Samui Wining & Dining
Green Mathematics
Here are some plain facts, not feelings, about our food supply.


19The word ‘green’ evokes varied responses. On the one hand, there are incensed citizens prepared to take a week off work and chant politically-correct slogans outside one small pizza shop somewhere that’s dared to put hedgehog on the menu. And on the other, there’re the dismissive die-hards to whom all this is hogwash. They can’t see how eating burgers or not is anything but their own business and view all ecologists as idealistic tree-huggers who’ll be forced to grow up when they leave college and have to work for a living.


It’s all become a very emotional arena, with most of the First World half-heatedly paying ill-informed lip service to the Gods of Conservation and with the rest actively mocking them, and with both sides at odds with each other. But take away the human factor – the back-biting, the politics and vested interests, and the insatiable consumer blindness – and what are you left with? Numbers. Statistics. Facts and figures. Statements of fact and their models of prediction.


Whatever your feelings about conservation and ecology, it’s impossible to deny the mathematics. Ignore them? Yes. Protest about their predictions? That’s the right of everyone, as is the right to have an opinion. And so form your own opinions about the facts and figures below. They’re only numbers, after all!


Let’s consider water, for a start. Only about 3% of the world’s water is fresh water. Staggeringly, only about a third of one percent of this is usable by humans. And yet agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s overall fresh water consumption. It takes roughly 100 litres of water to grow one kilogram of potatoes. It takes 500 litres for one kilogram of rice. But to produce one kilogram of beef takes nearly 18,000 litres of water. In the production of just one solitary beef burger alone, nearly 2,500 litres of water have been used.


To make this comparative, 100 litres of water grows one kilogram of potatoes and 500 litres grows one kilogram of rice. One kilogram of beef takes 18,000 litres, one kilogram of pork, 1,100 litres, and one kilogram of poultry, 750 litres. Putting it another way, if you stopped taking showers every day for a year you would save the same amount of water that it takes to produce two kilograms of beef. Or you could switch to eating pork instead of beef.


Although the world’s fresh water supplies remain static, according to the World Bank, demand has doubled in the last 20 years. And, according to the World Water Council, at this rate our planet will be about 17% short of the water needed to sustain its population by the year 2050.


The obvious conclusion is that the worldwide annual production of beef gets through water at a rate that’s out of all proportion with any other foodstuff. In 2010, each American ate an average of 40 kilograms of beef. With about 300 million people living in the USA, that makes the country’s yearly consumption about 13 billion tons of beef – more than double that of all the European nations combined.


The average cow belches-out 6 litres of methane per day. That means that cows alone produce 3.3 trillion litres per year; that’s 37% of the world’s methane emissions. Methane works as a greenhouse gas and traps 23 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Cattle are also responsible for 65% of nitrous oxide emissions and 64% of ammonia emissions. UN reports affirm that, “Cattle-rearing contributes more to global warming than all forms of transportation combined worldwide.”


Livestock in first-world countries is fed on corn. In America alone, 60% of the corn produced is used to feed animals; the vast majority of this being used to rear beef. Simply put, the corn consumed by American cattle each year alone could feed 100 million people (and don’t forget that one beef burger has already used 2,500 litres of water in its production).


It takes roughly 20 kilograms of corn to produce one kilogram of beef. But the waste from one cow is equivalent to that of 17 humans. There are around 100 million cattle in the USA. Which means that the waste produced just from American beef-cattle comes to nearly six times more than that of the human population, and there are 300 million of them.


And then we get onto packaging. The disturbing fact is that, once created, nearly all plastics are with us for ever. Most can be recycled but it’s what’s called a ‘closed loop’. Low-grade plastics, like bottles and medicine containers, can’t be destroyed without turning them into poisonous toxins but can readily be processed and recycled into more plastics: ropes, household items, waterproof fabrics, sails, vehicle parts (etc) … or more bottles.


But meat products are typically packaged with a combination of cling film and polystyrene. The polystyrene trays can be converted for use in the building industry or granulated and turned back into even more polystyrene items. This is an expensive and lengthy process and many nations simply bury this plastic waste and forget about it; out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But the PVC-based cling film used is both indestructible and commercially un-recyclable. Maybe when mankind finally heads for the stars it’ll be leaving behind a shrink-wrapped Earth?


Fortunately, this is Thailand and the rest of the world seems to be on a different planet, far away! We don’t eat much beef or potatoes (except, thankfully, for a scattering of quality restaurants). But the shelves of all the thousands of Western-style supermarkets that have sprung up during the last generation are crammed with shrink-wrapped polystyrene containers.


In the light of this, you’ll be happy to know that Samui has become one of the Thailand’s leading conservation centres. The Thai Hotels’ Association (THA), working closely with local government, has actively sponsored and introduced programs into the curriculum of every one of the 26 local schools. More and more resorts are recycling kitchen waste. Even the cooking oil used to make your French fries will later be converted into bio-diesel fuel and used to run the transport that shuttles you back and forth between the airport and your resort.


So enjoy yourself. Eat, drink and be merry. And remember that the prophets of doom have overlooked one thing. Their forecasts don’t allow for you and me (and groups everywhere like the THA) actually working to do something about these things. Take that into account and then the maths of it all falls apart. And when you return for another break on our lovely island, the Green Mathematics will no doubt tell a different tale!


Rob De Wet


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