negotiate on an agreement on how we’re going to save ourselves…from ourselves.
I came face to face with one simple statistic. One that I had seen before, and one that hadn’t sunk in. To produce just 1kg of beef, between 15-20000 litres of water is needed. This is the amount of water required to grow the feed to raise the cattle.
This alone, despite the various other impacts hordes of cattle have on the environment, is a scary fact for someone staring out the window on an area that once had lush lawn.
We currently have a bucket in the shower to catch any stray litres, which we can then use in the garden. A shower, however, only uses around 65l of water. It seems to me that my feeble attempt at catching drops of shower water for my plants is a bit of a waste of time when a burger dinner for four that my husband and I recently hosted was the equivalent of 338 showers.
It seems a bit hypocritical to worry about the bucket in the shower.
But of course, it’s not a waste. Quite literally, in times of drought, every drop counts. And I applaud every small action that has reduced our water consumption.
We need to celebrate every small win. But perhaps we also need to be mindful of some of our life choices—those that we didn’t consciously make, but those that we’ve simply always done. In my view, vegetarians are no longer strange. Perhaps they are wise.
The single decision of choosing any meat other than beef will make a huge impact on the planet. Swapping that beef burger for a chicken burger alone is a positive choice, and going meat-free more often should be celebrated and encouraged.
I’m now a conscientious meat consumer and increasingly struggling to justify why I should have that steak instead of something else. Is it worth my year’s worth of showers? Is it as good as opening the tap when thirsty? Is it worth it?
I still eat meat on special occasions and I appreciate it far more. But when looking at images of our dried-up city dams, my appetite for that beef burger starts to fade.
And perhaps it’s not just a lifestyle choice; it’s a service to my neighbours, a service that we should all be considering even if only in part.
Claire Mathieson is a former news editor of The Southern Cross and member of the Editorial Advisory Board. She now works in the climate and development space in Africa. She hasn’t had a steak or cooked meat at home in five months, but did have a celebratory burger over New Year.