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

Human beings have hopes, dreams, and aspirations - most other animals do not, certainly not cattle or pigs, that's for certain.  If someone is being kept alive on machines, living with no sense of the future, no dreams, no self-awareness, then I don't see any moral violation in turning off the machines and ending that life (that includes me, and I really hope that that is the decision that gets made if I ever end up in that position).

Just want to note that I did say earlier, "Killing sure seems like mistreatment to me (unless of course it's an act of mercy to end suffering.)"


No, they don't have hopes, dreams, and aspirations, but they are living, sentient, emotional beings. Just because they don't have language doesn't mean that they don't have a subjective experience. They have no understanding of themselves as such of course, but do you need to know the word "pain" to feel pain? No. Do you need to know the word "fear" to feel fear? No. 


To feel pain or fear you need only be alive.  I'm sorry, but that's just part of the routine.  Personally I enjoy mine as best I can.

Okay you do realize you just painted yourself into not eating vegetables for the same moral stance.


Even if you ignore the lives of the plants that are routinely ended.


To make the vegetables you eat... thousands upon thousands of insects, arachnids(animals not bugs), weasels, skunks, rabbits, possum, armadillo, gophers, hedgehogs, rats... and sundry other pest creatures that are killed as part of that process all have lives. Taken for your feeding.

@Heather Yes, and one would think that to attempt to decrease the amount of fear, pain, suffering and unnecessary killing in the world would be an endeavor worthy of such a potentially noble creature as a human being.

Wow... so you really don't think it's immoral to kill someone as long as there's no warning?  So you're cool with someone breaking into your house and killing you quickly in your sleep -- just as long as they don't wake you up first? 

Well, I wouldn't complain about it, if that is what you are asking.

Killing for food is farming not mistreatment.


If your issue is killing the animal that is part of the reason for the industry that kills, butchers, packages and sells it for you squeamish people who cant handle killing your own food.

So, if I kill you, that's completely okay, as long as I call it "farming" instead of "mistreatment" (or, perhaps, murder) and as long as I kill you for the purpose of eating you?

If you kill somebody's dog, they will be very angry at you, not only because you've robbed them of their companion animal, but because they rightfully consider killing him or her to be a form of mistreatment.  Arbitrarily ending an animal's life who might well have lived for several more years filled with life's usual ups and downs is a harm to animals.  You're robbing them of the opportunity for future pleasure--and, in the case of herd animals, causing the animals in the group remaining alive to experience a loss.

You can blame the human hate argument though directly on some of your brethren in vegan arms.


Namely for one PETA and the terrorist groups it has funded and its statements directly endorsing violence against humans.


Then there is the less drastic but equally offensive statement that is brought forth in every discussion of vegans.. I prefer animals to humans. For a humanist like myself that statement is telling of the mindset of people towards their own species.

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


Translation:  it's fallacious to extrapolate one characteristic found in a member of a group to all members of that group.


And yet in the very next post:


You can blame the human hate argument though directly on some of your brethren in vegan arms.


Translation: I am extrapolating a characteristic found in a member of a group to the entire group.


I hope you see what you did there... you're saying that all vegans believe something because (you think) some vegans believe that thing.  In one post you called out a fallacy of veganism (a straw man version, I might add) and then subsequently explained that your assertion that vegans hate people was built on that same fallacy.


You're right that all livestock isn't necessarily "mistreated" because some is, but it also doesn't follow that eating meat is moral simply because some livestock isn't mistreated.  Besides, that's not the extent of the vegan argument.  Many vegans would say that your definition of "mistreatment" is too narrow: that force breeding creatures and holding them captive for our consumption is mistreatment.  


My argument is that there's way too much animal cruelty in the world and our current system enables (and in fact encourages) that cruelty.  You can't flippantly suggest that "noone disagrees with tougher animal cruely (sic) laws and enforcement" when there are big lobbies that work tirelessly to protect lenient laws for factory farms and their distributors -- all to save pennies on the dollar in farming costs at the expense of animal safety and comfort. 



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