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Tipping Sacred Cows

The following is a review of Simon Fairlie’s book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, by Jennifer McMullen of The Ethicurean.

Mainstream culture and news abound with broad statements about our food system and the choices we make about what we put on the dinner table. Surely you’ve heard that if you want to save the planet, you should eat a vegan diet, since raising livestock contributes significantly to carbon emissions and thus to climate change. Or perhaps you’ve been told that organic agriculture can’t possibly “feed the world.”Who’s right? What, ultimately, is the best way to produce food in the world today, to both feed our growing population without destroying the earth it depends on?

In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, recently released in the U.S. by Chelsea Green, UK writer, editor, and farmer Simon Fairlie picks apart study after study in wonkish detail and shows why easy answers are hard to find.

Densely packed with enough studies and statistics and technical information to make even my food-nerdy eyes cross at times, the book offers occasional notes of Fairlie’s dry wit, especially in his scathing comments about industry-supported studies or what he calls the Global Opponents of Organic Farming (yes, GOOFs). As he says in sketching his vision, “Farmers have lived and worked like this with plants and animals for centuries, and it is arguable that advocates of permaculture would have had to coin a new name only because industrial farmers have brought the term agriculture into disrepute.”

Because meat in general has taken a lot of heat from critics of the world’s food systems — mostly fueled by the environmental degradation and cruelty to animals embodied by factory farms — Fairlie focuses his research on the question of “not whether killing animals is right or wrong, but whether farming animals for meat is sustainable.” Unlike the narrow lens of many studies that regard large-scale industrial farms as the norm, Fairlie examines the use of land, water, feed, and energy in animal husbandry operations of varying scales and in different agricultural settings. For every statistic Fairlie can pull from a highly regarded study, it seems that he can offer an alternative statistic that encompasses a broader view of agriculture or insight into the neglected pieces of the farming puzzle. For example, Fairlie rips apart a well-known U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report (“Livestock’s Long Shadow”) that holds livestock raising as responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does the report reveal a bias in favor of intensive farming, he argues, but it also attributes the largest portion of that 18% to deforestation, a figure that is now decreasing and that is not wholly attributable to animal husbandry. He also addresses a study on soil carbon sequestration, arguing that for every action that could sequester carbon, there’s usually an opposite reaction that releases it. Ultimately, he believes that we should spend our efforts not on “sequestration” as an activity but rather on “increasing the biomass productivity of our land, and its biodiversity, by whatever sustainable ways can be found.” So what, then, would be a truly sustainable form of agriculture? Read the full article at The Ethicurean. Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance, is available now.

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