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

Some dogs do and some don't appear to recognize themselves in the mirror.  Does that mean it's okay to kill and eat the dogs that don't recognize themselves?  This seems like a silly criterion.  Animals can recognize and fear physical threats, as well as experience pain from injuries inflicted on them, regardless of whether they understand that it's themselves in the mirror or not.

Have you any studies to cite that indicate dogs can recognize themselves in a mirror?  I've personally never witnessed that and I've never seen dogs listed in the very short list of species that can.

Pigs pass the mirror test.  They are well aware of themselves and the brutality inflicted upon them in the meat industry.

Citation please?

Thanks, Albert.  I saw something about this quite some time ago on discoveryblogs.  It did indicate that the pigs could interpret information for a mirror, but doesn't indicate whether or not they can interpret themselves - or if they even have a concept of self.  Smart, yes - selfaware, no.


Even if the pig were self aware, that still doesn't justify a leap to avoiding oysters at all - that is the part that make veganism seem like a religion to me; arbitrary dogma to create an ingroup with a sense of moral superiority.

Why would it not be okay to eat dog?

All insects recognize and react to physical threats.


Plants can also recognize and react to physical threats. See previously posted studies. Your point?


There has to be some line drawn on which life is sacred to you and what isnt. Currently it seems based on the big eye, round head phenomenon.

 I'm sure you would agree however, that there are certain humans that can neither assert their rights nor possibly even have an idea that they have any rights to begin with: babies and probably most young children, people with various kinds of mental illnesses, people who are unable to communicate for many different reasons, etc. Do they not have rights? Yes, they do. And they have spokesmen for their rights. Your assertion that it is a prerequisite that an individual has to be able to reason to the point of identifying that they have rights is spurious. Because other species are unable to defend their rights doesn't mean that there aren't rational arguments for conveying rights upon them. That is one other thing that makes humans so remarkable, they actually have the capacity to act with compassion towards other species and to not see all the world and everything in it as being here simply to do with what we please and at our leisure.

You know, you really throw your intellectual integrity into question when you revert to the babies argument - unless you can't actually associate a baby with the adult that it will become.  I'll just leave it at that and respond to a cleaned up version if you care to try again.

Responding to Stephen's assertion that "The reason humans have rights is simply because we assert them." And babies were only one the examples, and I don't see the problem in this context.


So you really can't see babies as being human beings then?  You can't differentiate between a baby that is in the process of developing full self-awareness and a cow that never will?

Huh?  By that logic, we shouldn't kill newly conceived fetuses because they have a high probability of some day developing full self-awareness.  Are you secretly Catholic? And, again, what about the severely mentally retarded, severely mentally ill, demented, etc.?  They don't have the potential of which you speak, yet we grant them rights.  The basis of human rights, at least in the view of just about everybody I've ever met besides you, is not the fact that humans have current or potential self-awareness; otherwise, we wouldn't grant rights to individuals who belong to the above groups.


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