What is Mercy Release?

This image is taken from a Scientific American Slideshow.

I’ve now been living in Asia pretty consistently for 10 years now. I have been lucky to spend decent lengths of time in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia (and although not in Asia, I have spent a year in France and also Morocco).  The first five years were spent tour-leading for a company that focused on trips that were considered culturally appropriate, fun and low impact. I spent much of my time having local interaction with the local people, taking my clients to local restaurants. markets, temples, taught them a bit of language and I have to say, I really enjoyed it It was during that time, that I started to doubt my vegetarianism values. As I have discussed on my Story of Transformation post, I really felt that  not eating animals and participating in some of the activities that were such a significant part of culture, I was somehow disrespecting the practices of the locals. For more selfish reasons, I thought that I was perhaps missing out on so much by not eating an ‘authentic’ Tom Yum Goong with the shrimp inside rather than having it with mushrooms instead.

Fast forward a few years, I am now a committed vegan, and because of my interest in other cultures and traditions relating to animals, I was fascinated to learn about mercy release today and also completely shocked by it.

Anyone who has spent any time in Asia, will be familiar with the concept. It’s a Buddhist tradition and involves the release of captive animals. Buddhists will release animals as a way to gain merit. The origin of this centuries old tradition is the idea that spontaneous acts of kindness and compassion will mean something when judgment day comes.

I have posted about religious reasons for using animals just last year when I wrote about Eid Al Adha – which is the ritualistic slaughter of an animal at the end of the fasting month.

I have recently found out a lot more about mercy release and like most traditions (cultural or religious) that we practice today that involve animals, the origins of those traditions were started out of necessity, but today have become a commercial operation and / or are no longer necessary.

I myself have witnessed mercy release in my wanderings around Asia in the few years in the following places.

  • In the lead up to Tet (Vietnamese New Year) when fish are released in to bodies of water (that is often not the cleanest it could be).
  • Walking through the streets of Bangkok, there will be people walking around with cages full of finches. The vendor will gesture to tourists and of course to anyone who will pay the money to come over the release the birds.
  • In Thai temples (of which I visited sooooo many in my tour-leading days) there are often vendors who will sell the opportunity to release animals (often birds, turtles and eels) to those who are visiting. Of course, Buddhists who are coming to the temple are in merit-making mode and will often participate in this. Tourists often do this too. Of course, all those little animals in small cages, of course we want to let them  go.

I have to admit, that until just a couple of hours ago, I had little idea about this industry. I don’t think I have ever participated in it even in my tour-leading days. I heard rumours from other tour leaders that the animals are often recaptured. I have to admit, I wondered how an animal could be captured twice (What terrible luck!) and wondered if this was THAT bad, but at the same time, there were a heck of a lot of these animals in the cages. I probably should have found out more, but you know… I never got around to it.

Well, I just found out a whole lot more in one of favourite animal rights podcasts, Our Hen House. There were interviewing Iris Ho from Human Society International who was interviewed about this issue.

Some of the incredible takeaways from learning about this issue are:

  • In Taiwan, there are 200 million animals that are ‘mercy released’ a year. I cannot imagine how many animals go through this fate altogether considering China is a country that also practices Mercy Release. Considering these animals are trapped from the wild or bred in terrible conditions, this is an almost unbelievable.
  • The animals are often transported long distances and suffer incredible stress. Many die during this process or shortly after release. They are released in places that are not native to the animals there so there can be considerable environmental impacts.
  • The animals are trapped and the traps are often not checked for a long time. Many die before they are even collected by the trappers. Many can be injured during this trapping process.

To hear the podcast interview, listen here from 28:24  for about 20 minutes.

For a snapshot of the issue, here is a video that has been produced by HIS. It’s in Chinese, for the Taiwanese communities. Please take a few minutes to find out about more about mercy release.

The idea of showing compassion towards animals to gain merit is certainly a noble one. I would like to suggest that very often these traditions and rituals have become involved in ego, rather than about what the actual message was about when the tradition started. Here’s a few examples.

  • At Christmas it’s become about parties and gifts rather than peace and goodwill
  • Thanksgiving has become about Black Friday sales and gluttony rather than simple gratitude.
  • Eid el Adha has become about who has the biggest animal to slaughter (the rich will often have the bigger more expensive animal) rather than breaking fast and sharing meat with the poor in a time of scarcity where there wasn’t much food out there.
  • Kosher and halal slaughter – the idea that the animal has to be fully conscious so that consumers could be sure that the meat was healthy has now become a reason NOT to stun the animal before slaughter.

There is plenty we can all do to raise awareness about this practice and practice alternative types of mercy release to gain merit whether you are Buddhist or not.

Things you can do.

  • Don’t participate in the practice and educate others about it. Support HSI’s work and share the information around your social networks and over the water cooler.
  • If you work in the tourism industry, please educate your passengers about this issue and ask them to not participate. Don’t visit temples that support this practice and explain why to the monks. I wish I had known more about this issue when I was tour-leading.
  • Even if you are Buddhist, you can still gain merit by spontaneous acts of compassion towards animals. Become involved with legitimate release of animals, like ones that have been rescued and then help release them back in to the wild (turtle release programs, cleaning animals after oil spills etc) or perhaps even better, help animals 3 times a day by NOT doing something! That’s right….. Not eating them! OK. It might not be looked on as favorably in your religious community, but if you are into pleasing the Gods, I am sure they will think your intentions  will gain you loads more merit.

 

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Another New Report – Meat Consumption Is Not Good For the Environment.

The environmental and veg blogging community is in all of a whirl this morning due to the publication of the Enviornmental Working Group (EWG) just released report; “A Meat Eater’s Guide”

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As readers of my blog will know, I feel passionately about how the benefits of reducing, or better yet, eliminating meat from our diet. Those to our health, the animals and the environment. The environmental benefits have been widely documented, and in my opinion there’s enough evidence out there to persuade heavy meat-eaters out there to change their ways a bit.The thing about this report and the organisation behind it, is that there is no veg agenda. It doesn’t even say that you should become vegan, although of course, common sense would conclude that this would be even better for the future of our world. It does say that we should rethink and reduce our meat consumption. I also like the way it explains how it came up with its results. Of course, it is incredibly hard to quantify the impact of a global economy with just one number when there are so many factors at play, and this can seem really confusing to those who just read the tiny extracts that will invariably reported in the newspapers and on Huffington Post in the upcoming weeks. Still, there are things you can do. You can explore the site and read the full report, or just the ‘at a glance’ to get an excellent picture on:

a: How this study was carried out

b: The results of the study (lamb, cheese and beef are the worst offenders while lentils are the least)

c: What you can do with this information to make a difference. (their message is reduce, reduce, reduce)

For me, it seems like a no brainer. The absolute best and easiest thing to do to help the environment is to reduce or eliminate meat consumption. I hope those who have seen the types of vegan food that I cook (and I ain’t no chef) will realise that there is no deprivation here. While we all need to be doing all we can to help the environment, switching from beef to lentils is way cheaper than buying a Prius or installing solar panels and much less heart wrenching than giving up a summer holiday in the sun (with carbon off-setting of course).

Can’t go vegan? Then consider going vegan before 6am or weekday vegan (remember milk and cheese are terrible). It’s a start. I mean, we could wait for governments to tax these and other highly polluting products, history has shown that this is very difficult to do (remember Kyoto?). I don’t know about you, but I would rather ‘be the change I wish to see in the world’ than to wait until someone forces me to do it, especially when it is for the good of others.

While writing this, I am reminded about a friend who teased me about a year ago. She said “Brighde, why do you care so much? You’re probably not going to be alive if/when the worst of this global warming happens. Also, you don’t intend to have kids so they won’t be impacted by global warming  either!” What she says is probably correct, and I agreed, however, I can’t help thinking about my nieces and nephews, the children of my friends, the children of those I don’t know and the ones who haven’t been born yet who will be saying to their parents 40 years from now; “You knew, yet you didn’t do anything and look at what we are now dealing with”. I urge you, especially if you have children, to please consider decreasing your amount of animal products.  I see parents who will sacrifice and work hard to make sure their children have the best opportunities in life, yet seem complacent when it comes to this issue. I would rather look back on my life knowing that I did everything to make sure I did as little harm based on the information that I had rather than leave it to our kids to deal with the aftermath.

Promoting Meatless Mondays in Your Workplace

One fantastic way piece of activism vegetarians or vegans can do is to initiate Meatless Mondays at their school, university or workplace. I wrote this sometime ago, and I wanted to put this out there so that other people might be able to use this document by adapting it to their context to send to their management, administrators, colleagues to get support for the idea.

I haven’t used proper referencing which is unfortunate. If you need me to check the source of a claim that I make, contact me. I’ll try to find out where I got it from. Apologies if the information is a bit out of date.

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Dear ……………………………………………..,

 

I am writing to you all today to let you know about a rather fantastic movement that is spreading around the world and being embraced by schools, government offices and private companies around the world. It’s called ‘Meatless Mondays’ and I would like to suggest that YOUR ESTABLISHMENT pledges to join many individualscities and schools in the world who go Meatless on Monday

 

By doing this, we would be helping our environment and show colleagues/students that it is possible for one person, or one community to make a sizable difference and a positive contribution to the world.

 

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in becoming vegan is just how much damage livestock production is doing to our world. The issue is complex, so I will go through all the points, one by one. All the information that I present here is backed up by government bodies, UN research papers and credible sources. If you require more information on these, please do not hesitate to let me know. Most of my reading comes from US sources, but there is no reason to think that …………………. practices are any better than US ones.

 

Meatless Mondays was originally a strategy organised by the US government in WW1 to encourage people to reduce the consumption of certain staples to aid the war effort. In WW2 it was reintroduced to help feed the hungry European countries decimated by the war. It was a very successful project and meat consumption was drastically reduced over that time period.

 

After the wars of course, the campaign stopped, it started again in 2003 in the US to try to get people to lower their meat consumption for health reasons, and the the message was broadened again in 2009 to include the health and environmental benefits of moderating meat consumption.

 

To find out a bit more on what Meatless Mondays is about, please watch this rather inspiring video.

 

The explanation as to why eating animal products is so destructive to our planet is rather involved, but hopefully you’ll stick with me while I explain the different factors that are involved as they are all crucial.

 

The consumption of fish and seafood: Fish and seafood is either caught in the wild or it is farmed in aquaculture. In my mind, both, are incredibly environmentally destructive.

Technology has allowed man to become an incredible fisherman. We have radars, echo sounders and satellite GPS. These give us the ability to identify and return to fish hot spots. We can even use satellite images of ocean temperature to identify fish schools. This technology allows us to haul in fifty tons of sea animals in a few minutes. The impact of this, which comes from consumer demand, has led to a number of environmental catastrophes.

 

For every 10 tuna, shark, and other predatory fish that were in our oceans fifty to a hundred years ago, only one is left. Many scientists predict the total collapse of all fished species in less than fifty years.

 

In less developed countries, dynamite or arsenic fishing still happens regularly. This leads to incredible destruction of reefs and of all species in the area.

 

Bycatch is something that fish and seafood eaters rarely think about. Bycatch refers to sea creatures (and sometimes birds) caught by accident. This can happen in trawling operations as well as longline fishing practices. If you take  prawn trawling as an example, prawns are often very small so you need to use a very fine net. As prawns like to live at the bottom of the sea, the nets are trawled at the base of the ocean. Sadly, it is not just the prawns that are caught, but many other animals and plants. The average prawn trawling operation throws back 80-90 % of the sea animals it captures overboard dead or dying. As many of these animals come from such depths, they often explode. Prawns account for only 2 % of the global seafood by weight, but prawn trawling accounts for 33 % of global bycatch. Figures I do have for Thailand are that on average, for every 1 kg of fish or seafood that people eat, there is 14 kg of bycatch that is simply tossed back dead or dying.  This practice is destroying our underwater ecosystems. While longline fishing (for sharks, tuna and salmon) is less destructive than trawling, it is still damaging. 27 million hooks are deployed every day, but they do not just kill the target species, but 145 others as well. One study found that roughly 4.5 million sea animals are killed in longline fishing every year, including 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,000 sea turtles, 75,000 albatrosses and 20,000 dolphins and whales.

 

Aquaculture: Aquaculture is seen by some as being less disruptive to the fragile underwater ecosystems, but sadly that is not the case. Aquaculture is the factory farming of sea animals. The resulting pollution that comes from these farms pollutes the surrounding area, and let’s not forget all the fish that need to be fed to these fish to make the food. There is also a lot of evidence to suggest that the reason why the tsunami was so incredibly destructive was due to the destruction of the mangroves which otherwise may have absorbed some of the power of those waves. Sadly there are few mangroves left, replaced by tourism and property developments and shrimp farms.

 

Global Warming: Since we found out about rising temperatures on our planet, the biggest recommendation we have heard, is that we should use public transport, cut down on the amount of flights, turn down our air con and buy hybrid cars. However, something that has only recently been brought to global attention is that livestock production is the number 1 contributor to greenhouse gases. The Road and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative published in 2006 shows conclusively that across the world, farmed animals contribute more to climate change than transport. According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector – cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships – combined. Animal agriculture is responsible for 37 % of anthropogenic methane, which offers twenty-three times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide and 65 % of anthropogenic nitrous oxide. The most current data even quantifies the role of diet : omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.

 

An interesting short film that summarizes this in a very interesting and informative way was produced by ‘The Ethical Man’ who lived ethically for a year producing reports for BBC’s Newsnight 2 years ago. You can watch the film by clicking on this link and watching the video embedded in the article. 

 

Without a doubt, cutting down on our meat consumption would seriously reduce our carbon footprint without making much of an effort at all. It is certainly cheaper than buying a hybrid car and just as effective.

 

Pollution: The waste (feces) from livestock is  considerable and highly polluting. While I do not have any figures for Thailand, waste from pig farms is much stronger than human sewage, yet does not get disposed like it. The waste is usually pumped in to lagoons, but sadly they do not usually isolate the waste. The Environmental Protection Agency of the US indicate that chicken, pig and cattle excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states. In 3 years, two hundred fish kills -incidents where the entire fish population in a given area is killed at once – have resulted in factory farms’ failures to keep excrement out of the rivers.

 

Inefficiencies of a meat eating diet: World livestock production exceeds 21 billion animals each year. The earth’s livestock population is more then three and a half times its human population.

 

In all, the raising of livestock takes up more than two-thirds of agricultural land, and one third of the total land area. This is apparently justifiable because by eating the foods that humans can’t digest and by processing these into meat, milk and eggs, farmed animals provide us with an extra, much-needed food source.  In fact, livestock are increasingly being fed with grains and cereals that could have been directly consumed by humans or were grown on land that could have been used to grow food rather than feed. The developing world’s undernourished millions are now in direct competition with the developed world’s livestock – and they are losing.


In 1900 just over 10% of the total grain grown worldwide was fed to animals; by 1950 this figure had risen to over 20%; by the late 1990s it stood at around 45%. Over 60% of US grain is fed to livestock.


This use of the world’s grain harvest would be acceptable in terms of world food production if it were not for the fact that meat and dairy production is a notoriously inefficient use of energy. All animals use the energy they get from food to move around, keep warm and perform their day to day bodily functions. This means that only a percentage of the energy that farmed animals obtain from plant foods is actually converted into meat or dairy products. Estimates of efficiency levels vary, but in a recent study, Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, Canada, calculated that beef cattle raised on feedlots may convert as little as 2.5% of their gross feed energy into food for human consumption. Estimated conversion of protein was only a little more efficient, with less than 5% of the protein in feed being converted to edible animal protein. These figures are especially damning since the diet of cattle at the feedlot consists largely of human-edible grains.


Feedlot-raised beef is an extreme example, being the least feed-efficient animal product, but even the most efficient – milk – represents a waste of precious agricultural land. Prof Smil calculates that the most efficient dairy cows convert between 55 and 67% of their gross feed energy into milk food energy.


Efficiency can also be measured in terms of the land required per calorie of food obtained. When Gerbens-Leenes et al. examined land use for all food eaten in the Netherlands, they found that beef required the most land per kilogram and vegetables required the least. The figures they obtained can be easily converted to land required for one person’s energy needs for a year by multiplying 3000 kcal (a day’s energy) by 365 days to obtain annual calorie needs (1,095,000 kcal) and dividing this by the calories per kilogram. The figures obtained are summarised in table 1:

 

Food

Land per kg (m2)    

Calories per kilogram      

Land per person per year (m2)

Beef

20.9

2800

8173

Pork

8.9

3760

2592

Eggs

3.5

1600

2395

Milk

1.2

640

2053

Fruit

0.5

400

1369

Vegetables      

0.3

250

1314

Potatoes

0.2

800

274

 

 

On the basis of these figures, a vegan diet can meet calorie and protein needs from just 300 square metres using mainly potatoes. A more varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, grains and legumes would take about 700 square metres. Replacing a third of the calories in this diet with calories from milk and eggs would double the land requirements and a typical European omnivorous diet would require five times the amount of land required for a varied vegan diet.

A UN special envoy on food  called it a ‘crime against humanity’ to funnel 100 million tons of grain and corn to ethanol while almost 1 billion people are starving. So what kind of crime is animal agriculture, which uses 756 million tons of grain and corn per year, much more than enough to adequately food the 1.4 billion humans who are living in dire poverty? That also doesn’t include the 98 % of the 225 million-tons global soy crop is also fed to farmed animals. 

 

Conclusion:

 

The environmental impacts of eating meat are many, yet, it would be so easy for our …………………………….. to cut down their intake on meat and to make a meaningful contribution to prevent this type of environmental destruction that eating animals entails. Leading by example and educating our …………………. on why we choose to join many organisations in the world to go ‘Meatless on Mondays’ could carry over to other organisations, and their staff/students and we would be the first ……………………… …………… to go down this route. We have a wonderful opportunity to actually do something meaningful to lessen our impact on this world without spending much money or effort.

Rasayana with Friends

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Today, I headed to Rasyana Restaurant with some friends from work. I had mentioned the meet-up at the raw food restaurant last weekend to some friends at work who always listen politely when I am going on and on about vegan food. Most people haven’t really heard of raw food and they were interested so as most of my university work is done, we decided to give it a try this weekend. We had a lovely time and as you can see the food is beautiful and nutritious and I think everyone enjoyed trying something a bit different becuase that’s how awesome and open-minded these lovely people are! Afterwards we headed to the supermarket where I showed them some of my weird and wonderful ingredients that I put in my food. I finished my super day with a special gift for me! I bought myself a waffle maker! Oh, Seb will be happy tomorrow morning at breakfast!