monbiot: ethical meat eating is possible - and better for the earth

I have two pieces to post, both of great interest to me, both of which confirm my own point of view.

I realize in some sense I'm suffering from an echo-chamber effect, reflecting and enlarging on what I already believe. But in another sense, seeing others more knowledgeable in a field use their research and experience to confirm my beliefs is not only comforting, it's illuminating. It's not as if the beliefs that are being reinforced are thoughtless or knee-jerk. My beliefs are the result of years of reading, observation, challenge, debate and internal conflict.

The first piece was sent to me by very-longtime reader and internet friend deang: George Monbiot writing about ethical meat-eating.

Conversations about omnivorousness, vegetarianism and veganism often leave people feeling bruised, if not attacked. So I feel I must emphasize that I am not arguing for anyone else. I have tremendous respect for anyone who chooses not to use animal products out of respect for animals.

Regular readers of wmtc already know the drill. I was a vegetarian for slightly more than two years. It didn't work for me personally, in terms of health and diet, but beyond that, I came to realize that I don't believe eating animals is wrong. However, I've learned too much about the horrors of industrial food production - on animals, on the earth, on labour, on our health - to eat in ignorance. So I'm striving for conscious, ethical, sustainable omnivorousness. It's an imperfect system, but it runs on the theory that whatever we do is worth doing, and the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Long ago, I had a co-worker-friend who was active in the animal rights movement. She decried my emphasis on animal welfare, because, to her mind, it enabled cruelty. She believed we should not improve animal-farming conditions; we should eliminate meat production altogether. We should not try to pressure McDonald's into sourcing meat from farms with better practices; we should shut down McDonald's. I appreciated her radicalism, but after our conversation, I moved further into the animal-welfare camp. Withdrawing from the system started looking like a cop-out.

George Monbiot, who formerly preached that a vegan diet was the most ethical choice, now believes otherwise. In doing so, he does what so few of us can manage: he decides he was wrong, admits it publicly, and agrees with someone who has previously excoriated him. That's a rare and impressive feat in this world.
I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly

This will not be an easy column to write. I am about to put down 1,200 words in support of a book that starts by attacking me and often returns to this sport. But it has persuaded me that I was wrong. More to the point, it has opened my eyes to some fascinating complexities in what seemed to be a black and white case.

In the Guardian in 2002 I discussed the sharp rise in the number of the world's livestock, and the connection between their consumption of grain and human malnutrition. After reviewing the figures, I concluded that veganism "is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world's most urgent social justice issue". I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I'm about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat.

In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie pays handsome tribute to vegans for opening up the debate. He then subjects their case to the first treatment I've read that is both objective and forensic. His book is an abattoir for misleading claims and dodgy figures, on both sides of the argument.

There's no doubt that the livestock system has gone horribly wrong. Fairlie describes the feedlot beef industry (in which animals are kept in pens) in the US as "one of the biggest ecological cock-ups in modern history". It pumps grain and forage from irrigated pastures into the farm animal species least able to process them efficiently, to produce beef fatty enough for hamburger production. Cattle are excellent converters of grass but terrible converters of concentrated feed. The feed would have been much better used to make pork.

Pigs, in the meantime, have been forbidden in many parts of the rich world from doing what they do best: converting waste into meat. Until the early 1990s, only 33% of compound pig feed in the UK consisted of grains fit for human consumption: the rest was made up of crop residues and food waste. Since then the proportion of sound grain in pig feed has doubled. There are several reasons: the rules set by supermarkets; the domination of the feed industry by large corporations, which can't handle waste from many different sources; but most important the panicked over-reaction to the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises.

Feeding meat and bone meal to cows was insane. Feeding it to pigs, whose natural diet incorporates a fair bit of meat, makes sense, as long as it is rendered properly. The same goes for swill. Giving sterilised scraps to pigs solves two problems at once: waste disposal and the diversion of grain. Instead we now dump or incinerate millions of tonnes of possible pig food and replace it with soya whose production trashes the Amazon. Waste food in the UK, Fairlie calculates, could make 800,000 tonnes of pork, or one sixth of our total meat consumption.

But these idiocies, Fairlie shows, are not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model. He demonstrates that we've been using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. The results are radically different.

. . . .

He goes on to butcher a herd of sacred cows. Like many greens I have thoughtlessly repeated the claim that it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef. Fairlie shows that this figure is wrong by around three orders of magnitude. It arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge. A ridiculous amount of fossil water is used to feed cattle on irrigated crops in California, but this is a stark exception.

Similarly daft assumptions underlie the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's famous claim that livestock are responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, a higher proportion than transport. Fairlie shows that it made a number of basic mistakes. It attributes all deforestation that culminates in cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle: in reality it is mostly driven by land speculation and logging. It muddles up one-off emissions from deforestation with ongoing pollution. It makes similar boobs in its nitrous oxide and methane accounts, confusing gross and net production. (Conversely, the organisation greatly underestimates fossil fuel consumption by intensive farming: its report seems to have been informed by a powerful bias against extensive livestock keeping.)

Overall, Fairlie estimates that farmed animals produce about 10% of the world's emissions: still too much, but a good deal less than transport. . . .

The meat-producing system Fairlie advocates differs sharply from the one now practised in the rich world: low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale. But if we were to adopt it, we could eat meat, milk and eggs (albeit much less) with a clean conscience. By keeping out of the debate over how livestock should be kept, those of us who have advocated veganism have allowed the champions of cruel, destructive, famine-inducing meat farming to prevail. It's time we got stuck in.

Read the column here.


johngoldfine said...

That's good stuff.

I feel about food pretty much the way you do--and my takeaway from this post is that shoddy science, factoids, rotten statistics, "daft assumptions," and so on make it impossible for sensible debate; their existence allows people to stake out ever more strident positions, based on ever-flimsier evidence.

laura k said...

shoddy science, factoids, rotten statistics, "daft assumptions," and so on make it impossible for sensible debate; their existence allows people to stake out ever more strident positions, based on ever-flimsier evidence.

It's true. But on the other hand, I'm encouraged by the growing awareness of sustainable eating and local sourcing. It's come a long, long way into mainstream thought.

Andrea said...

interesting and good stuff.

I live in a farming community. Dairy farms every where.
In Canada you will still see SOME smaller dairy farmers but not as many as there used to be. I feel the push due to economy and banks to have huge dairy productions rather than small ones has also caused problems. Smaller farmers only had as many cows as their land could support.
Now you have a 500 head dairy cow production on only 30 acres of land. huh??
But there has been some amazing changes to some of the big dairies around here. Talk about high tech and amazing!!
The one here has the whole barn built on a bit of a slant and at least once a day the floor is flushed with a special mix that cleans, deodorizes and stuff then the water is collected filtered so the poo goes in the holding area and the water is then reused. No tractor use in the barns and the cows are happier.

A few of the dairies around here milk 24 hours a day in these amazing high tech systems with mozart music playing and they actually have issues with many cows refusing to leave the milking area they are so relaxed. lol.

The farmers have made changes and been forced by economy and outside forces to make too many not very good changes but I think that with the emergance of thoughts like your post and even those on the extreme other side has made the industry realize that they have to make some serious sacrifices to fix fast progress mistakes.

Around here I am seeing a lot of changes for the good.

But then I would MUCH rather see a field being used to produce corn for a handful of cows then see it filled up with houses - a problem that we see the closer you get to the big cities.

laura k said...

But then I would MUCH rather see a field being used to produce corn for a handful of cows then see it filled up with houses - a problem that we see the closer you get to the big cities.

Sprawl is a constant issue. Here in the GTA, the sprawl ends in a knife edge and farmland begins. And you suddenly realize the sprawl you've been driving through was very recently farmland, too.

You can practically feel the sprawl pushing on the farmland, squeezing it out.

But people have to live somewhere, and they don't necessarily want to live in dense conditions in big cities - especially if that's where they've come from, abroad.

Here there is also a racial/immigrant overlay, as farming communities are almost all white and the immigrants moving into sprawl are people of colour. Of course the farmers' families were immigrants a few generations back, but they're Canadian now, and descendants of Europeans, so they don't necessarily see the connection.

I love seeing the Ontario farmland so close to the GTA. It is, in fact, my number one reason for trying to buy local produce! Carbon footprint and health are important, too, but "eat the scenery" is even more important to me - even though I don't live in that scenery myself.

Thanks for the insight, Andrea.