by George Monbiot
September 8, 2010

I used to think being a vegan was the only ethical way to eat. But an important new book suggests we can change our food system to allow for healthy meat consumption.

Carracci - The Butchers Shop - 1583

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 sterilized scraps to pigs solves two problems at once: waste disposal and the diversion of grain. Instead we now dump or incinerate millions of tons 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.

Continue Reading Page 2 HERE:

Check Out This Book Review:

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith
* Posted by Dallas Gaytheist on September 8, 2010 in the Read Atheist group.

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Replies to This Discussion

The reason humans have rights is simply because we assert them.


Animals are unable to reason to the point of identifying rights. You show me a single species besides humans that can identify and communicate the plight of their species and reason with me why morally its wrong to eat them and ill quit eating that species.


Otherwise your speculation about animal rights has no merits.

I'll go so far as to stop eating any animal that can pass the 'mark test' - that is, put a smear of paint on it's face and leave it in a room with a mirror.  If it recognizes itself, it will wipe the mark off of its face - but most animals haven't a clue what is in the mirror - they have no sense of self.

Kinda of weird to expect humans to value a life that has no value of such itself.



I can understand the concept when it comes to animals that display behaviors that can be interpreted as self-awareness.  I think most great apes actually have a sense of self, as well as dolphins.  There is no way in hell, however, that oysters or mussels have that quality but for some reason the vegan philosophy seems to abhor eating them too - that is where the rationale breaks down for me.

Most animals display a strong instinct to survive.  Your assertion that animals have no perception of their own value is wrong. 

Ok, well I'll ask the same of you as any theist - provide some evidence.

Prior to about age 1 1/2, human babies don't have self-awareness in the sense of being able to recognize themselves in a mirror, either.  Is it okay to eat babies because they lack that aspect of self-awareness?  I think not!  But they still have the capacity to fear physical threats and experience pain when physical harm is inflicted on them; those are the morally relevant criteria here, the major reasons why we don't think it's okay to kill and eat a baby.  As for oysters and mussels, we really have no idea at this point what they feel.  If in fact we were able to determine that they had no subjectively unpleasant experiences, there couldn't be an ethical objection to eating them.  But so far we don't know that to be true.


By the way, I don't understand why both vegans and non-vegans alike seem to assume that eating animals necessarily entails killing them.  Although I wouldn't do it because I think meat is gross, there's no ethical basis that I can think of to be opposed to scavenging.  As long as the animal hasn't been deliberately killed by humans, no ethical principle is violated by eating it.

Already responded to that line - sorry, you lose.

Dolphins are one of the most evil creatures around so its possible they are self aware. I mean they kill for no apparent reason all the time.


Great apes not only are likely self aware but they are cousins to our species and should be off the plate.


I can see restricting some animals that have the potential for self awareness.. but most of those are off the diet list of civilized cultures already.

mark test


I like this idea alot.



First, the mirror test isn't necessarily a sufficient test for sentience.  It relies on vision, which isn't always the dominant sense for an animal.  We test things based on our perception of reality, which isn't objective. 


But even if we do agree to your arbitrary means for determining an arbitrary criteria for not being eaten, then you have to include pigs in that category, because they have been shown to pass the mirror test. 

I'll have to ask you for a citation on that one. The only pig/mirror test I've read about was one in which they could 'gain information' through a reflected image - no mention of identifying themselves.


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