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

Better still - go to Italy or France, or any farm - you will see children cutting off the heads of chickens, then defeathering and gutting - then helping to cook it. Or on the same farm, watch while an adult cuts the throat of an goat, strip and gut it, cut it up and give some to their neighbours. This is the way it is on a farm. This is how they are brought up. This is reality if you want to eat. If anybody doesn't want to eat meat - that's fine. I do.


You have absolutely no way to unequivocally know that cows do not possess consciousness.  Does it have to be equal to that of a human?  Do cows cows need to lie, cheat, steal, kill, start wars, get drunk, trash their environment, etc. to have consciousness???  Are humans with "higher consciousness" more deserving to live happily than someone deemed to be of lower consciousness?   As the great moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham said, "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but rather, 'Can they suffer?'. 


Also, Heather, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Filet o' Human, with the growing obesity rate...

Did I say that cattle do not have consciousness?  If you think so then you better read a little closer.  If you can't differentiate between the sort of consciousness you have and the sort of consciousness that a particular animal has then you best visit a psychiatrist.  If you have no experience with animals upon which you base a comparison then you should really stop making a complete ass of yourself and actually apprise yourself of some knowledge before you type out a bunch of nonsense here.

You're the one making assumptions about other people's knowledge of animals, acting as though saying that cows' consciousness is different from humans actually constitutes a credible case that cows do not suffer even under "humane" conditions, and casting gratuitous aspersions on other people's mental health, so who exactly is making an ass of themselves?

Throwing out the word 'suffering' over and over in purely rhetorical fashion as though cattle on a farm feel the dread and uncertainty of the human residents of Auschwitz.

So, if I drill into your teeth without giving you a Novocaine injection first and you don't "feel the dread and uncertainty of the human residents of Auschwitz," you're not suffering?  Come on, please stop making ridiculous arguments.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence that most of the animals humans commonly consume for food experience pain as well as emotional states, and all the irrelevant statements you've made and undoubtedly will continue to make won't change that fact.

You show me one slaughterhouse that is doing unanesthetized dental work and I will not eat another piece of meat until I can guarantee 100% that it never came close to that slaughterhouse.  That something has the capacity to 'suffer' has absolutely no bearing on whether or not it does.  Offer me something relevant here, city boy. 

Thankfully, there's plenty of video footage of what actually happens in slaughterhouses, on farms, and on the way from the farm to the slaughterhouse (and nobody needs video footage of the animals crammed into the truck like sardines to know about that, because we've all seen that any time we drive very far), so anyone with an interest in the topic and a computer can see for themselves that animals raised for food suffer greatly in all sorts of ways.  Obviously, you have a vested interest in denying that farm animals can and do experience pain and emotional suffering during the brief time they are generally allowed to live, so I've wasted enough time on this discussion already.

So it really does all come down to those PETA videos on youtube with you, huh?  Looks like all the evolutionary theory, biology, science, etc is just white wash to cover for your indoctrination.  As I said, spend some time on a farm or slaughter house.


As for the over crowded transport trailers - it's much safer to crowd the cattle than leave them too much room in there because they can balance off of each other when the truck changes speed/direction.  Alternatively they could be put in tight pens or squeeze boxes but that would be cost prohibitive, and we live in a free market society.  If you want to argue for individual pens in transport trailers I'll back you on that one though, even sign a petition or whatever.

Go Jeff!

Plants can think and feel. There is also evidence they communicate amongst their species and even react to pain.


And its not tired and moronic. Its actual science one of those things rational humans cherish as a group.

Nowhere in the article is it ever suggested that plants can feel pain or emotional states.  Although as a vegan I prefer to err on the side of caution and not harm anything with a nervous system if I can help it, there's still considerable uncertainty among scientists as to the pain perception capacities of invertebrate animals with simpler nervous systems.  In any case, consuming plants directly results in killing fewer living things than eating animals that have been fed plants, so even if plants could feel pain, a vegan diet would cause the least pain. 


Not that I think that the claim many meat-eaters make that "plants can feel pain" represents a sincerely held belief. It's just another convenient rationalization for continuing to cause pain and suffering to animals about which there's no scientific doubt as to their capacity for such experiences, generally never contemplated by them before the ethical basis for their animal product consumption was challenged.


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