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

Evangelical?  You're the one bashing vegans on a forum here -- I'm simply responding to your fallacious arguments...  By the way, I'm not a vegan -- I am actually a pescetarian, although I don't often eat fish and believe that the current industrial fishing model has many flaws.


Are you seriously deluded enough to think domestic cattle or pigs could live in the wild?  I don't think so, so stop being ridiculous.


It sounds like you didn't really read my post, so I'll explain further...  Domestic cattle and pigs aren't just raised for consumption, they are bred for consumption.  You can't say that you're saving these animals from a miserable life in the wild when you force them to reproduce as frequently as possible.  You might make that argument with a spayed or neutered pet, but don't pretend you're rescuing those animals from certain doom.


Now you are trying to say that if a baby can't survive in the wild then a human can't?


Not at all.  I'm pointing out that not being able to survive in the wild is not sufficient criteria for killing and eating something.  Not all humans can survive in the wild -- that doesn't mean we should have them for dinner.


Also, the 'wild' has taken on a dramatic turn in modern times.  Humans have taken over most of the planet, eliminating space where animals (that we have domesticated) previously thrived on their own.  It's a ridiculous argument that everything we have domesticated for consumption would just not be able to exist without our help, because most of them did exist without our help at some point in time.  Sure, you might not be able to release a 6 year-old dairy cow into the 'wild' and expect it to live.  I would argue that most humans wouldn't be able to survive long in the wild that you imagine your domesticated animals in. 


Well, you honestly remind me of a full grown adult walking around hugging a teddy bear everywhere you go, and sitting at across from you at the table when you sit down to eat - it really seems fully that pathetic to me.


It sounds like someone needs a hug!

This is what makes the vegan group and the activity feed on TA rather an odd mix.  I wouldn't otherwise pay attention to a vegetarian/vegan group, but I saw some rather theistic posts going by on the main page at TA and felt I had encountered some more theists with whom to debate - and was was I right about that.


And yes, domesticated livestock are bred for consumption - bringing about millions of lives that otherwise wouldn't have had a chance of existing.  These animals are killed in a state of peace after having very well provided lives and before they have a chance to get old and suffer from disease and geriatric disability, as well as without the violent end inflicted by other predators.  It's not that 'life' is some magical quality anyway, unless you believe in some spiritual stuff that I just don't.


In any event, I just happen to enjoy the one-stop nutritional shopping of meat while it seems you want to hound the species into extinction.

Noone disagrees with tougher animal cruely laws and enforcement.


I do however disagree with the generic vegan mantra that eating animals is immoral.


Mistreating them is immoral. Killing and eating them is not.

Noone disagrees with tougher animal cruely laws and enforcement.


I wish that were the case.  Sadly, most people don't really think about it when they eat.  Most states don't have serious anti-cruelty laws or do much about enforcing the ones that exist. 


Mistreating them is immoral. Killing and eating them is not.


Mistreating is a very subjective term that needs some defining and may lie at the heart of many similar debates.  Is it mistreatment to raise livestock in severely confined space?  Breed them serially for increased yield?  Separate them from their young?  Dock their tails and castrate them with anesthesia?  Without?


My point is that when we consume animals indiscriminately at every meal, we enable a system that prioritizes volume and efficiency over anything else.  We justify the pain and suffering because it's "necessary" for our survival, when it's really not.  Even accepting that some meat is part of a healthy diet, it doesn't extend to the amount that most residents of 1st world nations consume.  I have far more friends that aren't vegetarian than are and I certainly don't think they're immoral or that I'm better than them.  I just want fewer animals to suffer in the world and am surprised that some people think I'm a deluded teddy-bear hugging hippie because of it.


I have to hand it to some people. It takes a truly incredible feat of mental gymnastics to listen to someone explain why we should extend out circle of compassion to all sentient beings and conclude, "vegans hate humans."

Its no lesser a feat of mental gymnastics to conclude that some meat is mistreated so eating all meat is immoral.

Meat cannot be mistreated. An animal is not 'meat' until it's dead. What I don't get is how you can argue that it's immoral to mistreat animals but that it is moral to kill them. Killing sure seems like mistreatment to me (unless of course it's an act of mercy to end suffering.)

That might define the difference right there.  I don't view killing an animal as mistreatment at all.  Set a dog on fire, though, and you'll likely see me turn violently against you instantly.  Once the animal is dead, however, how can one possibly call that mistreatment?

"Once the animal is dead, however, how can one possibly call that mistreatment?"


I said that. "Meat cannot be mistreated. An animal is not 'meat' until it's dead." What I asked was how can you not see killing an animal as mistreatment. I mean I know from all that you've said that you care about the treatment of animals, and that, as per your example, setting a dog on fire is definitely mistreatment. But how is taking the life away from an animal not a mistreatment? Wouldn't it be a mistreatment of you to take your life away, even if you didn't know that it was going to happen and it was swift and painless?

If I had no idea that it was coming and didn't feel a thing then I don't view it as mistreatment at all - I don't view 'life' with any spiritual value.

As a matter of fact, I think I would be damn lucky if that was the way the end came for me.  'Natural' deaths are horrible things to go through.  Death is fine, dying is the shits.

Life has no spiritual value. Don't worry I'm not trying to make any theist claims. I base the idea that animals have rights on the very same reasons that I base my idea that humans have rights. To take someone's life is a violation of their rights, and I think that violating someone's rights is a mistreatment of that individual. That's the point I'm trying to make about killing being a mistreatment.


(btw, lol@"Death is fine, dying is the shits." As Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid of Death, I just don't want to be there when it happens.")




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