CHOICE Reviews - August 1, 2011
The Western penchant for the overconsumption of meat has led to concerns about sustainability, food security, and social and environmental justice. In response, some activists have proposed a worldwide transition to vegetarian or even vegan diets. In this comprehensive, meticulously researched study based primarily on an analysis of professional literature and focused mostly on food production in the UK and, to a lesser extent, the US, Fairlie (community farmer; editor, The Land, UK) views vegetarianism/veganism as only a partial solution. Although he sees advantages to the adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets, he maintains that vegetables do not produce the higher quality protein of meat diets. Further, he argues that meat can be produced efficiently on a smaller scale and then distributed equitably among nations. His solution to the problem of efficiency is to reject the specialized industrial farming model sanctioned by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, which is based on the expensive and wasteful production of grain, for what he terms a "default livestock" model. This model is an integrated agricultural system of raising vegetables in which both vegetable byproducts and land unsuitable for other agricultural purposes are used to produce meat, dairy, and other animal products. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. -- D.
M. Gilbert, Maine Maritime Academy
April 26, 2011
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Wise Traditions - April 5, 2011
In the debate between vegans and omnivores there is disagreement not just about which dietary approach is nutritionally better, but which is better for the environment. Simon Fairlie takes a detailed look at the environmental side of the issue.
Many environmentalists claim that we can get about ten times as much food from an acre of grain than from that same acre used to produce meat. Fairlie devotes a number of chapters to examining that claim in excruciating detail. The short answer is that there is a multitude of factors that affect efficiency, and the estimates of the experts vary widely. The subject is extremely complicated and the ratio of ten to one in favor of grain is more of a rough average than a consensus—and it is almost certainly wrong.
Fairlie also takes a look at the water requirements for animals. There are some rather wild claims out there about how much water a cow can soak up. Some imply that a cow will slurp up twenty-five thousand liters per day, which is obviously absurd. Regardless of how much water a cow really needs, most of that water is returned to the environment. It doesn’t just disappear from the face of the planet.
The book scrutinizes every angle of food production efficiency. It takes a lot of mental focus to read. So it is rather funny when a simple question comes up. If environmentalists are right and we have over-populated the planet, why are we concerned about efficient food production? Won’t that just make the problem worse? This makes me wonder what “they” are really up to when they claim meat is an unaffordable extravagance. Next thing you know, they will be trying to save millions of poor, defenseless evergreens by canceling Christmas. While I doubt that Scrooge environmentalism will catch on anytime soon, what may catch on is the notion that environmentalists are a bunch of killjoys. We can’t eat anything good, just the politically correct twigs, sprouts, and mulch-in-a-box. We can’t breathe because that creates CO2. Bah, humbug.
But I digress. Fairlie goes on to take a fascinating look at the various vegan agendas. In all fairness, there are many different flavors of veganism and Fairlie understands that. Some are just experimenting, or choose the diet for personal health reasons and don’t care what everyone else does. Others want to convert the whole human race. Still others want to end predation among all species, and then there are the extremists who think the planet would be better off without the human race.
The predator issue is an interesting one. Experiments have been carried out to see what happens when predators are removed from a local ecology. One or more of the remaining species will become dominant and crowd out other species. The end result is less biodiversity among the remaining non-predator population. There is also a tendency to start outstripping the food supply and then slowly starve. Predators maintain a balance that people who are disconnected from nature don’t understand. Sharing a house with a large rodent population while deer and other wildlife chow down on your precious veggie crops can change your mind about predation fairly quickly.
There are a lot of other good points including an excellent explanation of how a carbon credit system would quickly degenerate into a huge scam. There is also a simple and elegant explanation of the false economy of non-local food systems. As usual, there are some points I disagree with and I’m still not sure whether the author literally considers meat an extravagance or if that was meant tongue in cheek. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and point the thumb UP for this one.
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SciTech Book News - April 2011
Meat; a benign extravagance.
Fairlie, editor of Land Magazine and former livestock manager of a community farm in the UK offers a collection of essays on the environmental ethics of eating meat. He considers whether raising animals for meat is sustainable and along the way debunks many of the environmental arguments and statistics used to promote veganism and vegetarianism. Essays are grouped into the categories of land requirements for livestock, food security, energy and carbon, and land use change, and while UK centric, will be of interest to anyone concerned with making sustainable food choices. Fairlie does not address the morality of eating meat, nor does he discuss nutrition, but nevertheless provides a compelling argument for small-scale livestock farming as an environmentally sound practice. Several of the essays were published previously in Land Magazine and have been revised for this collection. (Annotation ©2011 Book News Inc. Portland, OR)
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Meat: A Benign Extravagance
New York Journal of Books - March 30, 2011
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I enjoy a good hamburger, and I love to cook— and eat—spareribs. As a confirmed meat eater, my confirmed vegetarian friends and sometime vegetarian wife have not been able to do much beyond getting me to add salads more frequently to my diet.
But as a reader, I have long been convinced by the information coming from the vegetarian side of the aisle that we meateaters are sending the planet to hell in a handbasket, that we are overconsuming our share of the available resources, and that feedlots are probably one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell.
So it’s a sincere pleasure to have some—albeit a small piece—of that weight taken off my shoulders by Simon Fairlie, who possesses good credentials as both a farmer and a foodie, and who has now written a book that makes it OK to eat the occasional haunch.
He does this in many ways, not least by raising the concept of “default meat,” which is meat produced on integrated mixed farms where livestock provides draft power, manure, a measure of financial security, and even serves sociocultural functions. Mr. Fairlie goes through an elaborate exercise of calculating that “default livestock farming provides between one-third and two-thirds of all the meat and dairy produce currently produced in the world.”
He goes on to say “There are huge environmental gains to be made from reducing global meat consumption back to this level; it will release large amounts of feed grain for human consumption, easily enough to feed all those who currently are underfed, and a substantial contribution toward feeding the two or three billion extra people expected to be alive on the planet in 40 years’ time.”
He works out this “default” level to just about three-quarters of a pound of meat per person per week, and about 1.33 pints or milk or 75 grams of cheese per week.
That’s far less that what most of us are used to consuming. But Mr. Fairlie makes the point that this is “free.” That is, it’s the default amount of surplus animal meat and milk products we can expect from a farming system devoted to growing the grains and vegetables the human race needs to stay alive. We can have more meat, if we choose, but there is no practical reason on Earth for us to have less.
The problem is that modern “factory meat production” relies on unsustainable doses of petroleum and antibiotics to produce large quantities of poor-quality meats. Some people look at this system and advocate vegetarianism. Mr. Fairlie does not.
One of Mr. Fairlie’s rather simple but startling points is that animals are the most efficient and sometimes the only way we can utilize waste, low grade foodstuffs, and land that can’t be farmed effectively to produce foods we can eat. For example, hilly, rocky, and poor acreage can support animals that yield meat and fat, whey from cheesemaking can feed pigs, while vegetables and meat scraps can be fed to chickens and eggs. All it takes is the right animals, and the right attitude. Accordingly, Mr. Fairlie argues that upland areas that cannot be used to grow anything else may as well be used to grow livestock.
One of the most important parts of the book is Mr. Fairlie’s refutation of a major vegetarian talking point: According to various experts, the production of meat uses copious amounts of water.
Mr. Fairlie starts with his own experience raising Bramley, an Angus/Jersey steer that eventually yielded some 125 kilos of meat. Yet, says Mr. Fairlie, Bramley lived primarily on naturally growing grass and consumed less than 100 liters of water per day—far less than the generally accepted figure for livestock water usage would claim.
Mr. Fairlie’s scholarship on this point seems formidable. Researching the “statistical cliché” that every kilogram of beef requires 100,000 liters of water, for example, he chases one source after another until he discovers that the “calculation takes into account every scrap of precipitation that falls upon the area of land that a beef cow might occupy.”
Fair? Mr. Fairlie thinks not: “If the cow weren’t there,” he writes, “the grass would still grow, and rabbits or deer or bison would graze it and consume the same theoretical amount of water.” Nor is that water lost. It passes through the animal and returns to the environment, where it is utilized again and again and again.
Similarly, when researching the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report (Livestock’s Long Shadow), which suggests that farm animals generate 18 per cent of human-generated global warming gases, Mr. Fairlie discovers the report wrongly attributes all deforestation in the Amazon to cattle, although much of it is actually due to logging and development.
Aside from their relatively small use of resources, Mr. Fairlie has other, sometimes sophisticated, reasons to advocate for the intentional (though not mass) cultivation and consumption of livestock. These animals contribute to biodiversity, and “are the best means we have of keeping wide areas clear and open to solar energy and wind energy. They harness biomass that would otherwise be inaccessible, and recycle waste that would otherwise be a disposal problem. And they are the main means we have of ensuring that the phosphate which leaks out from our arable land into the wider environment, and that is crucial for agricultural yields, is brought back into the food chain.”
Taking the offensive, Mr. Fairlie argues that the net resource savings to be gained by switching to vegetarian diets are far less than many advocates claim, if only because such foodstuffs as olive oil, soya milk, chickpeas, lentils and rice are imported at great environmental cost from various places around the world.
But Mr. Fairlie is not giving the green light to eating as much meat as we like. We should cut back, and we should favor humane livestock farming, even when eating in restaurants.
Of course, whether or not we should eat meat, and how much we should eat, is not only a question of resource efficiency. Many people argue that livestock are individuals capable of experiencing subtle and complex emotions such as grief, joy, loneliness, love, pride, and even shame. Scientific evidence is accumulating to support this view. It’s a short step from such a realization, for some people, to a conviction that we have a moral obligation to the animals we now so heedlessly consume for food.
At bottom, Mr. Fairlie seems to believe that eating meat is nothing to be ashamed of, providing we know it has been well treated, and humanely slaughtered.
Thanks, Simon. And please pass the ribs.
Reviewer Robert A. Moskowitz has written many books about financial planning, computers, and knowledge management. His articles have appeared in dozens of national magazines. He also won an Emmy for his writing and on-air work in KOCE-TV’s series on personal finance: “Dollars and $ense.”
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Honest Meat - February 15, 2011
A Meaty Read by Simon Fairlie
If you are looking for the textbook on the environmental impacts of meat production and consumption, then look no further than Simon Fairlie’s new book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, just released by Chelsea Green Publishers in the US. As long as you can get past his use of quaint British terms like “ley, smallholder, and hectare”, you will find a trove of information on all of the controversial, hot topics around animal agriculture.
At first the title perplexed me- “benign” means harmless, like a tumor that just sits there and “extravagance” means a luxury you could do without. Is the consumption of meat a harmless luxury? That is certainly not what usually comes to mind for me- a luxury yes but not exactly benign. There are impacts of animal production, both good and bad, influenced by how and where they are raised. Nonetheless, I dug in.
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Farmbrarian - February 4, 2011
Author Simon Fairlie aggressively tackles the sensitive topic of eating animals in his new book Meat: A Benign Extravagance (out Feb. 8). His explicit purpose is to evaluate the sustainability of raising livestock–or the long-term ability to feed the human population while maintaining as much of the natural ecosystem as possible. Dietary health and morality, he rightly suggests, are topics for other books.
Meat examines the many facets of the debate at great length. For example, Fairlie examines the oft cited statistic that each kilogram of beef we eat required 100,000 liters of water. After consideration from every possible angle, he determines that this figure is “wildly inaccurate” for the majority of cattle around the world. Other topics covered include: land requirements for livestock versus plants, the natural place for animals in an ecosystem, vegan agriculture, the interesting alliance between the meat and vegetable oil industries, greenhouse gas contributions of eating animal products (very thorough), and permaculture.
Fairlie himself spent several years as a vegetarian, but now eats meat. He has considerable and varying farming experience and presents the arguments as objectively as can be expected (no one can be perfectly objective, which he acknowledges). In many cases he points out when pro-vegan or pro-meat writers make misleading statements, present statistics steeped in partial-truth, or repeat “facts” without proper groundwork. In the end he pushes for a “default livestock” agricultural system where animals fit into the picture without consuming considerable resources that could be directly consumed by humans. For example, grazing cattle on steep, natural grassland that can’t readily be farmed. Or feeding food scraps or excess harvest to pigs, which can be eaten in leaner times. In effect, a pig acts as a caloric savings account (piggy-bank?) that can be accessed later. The “default livestock” system represents a lower level of meat consumption than the current Western average, but specific types of meat eating is supported nonetheless.
Meat is written from an English perspective, even addressing the question of whether Britain could feed itself. This has no real bearing on the book, however, because many situations are evaluated, and his conclusions apply well around the world. To say the least, reading this book was an educational experience. Many other books have addressed this topic, but none so thoroughly as Fairlie’s work. This is a tremendous reference, albeit a thick one, that should be perused by all.
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Tipping sacred cows: Reviewing “Meat: A Benign Extravagance”
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...
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Meat: A Benign Extravagance, by Simon Fairlie
Feed Me Like You Mean It - Monday, January 24, 2011
Food miles may not be over-extravagant in their energy use, but they are thickly implicated in a centralized distribution system which multiplies our energy expenditure at every opportunity and whose impacts include excessive packaging and refrigeration, waste, traffic congestion, road-building, noise, accidents, loss of local distinctiveness, exploitation and displacement of peasants, excessive immigration, urban slums, deforestation and habitat destruction, removal of biomass from third world countries, the undermining of local communities in the UK, the collapse of UK farming and the blood which is split over oil fields.
—from Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie
This is Simon Fairlie on the subject of "food miles". I believe that with this one paragraph, he renders irrelevant most of James McWilliams' writings on the subject of food miles.
I've just been reading Meat: A Benign Extravagance. It's a very, very thoughtfully-written book. It's not mostly about food miles, and it's not mostly about meat being an extravagance.
Reducing it to one main idea is doing it a disservice, but if I might: It is mostly about dispelling the idea that livestock are intrinsically "unsustainable". The argument is so convincing that upon reading it, George Monbiot, previously a noted promoter of veganism, changed his mind, and decided that veganism was not the answer.
I plan to do a full write-up on the book when I finish reading it. In the meantime, if you're wondering what to read next, this book would be a great choice.
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Let them Eat Meat - January 16, 2011
With the possible exception of one chapter, Meat: A Benign Extravagance is not a scorching anti-veganism polemic. In looking at the environmental consequences of what we eat and how we produce it, author Simon Fairlie tallies up plenty of points in veganism’s favor. The man is so hard to pin down that many vegans thought his 2008 article “Can Britain Feed Itself?” – a version of which became Chapter 9 of this book – was an endorsement of a vegan society. This is because Fairlie showed that every incarnation of vegan agriculture freed up more land than any system that included livestock. It is more nutritionally efficient to eat grains than to eat animals, Fairlie grants, and that usually includes animals raised on pasture.
Nevertheless, Fairlie endorses a world with livestock, and his reasoning is more complex than “Cows turn inedible grass into meat.” After all, you could always grow nut trees instead of grass. The most significant problems he has with veganism are more aesthetic than environmental. The sterile, industrialized vegan dream with its wide expanses of checkered vegetable patches gaped at by humans in tractors fails to inspire him. “[I]f the human race can only be saved from global warming by living on a diet of turkey-less twizzlers,” he writes, “one wonders if it is really worth saving.” (187)
A “Primal Strip” fake-jerky-fueled humanity is enough to sour Fairlie on the vegan project, but he’s not a fan of simplistic and misleading environmental arguments either. Grains are more efficient than meat, he concedes, and he says this makes meat a luxury. But it is a more nutritionally efficient one than plenty of other extravagances that vegans allow, such as coffee, wine, baby corn, chocolate, tea, strawberries and asparagus. “There is a suspicion here that some who single out meat for environmental stricture on this account do so to add weight to previously held moral objections to killing animals,” Fairlie says. (12)
Until veganism demands that we drink only water, eat only potatoes, grains and beans, and give up pets, cars and airplanes—requiring a subsistence diet and lifestyle of its followers—there is no force behind the gloating vegan catchphrase, “You can’t be an environmentalist if you eat meat.”
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Meat, A Benign Extravagance
Transplanting a Seattleite - January 17, 2011
...Despite the research and the footnotes, this is no monograph. The prose style is informal and friendly: Fairlie invites us into his life as a mixed farmer (one who keeps livestock and grows crops), and his thinking on what has been percolating around the margins of thinking about food. Fairlie takes a tour (and the reader is along for the ride, really, as he is doing this in an effort to make sense of the world, rather than, omg, I got a book contract and now I have to do something really insane for a year to Make A Point about the wastefulness or whatever of Our Modern Lifestyles) of stockfree sustainable agriculture, with its rotations and green manures. He contemplates "grass farmers" and "carbon cowboys" and whether poor people engaging in traditional agriculture on small plots with few if any inputs can really be held accountable for all the greenhouse gas production that certain governmental and UN agencies might suggest they should be, as part of a mission to intensify land use...
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Meat Book Club
Hunt Gather Love Blog - December 29, 2010
Occasionally I'll encounter a book so dense with interesting info that it's hard to write just one post about it. That's the deal with Simon Fairlie's Meat: A Benign Extravagance. This is an important book and I believe it has the potential to positively influence both culture and policy. For too long anti-meat crusaders have dominated the environmental movement. Now it's time to look into whether or not meat really deserves the bad rap.
You can read George Monbiot's excellent review and an interview with the author.
I've read quite a bit at this point, but I thought why not invite you guys to read it with me?
The first meat book club?
So here is the deal: I'll post a chapter assignment every week. And then every blogger who is participating can do a post on that section. Every blogger doing a post can link to all the other book club posts. To sign up to be a blogger, post in the comments. Everyone else can discuss the book on comments, Facebook, and twitter.
I'm really curious about what everyone has to say about this book. I'm sure plenty of us will disagree with some of Fairlie's ideas, but there is so much through provoking stuff in this book that we will learn a lot.
And we can also have a tweetchat using the #meatbc hash tag. If you are interesting in doing anything else, let me know. In person meetups are a possibility! Definitely in NYC, at least! If you want to organize one in your town, let me know.
My goals for posting are:
Intro: Post about this whenever, I'll probably post about it soon.
Section 1: The Land Requirements of Livestock: January 8th
Section 2: Food Security: January 15th
Section 3: Energy and Carbon: January 22nd
Section 4: Land Use Change: January 29th
Who is in?
Read the original review, and join the book club!
More than Meets the Eye
Permaculture Activist Review by Peter Bane - Winter 2010
SIMON FAIRLIE, a farmworker and editor of Britain's prestigious Ecologist magazine, has given us a wonderful treatise on the ecological niche and cultural history of the world's primary livestock animals: beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry. There is more to this than retrospective, however. Fairlie's aim is to shed light on the current debate over the role of meat in the human diet, economy, and perhaps most importantly, the flows of carbon dioxide and methane from human activities that threaten to unhinge the climate.
The research underpinning Fairlie's tightly argued and smartly written text is most impressive. Not only are there citations and footnotes on virtually every page from an impressive array of sources, but the discovery of truths behind common myths becomes a recurrent theme in the unfolding narrative of the book. Meat is never a neutral subject, whether one eats it or not. It seems too, that the data about it follow a theorem the author attributes to George Monbiot, the prominent author and cultural critic: The price of nuclear energy (or the ecological impact of meat) is a function of one's political position-there being a spread of 27:1 in statistics about the former and of over 1000:1 about the latter.
Leaving aside the mendacity of claims by the nuclear industry, Fairlie finds that sober scientific assessments of water and land use by livestock put to shame inflated claims by vegan advocates and anti-meat pundits. Based on his own experience raising steers in Britain, he finds that a kilo of beef costs about 400 liters of water, about three times the scant amount claimed by the Alberta Beef Board. The top of the range claimed by critics of beef production (Pimentel), however, is over 200,000 liters per kilo! One has to wonder how anyone with half a wit could possibly be duped by such outrageous exaggerations. One could float a shipload of beef on that flood. Fairlie unpacks this a bit—beef fed on alfalfa irrigated by federal project water in arid California is certainly more impactful than beef raised on rain-fed pasture in temperate Britain, but the former represents an almost trivial portion of the world’s beef production, which is nowhere else so costly. The low-end claims are clearly closer to the truth.
Looking closely too at rainforest and climate impacts, he fords little that can be honestly assigned to livestock per se, and much that is disingenuously attributed to it. Cattle in the Brazilian rainforest are, for example, shown to be primarily a temporary land-clearing measure that precedes intensive chemical cropping of soya.
Fairlie is by no means dismissive of vegan critiques of meat production, however. By careful argument and by degrees, he comes around to the conclusion that a sustainable yield of meat for Britain raised by low-energy methods might be little more than one-half the current consumption, while dairy use could continue at present levels. Feedlot beef and industrial pork and chicken are clearly an abomination with no future. Confined animal feed¬lot operations (CAFOs) would have no role in today's food system if not for the deeply flawed pricing of fossil energy. But smallholding pigs, beef and dairy cattle, sheep, and backyard hen, he argues, have a vital role to play in providing protein, fats, wool, and manure through a system of farming that could feed and clothe Britain from homegrown resources. This pros¬pect he clearly expects to be a necessity as the pound collapses along with North Sea gas and oil flows (already in decline).
This scenario, comparable to the constraints of WWII, and one of seven carefully drawn and compared to vegan, conventional, and organic alternatives, is based on 1975 work by Kenneth Mellanby, but updated for changed yields and more recent information on crop responses to various fertility methods. The meat raised under this proposal, which Fairlie calls "default meat," assumes that dairy cattle would graze perennial leys used in rotation to renew the fertility of grain fields, that beef cattle would only be a by-product of dairying (surplus steers), that pigs foremost and chickens secondarily, would be fed entirely on spoilt grains and the wastes of food processors and kitchens plus backyard forage. Sheep would be an option to harvest fertility (primarily phosphates) from some part of the nation's endowment of rough grazing land not suitable for any other form of agriculture (other parts of which could be allowed to reforest for timber and pulp production). But sheep would contribute few calories; their primary value is manure and wool.
This is where the book gets very interesting to me. Fairlie identifies this production system for default meat as synonymous with permaculture, citing various passages from the writings of Bill Mollison and Patrick Whitefield to substantiate his claim that meat production incidental to other cropping, and for a balanced approach to fertility management, really costs nothing that could be produced under any other system of sustainable agriculture. For purposes of argument and to present a full case, Fairlie calculates the yields of fanning without livestock. When allowance is made for the harvesting of fertility by green manures and legume leys to support grain production, stockless farming yields no more net calories for hu¬mans than the "default meat" or permacul¬ture scenario and considerably less savor and variety. Stockless farming would allow for some increase in timber produc¬tion or land left untended for wildlife.
As much as statistics are sometimes a battleground and frequently make the eyes cross, there seems no better way to test the plausibility of the various ideo¬logical claims of vegans and anti-meat advocates than to cast them onto the field of a real-world landscape. Britain has about 60 million inhabitants and some 22 million acres of potentially cultivable land not under towns, roads, water, or cultural artifacts. Fairlie's scenarios assign all of it to some use and apply likely yields per hectare to each kind of crop. Of course, those conventionally minded economists who show no concern for the depletion of fossil energy reserves might argue that there's no need to reduce meat production at all, but the rest of us with eyes open should argue for a responsible allocation of land use. The arguments cut both ways: the consequences of a radical ban on meat production carried out on a landscape scale look more like a dystopian future of laboratory-grown pseudo-meat and fenced wildlife reserves, the sad project of overly urbanized thinkers.
Even under the current odious condi¬tions of industrial agriculture and confided animal operations, the world's livestock flocks and herds, far from being a burden on human hunger, help ensure a regular supply of grain through fat years and lean, something farmers clearly understand but vegan and anti-meat advocates choose blithely to ignore. Humans can only eat so much grain, but animal numbers can be bred up quickly to consume otherwise un¬marketable surpluses, helping to stabilize both price and supply. In poor years with high grain prices, animals can be sent to market, thus reducing demand for grain and making meat available when bread is dear. Animals are the buffer in the global food system.
They might also be the buffer in the climate system. We might need to play the "methane card," by reducing more easily controlled emissions of this gas while working on the harder reductions in C02, especially if climate change began spiraling rapidly out of control. But we can only do so once, and to do it without grave provocation risks further enabling of the immensely powerful fossil fuel industries, which must be reined in. Fairlie points out that methane emissions have actually been falling since 1998 despite increases in the numbers of livestock. Clearly, we don't yet understand all the mechanisms of the climate. And so to put climate abatement (by, for example taxing methane emissions or legislating against livestock) on the backs of small, mostly poor farmers, for whom a few animals are often the primary form of wealth and insurance again calamity, would be a monumental injustice.
The consequences of applying per¬maculture systems to the whole of British agriculture—and I think Fairlie makes a good case on several grounds for why this ought to be done—are more than meet the eye. If monogastrics (pigs and poultry) are to be fed from household and food processing wastes, and if food is to be provided to the entire population without the intensive levels of transport, processing, and refrigeration that presently characterize the industry, and most especially, if human wastes are to be recaptured' for their invaluable phosphate and other mineral contents, then the population must be more evenly settled around the country, and many more people must once again be engaged in farming and land husbandry.
The value of this book is chiefly the well-argued case that it makes against both industrial forms of meat production and the folly of veganism as a universal dietary solution to animal cruelty and threats of climate change. Vegan eaters and farmers might well work and eat in a matrix of integrated livestock farming. Fairlie is kind toward individual vegans but little social or ecological value is to be gained and much lost from expanding vegan dietary practices. A secondary and significant value of Meat is the careful explication it makes of the complementary roles of our familiar livestock animals in mixed farm production, a system far more likely to serve us well through the coming decades of energy descent than industrial agriculture.
Cattle enable us to harvest the peren¬nial production of grass from 'extensive areas with modest labor and fencing. Milk production is an efficient means of extracting fats and proteins from grass, which humans can't eat, but which grows well in cool northern climates. Grass also protects soil from erosion, and even builds organic matter therein. (Why, he asks, is there so little attention paid to it in permaculture?) Whey, a derivative of cheese making, is a splendid enrichment to the diet of pigs, which fatten deliciously on slop, spoilage, small creatures, and roughage inedible by humans. Cheese was, in the European cultures, a way to store animal fat and protein through the cold months when vegetative growth and animal fodder were scarce. Sheep count little in food production, but offer valuable fiber that will again be appreciated when poly-fleece disappears along with natural gas and petroleum-based plastics. The pasturing and herding of ovines is also a traditional device for capturing the surplus nutrients of rough land (unsuitable for cattle or crops) as a needed subsidy to grain cropping.
The elegance of these systems is well tested if little understood by today's urban consumers, who may be unduly swayed by the wild-eyed claims and pure-land propositions of vegan commentators and industrial ag shills alike. City dwellers and eaters everywhere ought to be more attentive to the real sources of their food.
The cow and the pig loom large in the cultures of Eurasia and by extension with the entire world today. They are tied to the fates of ecosystems and of fanners past and future. Fairlie lards his story with charming tales of the house pig and its role in rural society (not unlike the family dog in popular affection). He roams among the anthropological literature to remind us of the centrality of these animals to our success as a species. Without sentimentality, the author paints a friendly picture of our animal companions over the years and sees a clear place for them to help-us maintain our humanity in the future.
Along with this hard-nosed look at how food systems might evolve in the absence of fossil fuels, and the concomitant promotion of permaculture, Fairlie levels a few well-aimed knocks at permaculture's casual acceptance of veganism-which makes little sense under the holistic analysis of ecological design-and of the lint-like adherence of vegan dietary theorists to the ideas of permaculture, as if a green vision of tree cropping were somehow sufficient to provide for all our needs. Call it a fig leaf: their own preferences writ large makes for a chillingly bleak world. He argues well for the serious consideration of grain cropping (and of potatoes for cool climates) in permaculture systems and laments the relative paucity of attention these staples have received in permaculture writing and practice.
Erudite, well grounded in the author's farming experience, and delightfully writtten, this book recommends itself to all permaculture designers, and to every intelligent reader who has concerns for climate stability and a regenerative land use. It is more than a primer, offering an insightful examination of the central problems of agriculture itself, both past and present. My only concern is that, as a dense text with few illustrations and a cover price of $40, it won't be read by as many as need to learn from it. I think, in particular, that the publisher and distributor have miscalcu¬lated the market point and should consider fixing the dollar price in rough proportion to its sterling equivalent, say $30. This is still a goodly amount for an unillustrated paperbound volume of modest proportions, but it might afford the book the wider circulation it so richly deserves.
With brilliant costings and evaluation of his hypotheses and of farming practices broadly, Fairlie sets a high and worthwhile standard for permaculture practitioners, and by pointing to some of the discipline's blind spots and omissions, he makes himself an invaluable critic and supporter at the same time. We owe him a prompt and carefully considered response in both action and words.
Have your steak and eat it
Meat: a benign extravagance, by Simon Fairlie (Permanent Publications), reviewed by Christine Haigh
Red Pepper - November 2010
Remember that statistic about how it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef? Or that livestock production is responsible for a greater contribution to climate change than transport? They are so frequently quoted that their basis is never questioned. In this dense but readable volume, former Ecologist editor Simon Fairlie does exactly that.
In what began as a personal quest to justify not giving up on his taste for meat, Fairlie argues that, in a future sustainable society, we can have our steak and eat it – although we might have to take it in turns.
The book’s central thesis is that a low, ‘default’ level of livestock, where animals are used for what they’re good at – namely disposing of food residues and in return producing a range of useful stuff, including food, fibre and manure – can be part of a sustainable food system. Moreover, a sustainable system that doesn’t include some domesticated animals has a whole new set of problems to deal with in providing fertility for arable production and a varied year-round diet that doesn’t rely on fossil-fuelled transport to deliver it from the other side of the world.
Along the way, Fairlie demolishes a host of myths, including the water inefficiency of meat production (it turns out that your two pounds of beef only requires that much water if it’s fed on irrigated feed from the Californian desert). He also challenges the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s famous statistic that livestock generates 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which Fairlie argues confuses one-off emissions from land-use change with on-going emissions from production.
In doing so, he illustrates the bias of policy in favour of urban over rural patterns of settlement. He argues that this is a prejudice that is evident not just in planning policy the world over but even in the focus of climate change mitigation efforts on methane, a potent but relatively short-lived greenhouse gas largely generated by land-based activities, at the expense of the more stubborn carbon dioxide mainly arising from the fossil-fuelled activities of urban consumers.
The book thinks big. Fairlie’s essay ‘Can Britain feed itself?’, previously published in The Land magazine (its regular readers might recognise one or two other chapters too), finds its way into the book, and is the basis for much of the thinking behind it. What, he asks, would Britain – and other temperate countries – look like under the extremes of various combinations of agricultural production? You can take your pick between vegan chemical, stock-free permaculture or organic with livestock (or any other possible permutation) and figure out which looks most like a world you’d like to see.
It’s a new look at a sometimes bizarre range of topics, from the relative merits of wheat and chestnuts (which used to be a staple in southern France), to the role of animals in food security. Fairlie spells out the importance of livestock for the landless (a way of sequestering whatever scraps of feed come your way, with harvesting on demand) and the way they provide a buffer for a population’s grain stocks. But in the context of his focus on temperate countries such as the UK, his promotion of the use of animal traction has no doubt raised a few eyebrows, however convincing his arguments.
While Fairlie clearly has an agenda, he doesn’t shy away from subjecting both sides of the argument to scrutiny. Perhaps most interesting is his detailed knowledge of Britain’s agrarian history: the book is peppered with snippets from thinkers on food and feed from days gone by. In essence, the book is a wake-up call for us to realise how disconnected we are from the land, and why it might be worth getting back to nature before we start planning our collective future.
Of course, we live in a world of compromises, and none of the scenarios in Fairlie’s thought experiments and back-of-the-envelope calculations is ever likely to be realised. But then Fairlie was never under the impression that the world was going to turn vegan. He accepts animal-free lifestyles as an option but rejects them as a global prescription. The real debate, his book recognises, is about how we produce food, and with key players like the UN demonstrating a distinct bias towards the type of intensive livestock production that sees animals being fed on increasingly valuable grain and generating huge waste problems that their surrounding environment does not have the capacity to deal with, it’s a battle we might all do well to be prepared for.
The book is unself-consciously anthropocentric, and Fairlie doesn’t go near animal rights issues, which makes much of it irrelevant for many vegans. But anyone for whom eating animal products raises issues of social justice and sustainability should certainly have a read – it’s a refreshing new take on the increasingly polarised debates about the role of animals in our food system.
Read the original review over at Red Pepper.
A BENIGN EXTRAVAGANCE?
Simon Fairlie explores the debate about food localisation in a transition culture and discusses its wider implications.
For about 10 years I lived in a community which (since the comments I make here can apply to other similar permaculture settlements) I don’t need to name and will call Happy Valley. There were many things I liked about the place, but one of the aspects that I found difficult was the collective diet. There was no prohibition on eating meat; but since communal meals had to provide for the common denominator of collective acceptability, a vegetarian ethos prevailed. If you were on kitchen duty, it was more convenient to cook without using any animal products, because then you didn’t have to prepare anything special for vegans.
Food Miles & Self-Sufficiency
Initially I agreed with this policy, because meat is environmentally extravagant, but over time I found this approach problematic, both at consumption level and at production level. On the one hand, Happy Valley, although it aspired towards self-sufficiency, was spending about £200 per fortnight on pallet-loads of food imported from the four corners of the world, notably China, Turkey, India, Brazil and the USA. Most of this food was either high fat