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

So then, I guess you don't mind if somebody kills and eats you as long as your death is painless?  Given that humans can live perfectly healthily (in fact more so, other things being equal) without killing animals for food, what rational basis do you have for saying it's okay to raise animals for food, treating them as mere instruments to satisfy your appetite, that you don't have for saying it's okay to raise other humans for food?

Humans would be terrible things to eat because of their disgusting diet.  Also, humans would be very difficult to keep penned up whereas pigs and cattle are rather easily confined.  The yield of meat compared to feed required to get a meal off of humans is far less beneficial than that of pigs, for instance.  I mean even at 4 years old a human barely has any meat on it's bones at all - while the same time span would lead to very old pigs/cows, which can be slaughtered for a meal within 2 years easily.


Finally, humans have a consciousness that allows them to perceive their captivity an that creates far greater suffering that what is experience by pigs or cattle.  Cattle are perfectly happy to live within the confines of a paddock as long as they are well fed, watered, and have some other cattle with which to hang out.  They also have absolutely no idea that they are there to be fattened up for a meal.


If you don't understand the difference between the consciousness of a cow and that of a human, then I strongly suggest you should study the situation a little more.  If, after that, you still see the consciousness of a cow as being equal to that of a human, then I suggest that might be a sign of cognitive dysfunction relating to a projection of human consciousness onto that which has none.  Do you find yourself empathizing with stuffed animals, for instance?

You're quite misinformed if you think a 4-year-old cow is "very old."  From the Wikipedia article on cattle: "Breeding stock usually live to about 15 years (occasionally as much as 25 years). The oldest recorded cow, Big Bertha, died at the age of 48 in 1993." 


And how do you know what a cow does or doesn't perceive about his or her confinement?  Can you read cows' minds? 


It's well-established that cows feel pain and fear, which means that they will suffer under actual circumstances where they are raised for food, as opposed to the fairy-tale hypothetical of the poster I was replying to.  And it is also clear that they form emotional bonds with each other, which means that other members of a herd are not exactly going to be oblivious to one of their members being killed.  If you don't think that animals other than humans are capable of experiencing any sense of loss when members of their herd, pack, or whatever die, you haven't been around animals very much.  But my guess is that at some level you're aware that mammals at least are capable of such cognitive and emotional feats, but denying that this is the case is a mighty damn convenient rationalization for continuing to treat them as nothing more than ways to satisfy your appetite.


Finally, I'm not sure why you think snide irrelevant remarks constitute an actual logical argument.

Breeding stock are not killed for meals so your source material on that is irrelevant.  I'm not misinformed at all, I've taken part in the slaughter of hundreds of animals and know first hand what I'm talking about here.  Your ignorance of the subject is laughable - literally.  We've had sheltered city boys such as yourself start crying out on the farm and we do, in point of fact, find it hilarious that you are so unable to deal with the reality of human life.


You come across as a theist here, imagining how things work without actually making any observations.  Spend some time on a farm, in a slaughter house, or training animals and after you get a clue you'll be able to hold up your side of the discussion.

You present no evidence that animals killed for meals naturally have shorter lifespans than animals kept alive long enough for breeding purposes, and obviously how many animals you've slaughtered has no relevance to knowledge of animals' lifespans barring predation by humans or other animals, starvation, etc.  You don't say what it is you think I'm laughably ignorant about.  The "reality of human life" is that most human societies historically have consumed a far smaller proportion of animal products in their diet than they have in recent decades, and that humans, unlike carnivores, have no need for animal products in their diet at all.


And I certainly don't need to have spent significant time on a farm or in a slaughterhouse to know how things work on farms and slaughterhouses (and yes, of course I've trained animals, which has zero relevance here anyway); such information is readily available through means other than direct experience--and in any case, most "sheltered city boys" such as myself have plenty of direct experience with animals such as dogs and cats that aren't typically slaughtered for food.  I also have significant knowledge of animal biology, evolutionary theory, etc., which is relevant to understanding animals but which many farmers as well as "sheltered city boys" lack.  So, my belief that animals of the sorts typically raised for human consumption have a considerable capacity for experiencing pain and suffering, and that at least herd animals such as cows (and humans, of course) form emotional bonds with each other, is backed by considerable scientific evidence as well as by my own experience with animals that, in the respects that are relevant here, are not appreciably different from cows or pigs.  If you choose to deny that any of these things are true, it is you who are subscribing to a belief on the basis of faith rather than what the evidence suggests.  As for animals' reaction to confinement, it may well be that cows couldn't care less whether they are confined to a large pasture or not confined at all; nothing I said indicated that I believed as a matter of faith anything one way or the other about that.  On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that animals of many species have highly neurotic reactions to confinement in closer quarters.  You can choose to believe otherwise, but again, that belief is not consistent with the evidence.

What does the lifespan of a cow have to do with this?  Do cattle celebrate birthdays?  Do they even have calendars?  Do you think for a moment that a 15 year old bull pauses to reflect on his adolescent years?


If the slaughterhouse is run well, as most are, then the cow won't even know it's about to die.  It's not making plans for it's future or thinking about the wonders of being a grandparent - it's just moving along in the moment.  So I ask again, what does lifespan have to do with this?


On the 'suffering' issue, why don't you get specific about the sort of suffering you are talking about then?  Food stock cattle have much better lives than most humans, specifically because they put weight on faster when they are not experiencing anxiety.  It sounds as though, after all the source information you've listed, that you've based your conclusions on a couple of disturbing videos posted by PETA activists.  Why not just watch Ray Comfort and subscribe to Christianity?

I have in fact spent much time with cows and other "food" animals, as I rescue them from people like you.  And I can tell you theirs not much difference emotionally or intellectually between my cow, my dog, or my 5-year-old.  And I can also tell you, each of them wants to live as much as the other. 

Those "sheltered city boys" who cry -- they obviously have a conscious.  You, my dear Heather -- not so much.

Your five your old probably wouldn't make much of a meal


Most predatory animals do not.

My five-year-old is vegan (read: not obese), so no, she wouldn't (though that doesn't seem to stop people from hunting doves, etc)

Doves are a free meal though, no need to feed them.  Does your 5 year old forage for herself?

Ahh i see now..


A few of your posts mention weight when its really not an issue.


You view being vegan as weight control. Very telling.

So do you drop into farms under cover of darkness wearing night vision goggles as you open gates and silently whisk the cattle off to a retirement home where they can spend the rest of their days playing shuffleboard?  Rescue them?  Seriously?  LOL.


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