Fresh Thinking: Longitude Problem Solved

02/06/2014 11:20 BST | Updated 30/07/2014 10:59 BST

Voting has begun on the selection of the most pressing issue of our day: ensuring universal access to safe water, providing everyone with nutritious and sustainable food, combating drug-resistant antibiotics, flying without damaging the environment, living with dementia or overcoming paralysis. Solving the problem that we decide is the most important one will garner £10 million for the winner of the Longitude Prize, sponsored by the charity Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board, funded by the UK government. The timing and spirit of the competition commemorate a similar initiative in 1714, when the British government offered £20,000 for accurately determining the position of a sea vessel. Sir Martin Rees, chair of the Longitude Committee, noted that in today's world, we face a different set of urgent problems for which "fresh thinking" is needed, with an emphasis on innovative technologies.

Of the six challenges presented by the committee, the first three - universal access to sustainable and safe food and water and preventing the rise of resistant antibiotics - are notable for having a straightforward solution that's immediately available and requires no new technologies. That solution is for humanity to adopt a fully plant-based diet. An agricultural system dependent on intensively farmed animals has a negative impact on our health, land and water and on the right of other species to a cruelty-free existence. Sixty-four billion land animals were slaughtered in 2012 alone. Numerous studies have demonstrated without a doubt that modern meat and dairy production is a major source of atmospheric and water pollution, is a net drain on the potential global food supply, requires the inappropriate and dangerous use of antibiotics and fosters the spread of infectious disease. If we devote even a portion of the 70 per cent of agricultural land currently used for livestock to growing crops for human consumption instead, we could increase available calories by 50 per cent, consume and pollute less water, and reserve antibiotics for treatment rather than prevention of disease in agricultural settings. This solution does not require a £10 million investment, but it does require some fresh thinking.

The most potent reason to eliminate animals from our diet is, sadly, the one that's least often discussed in the context of academic conversations about creating a more just and peaceful world or laughed off as the domain of soft-hearted anti-intellectuals. And yet, almost all people feel traumatised when they watch deliberate acts of cruelty to animals, and they personally would never skin animals alive or cut off parts of their bodies without pain relief. These are the very acts of cruelty performed millions of times every day on farms across the country in the name of efficiency and profits. We ignore the fact that animals who are "humanely raised" face the exact same slaughterhouses, bodily mutilation and thwarted mothering and bonding instincts as their intensively-farmed cohorts. When we as a society finally acknowledge, both intellectually and morally, the intensity of suffering that we choose to inflict on intelligent, sentient animals in exchange for 10 minutes of mild enjoyment of the taste of their flesh, suddenly one meatless day per week is six too few. A well-intentioned economic boycott of the most inhumane products would be a good start, but a heartfelt commitment to ending the suffering of sentient animals by adopting a completely plant-based diet is the act that will change society.

The fresh thinking called for by Sir Martin Rees should apply to our moral choices as well as to our inventiveness. Imagine the intellectual and economic resources available if we turned away from animals as a food source and eliminated the urgency of those first three challenges altogether in order to concentrate our efforts on improving health, healing the planet and eliminating poverty. Let's not rely on technology when the simplest, cheapest and only moral solution is staring right back at us.