Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance is the sanest book I have read on the subject of how the human race is going to feed itself in the years ahead. Its main attention is given to the pro-meat versus no-meat debate, but it really involves an intense scrutiny of what we know and don’t know about the entire food chain. Fairlie’s search to ferret out the truth in these matters is awesomely thorough—he leaves no stone unturned.
I have been tempted to try writing a book like this one, waving a flag of caution before all the fervent advocates of one diet or another. But I doubt that I could endure the displeasure, even wrath, that would be visited upon me if I pointed out, as Fairlie does, that neither vegan nor meat glutton, nor factory farmer nor, horrors, even my own favorite food-production system—pasture farming—has all the answers. Fairlie is made of sterner stuff.
Somebody had to write this book, and thank heavens it was a writer with the wit and wisdom of Simon Fairlie. The reason his book is so important is that what it addresses—food security, first and foremost—is being undermined by well-intentioned people of all persuasions who are demanding rules and regulations in food matters without enough knowledge. We all have very firm convictions about what we want to eat and don’t want to eat, but the only direct contact with the food chain that most of us experience is what we see when we sit down at the table. We have only foggy notions of how all forms of life interact in the food chain, how we are all seated at an unimaginably vast table, eating and being eaten. In fact, even scientists who make these matters their lifelong study know only a little, and the honest ones readily admit it.
But because we have zillions of reams of information about food production and endless columns of numbers to pick from in support or denial of whatever we want to believe, we think that human intelligence has analyzed the subject well enough to start dictating public policy about what we should eat and how it should be produced. This book is most valuable because it will convince the open-minded reader that when we start making grand statements about the earth’s food-carrying capacity, more than a little humility is in order. No matter how fervently we support the no-meat or the pro-meat point of view, or how much allegiance we have for any particular dietary bible, or what kind of farming we think best serves humanity’s food purposes, or what we think about carbon footprints, global warming, greenhouse gases and any of the other trendy phrases with which the news batters us, or what economic religion we think best serves the purpose of providing food for all, I challenge anyone to read this book and not realize that no one has all the right answers, because neither science nor ideology knows all the right answers yet.
Humility is a wonderful asset in the pursuit of knowledge, and Simon Fairlie gives the reader plenty of opportunity to acquire some. He addresses every aspect of the food and agriculture debate with unrelentingly thorough research and unswerving, sometimes almost ruthless, logic. Wherever he finds financial self-interest prevailing over objective data, wherever he spies ideology undermining science, he does not spare his rod of criticism. That is the beauty of this book; it does not take sides. It asks for more knowledge and objective thinking from everyone, and in the meantime, seeks compromise. In these days of polarization in almost everything, this book is a benign gift of clear thinking. The author also brings a sharp sense of humor to the debate, adding to the pleasure of reading the research.
The no-meat versus pro-meat camps might ponder the lessons of Prohibition days. No doubt trying to make old demon alcohol disappear was a noble idea, but we learned the hard way that it just isn’t going to happen. And so it is with eating meat. As Fairlie argues, allowing for moderation works better for overall food security than trying to make farm animals disappear, and just might make it easier for vegetarians to follow their diet preferences, too.
I am constantly amazed at how many people quoted in this book seem to believe that they have the one and only answer to food issues even though they apparently have not one farthing of experience in farming. Simon Fairlie has spent considerable time actually doing farm work, which undoubtedly has informed his research to great end. I offer this to you, reader—within, find an important, well-written, and absolutely crucial addition to the agricultural canon, which I trust will have a much-needed impact on the future of sustainable agriculture.