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.

Views: 4119

Replies to This Discussion

If by rude you mean that I fail to show respect for religion in any form, well then I am proud to say I am about as rude as I can be, in person as well as on the net.


If by pretentious you mean affecting greater talent or culture than is actually possessed then you should be informed that I do not affect that which I do not possess.  If you feel intimidated or insufficient in some manner, it is a shortfall of your own and not an affect of mine.


If by arrogant you mean that I think I am better than you, well then you have more than hit the nail on the head because I do, in fact, believe as such.


If by know-it-all you mean that I've actually brought evidence to this debate that you can't refute, well then you are correct there as well.  I've spoken about the histidine and vitamin b-12 deficiencies of the vegan diet only to have your 'husband' tell me he is emaciated because of his vegan diet as well as having a 'hot wife' because of it.  I'm not sure why I even responded to such drivel, but I will reiterate that I do not find either of you attractive.


Now, if this is about who gets 'hotter women', myself or your 'husband', well I'll be glad to forfeit the contest because I'm not willing to degrade myself by reducing the intellectual content of my argument to your level.

actually you are doing a terrible job of convincing me to eat meat guess we are even. 

If you want to think you're better than me go ahead..I have nothing to prove. :)

That is exactly where you are off the mark, however.  I really don't care, in the least, what you eat.  What I do take offense to, however, is the running theme amongst vegans that the diet provides some moral absolution and the rest of the civilized world is populated by immoral monsters who need to be educated on the barbarous nature of their ways - the only reason I hopped in on this discussion in the first place.


So eat your animal-product free diet and enjoy.  If you are one of the few vegans who actually maintains a balanced diet as well, then you are doing a huge service to your health.  I, on the other hand, will continue with animal products in my diet because I do not wish to bother hunting down b-12, calcium, and histidine balance from elusive veggie combinations when an omnivorous diet hits the mark much more conveniently.  Neither of us has a morally superior diet, and the concept of dietary morality is as ridiculous now as it was when gods forbade the consumption of unclean creatures.

The vegan diet doesn't offer moral absolution, that's why they still fight to end needless animal suffering at the hands of unenlightened humans who have the capacity to understand that what they are doing is wrong, but have not yet achieved that understanding.

Morality is not fixed, so what you see as ridiculous today could very well be universally recognized tomorrow. as Stephen Pinker said, "Much of the world has seen an end to slavery, to genocide for convenience, to torture as a routine form of criminal punishment, to capital punishment for property crimes, to human sacrifice, to rape as the spoils of war, to the ownership of women. We seem to be turning into a nicer species."(1) 

Just as there has been a progression in human morality of who we regard as "persons" and thus worthy of our empathy; just as this circle expanded beyond our families, beyond our clans, beyond our tribes, beyond our race; we are in a period when the idea of what a "person" is, is being understood by more and more people to no longer apply only to members of the human species. It's perfectly rational and the arguments have been presented by people far more capable than I, and it has been an issue debated by philosphers since the origin of philosophy (2). To dismiss the entire question as simply "ridiculous" just seems to indicate that this is a subject for which you find it impossible to consider objectively.

From the point of view of someone who has accepted that the argument for animal rights is sound, then killing and eating animals without cause becomes an immoral act, so yes, one of us does have a morally superior diet, and it's not you. I'm sorry if you don't like that conclusion, but I guess that's just too damn bad. 


(1) Stephen Pinker, Science is Culture. pg30.
(2) for example: Pythagoras, Plutarch, Seneca, Leonardo da Vinci, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, Neitzsche, Tolstoy, Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and of course, many others.

Well, there's your moral absolution coupled with an evangelical agenda - religion all the way.  What you don't seem to perceive is the difference between causing and animal to suffer and killing it without causing suffering.  Personally, I can't connect the two without some supernatural life force or something like that - and I don't believe such a thing exists.

Killing without cause is a violation of the rights of the individual. And yes, as sentient beings they have individual rights, and it is a violation of their right to live that killing them violates. It's really pretty easy to understand.

Any group has what rights they can obtain for themselves.  Woman, blacks, gays - have all fought for their rights.  To be an 'individual' you need to actually be aware of your individuality - something I have never witnessed in livestock animals, or most other animals for that matter.


I realize you project these qualities into creatures with whom you cannot communicate - but I just don't see it.  You make the choice not to eat creatures that you seem to have anthropomorphized, seemingly every creature in the animal kingdom that does not afflict you in some way, and that's fine.  If you want me to do the same then you need to convince me that they are aware of their plight.

"Any group has what rights they can obtain for themselves. " 

Woman, blacks, gays - have all fought for their rights.  
That's only part of the story and you know it. All these groups have people who are not a part of their group who believe that they have rights, and there's a good many of those people that would fight for the rights of those people even if the people for whose rights they were fighting for did not believe that they actually had those rights or not.

"To be an 'individual' you need to actually be aware of your individuality."

Why? You're going to have to explain this. Consciousness exists on a continuum and has evolved over time. We shared a part of our evolutionary path with the ancestors of these species, so it's not anthropomorphizing anything at all to look at another 
animal and understand that the difference in our 
consciousnesses isn't one of 'kind' but of 'degree'. It's 
perfectly logical to assume, based on observation and evidence, that creatures with whom we share brains of very similar structure and evolutionary history, are experiencing certain things in much the same way that we experience those things. For example, when a dog is angry, it seems logical to assume that the dog is experiencing an emotion similar to what we experience when we experience the emotion of anger. Like I was 
saying earlier, having an awareness that you are experiencing what we call 'anger' is not a prerequisite for feeling the emotion. I'm not assuming that other animals are aware of themselves in the same way that humans are aware of themselves, that would be anthropomorphizing. It's really the opposite, it's recognizing that humans are animals, I am an animal, and then evaluating the implications of what that means as far as what we (I) share in common with other species. I don't know exactly how a cow experiences fear or hunger or anger, but it seems pretty obvious that they do experience those emotions. But even more than that, the most important implciation is that each individual cow, or monkey, or dog, etc. is a being of a similar kind to me. And as such I recognize their right to not be deprived of their life by me without there being sufficient cause (like an act of mercy.)

I just want to add that when I talk about "rights" or "morality" I'm not talking about anything that exists as a part of objective reality. 

Do you use anti-biotics?

It's a trap!
Well you either have a logical delineation of this dietary morality of yours or you do not - I say the latter because it seems like arbitrary dogma (aka religion) to me.


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