Is meat evil? A vocal minority shouts “Yes!” The British eco-journalist, George Monbiot, was an enthusiastic advocate for the vegan diet. He did an abrupt U-turn after reading Simon Fairlie’s book, Meat — A Benign Extravagance. Fairlie is a powerhouse thinker, a fire hose of ideas, and a tireless detective who hunts down those who ejaculate statistics that are ridiculously biased or fictitious. This book will reduce your trust in all statistics by 71.8 percent. He doesn’t take sides; he forces everyone to reconsider their beliefs. I strongly recommend it to readers who have an addiction to food.
Fairlie is an ex-vegetarian, a hippie eco-journalist, and a jack-of-all-trades. Once upon a time, he was living on a vegetarian commune in England, and contemplating their diet. He suddenly realized that it made no sense. The protein and oils that they consumed were imported from faraway lands where people were poor and hungry, whose cropland was being diverted from essential subsistence farming to produce commodities for export — nuts, soy, pulses, peanut butter, and vegetable oils. Why didn’t his commune consume the protein and oils produced by their next-door neighbors — meat, eggs, and dairy foods?
One of his primary interests is livestock production. His (impossible) sacred mission in life is to envision a sustainable way of feeding 60 million Brits. He doesn’t gift wrap a perfect solution, but the process of his search is delightfully illuminating. Three ideas provide the foundation of this book. (1) Feeding grain to livestock (or automobiles) is not ethical. (2) Humankind consumes too much food from animal sources, and people in the prosperity bubble should cut back. (3) A diet that includes mindfully produced animal products can be ethical.
The book contains an enormous number of words and ideas, and it did not have space for some important issues. Fairlie sincerely believes that caring and competent livestock husbandry does not involve cruelty. Allowing animals to suffer from the painful maladies of old age is cruel. In the good old days, merciful wild predators ethically put elderly critters out of their misery.
He acknowledges the arrival of peak cheap energy, but doesn’t vigorously explore the enormous consequences for agriculture and society. Feeding 60 million Brits via muscle-powered agriculture is not possible, and it’s impossible to indefinitely continue mechanized farming using biofuels.
He proposes a radical redesign of the British way of life, whilst not addressing the Mother of All Problems — the extreme overpopulation of the UK, and its dependence on importing large amounts of food. (Or is agriculture itself the Mother Problem?) Obviously, it would be far easier to feed one million (or fewer) Brits in a sustainable way. He sensibly omits a discussion of diet and health, in which a million experts can agree on nothing.
If a fleet of predator drones destroyed every facility for the mass production of animal foods tonight, half of the world’s livestock and poultry would remain unharmed. Ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) can convert plant fiber that we cannot digest into meat and milk that we can digest. Normally, they dine on lands that are unsuitable for raising crops. Hogs are omnivores that, in traditional societies, excelled at converting garbage into bacon. They cleaned up feces, kitchen trimmings, spoiled foods, butcher’s wastes, and many other delicacies, converted them into wealth, and stored it up — like a piggy bank. Chickens played a similar role.
So, if the consumption of animal foods were limited to animals raised in these traditional ways, it would cause far less harm. Never forget that the production of grains and vegetables is also a source of immense harm. Plowing and reaping a grain field destroys many animals in a cruel and unethical manner, and it gradually ruins the soil, too.
Fairlie devoted considerable effort to exposing the sources of ridiculous statistics cited by the anti-meat crowd. For example, “each kilogram of beef requires the consumption of 100,000 liters of water.” This was traced to David Pimentel, a respected scientist. His calculation included rain that fell on the grassland — rain that would fall whether or not livestock were present. Fairlie’s grass-fed cattle consume about 50 liters of water per day, and soon piss most of it right back out. At the very most, his grass-fed beef required 400 liters per kilogram of meat. Oddly, Pimentel’s calculations implied that less water was needed to produce grain-fed beef.
Fairlie also butted heads with those who blame climate change on livestock, the alleged source of 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle are worse than cars! He plunged into a long and comical hunt for the source, which turned out to be the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The statistic was blessed by the reputable International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), went viral, and was repeated by major media outlets, with no fact checking whatsoever — an instant imaginary catastrophe.
Transportation probably produces about 52 percent of greenhouse gases. Ruminants probably produce from 5 to 9.6 percent of emissions. If all cattle were exterminated tonight, they would soon be replaced by wild ruminants, which also fart and belch. The Great Plains of the US were formerly home to 60 million bison (not a problem), but they have been replaced by 60 million climate killing cattle (oh my God!).
The ecologically worst foods come from exterminated rainforests. We must avoid rainforest products like soy, beef, and palm oil. Was your tofu, vegetable oil, or soy burger born in a former jungle? Seventy percent of vegetable oil comes from soy. Soybeans are processed into vegetable oil and high-protein soy meal. About three percent of the meal is eaten by humans. Most of the meal becomes high-potency feed for the industrial meat-production facilities that we all love to hate.
What would the UK look like if it became 100% vegan? There would be no livestock, and no manure, so soil fertility would have to be maintained by devoting a third of the cropland to growing green manures, instead of food. If the land were to be worked with biofuel powered machines, then more land would be needed to grow the fuel. Maintaining and replacing the machines would require the existence of an industrial society, which is not sustainable. If horses were used for traction, producing their feed would require between a quarter and a third of the farm (for oats, grass, and hay).
On the bright side, land formerly used for grazing could be returned to woodland and wildlife. On the downside, expanded woodland would provide habitat for expanded numbers of wild animals, which vegan communities could not ethically kill. Bunnies, boars, and deer frequently confuse large thriving gardens with a delicious paradise, and they routinely disregard stern instructions from agitated gardeners.
No farmer, meat-eater or vegan, can tolerate the presence of uncontrolled wildlife. One solution is defoliation — surround the community with a wide vegetation-free buffer. Animal rights advocate, Peter Singer, recommended capturing and sterilizing the wildlife. The other option is an impermeable fence, tall enough to block deer, and deep enough to block burrowers. Do you enclose the garden, or do you enclose nature? What about mice, rats, and pigeons?
These are just a few of the notions served at Fairlie’s banquet of ideas. After observing the world through the mind of a livestock husbandman, I was impressed by how much effort, complexity, suffering, and damage was required to keep way too many people alive.
The original indigenous inhabitants of the land simply adapted to living with the ecosystem that surrounded them. They ate salmon, bison, and aurochs that thrived without human owners and managers. Their way of life had no objections whatsoever to the existence of lions, wolves, and bears. They had little need to molest the living forest. They never had to think about soil depletion, erosion, or pollution. They enjoyed a far healthier diet. They could drink out of any lake or stream. They lived well, without rocking the boat, for quite a while.
Fairlie, Simon, Meat — A Benign Extravagance, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2010.