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 you measure your choices on the least possible suffering?


Doesn't that make your choice on what and how to cause suffering subjective and open to your own interpretation of the levels of suffering given to each level of life?


How does that then differ from someone measuring the suffering of a domesticated beast?



I notice you ignore these questions.


Very dogmatic response

It is unambiguously the case that commonly domesticated animals such as cows, dogs, etc. feel pain, fear, etc.  It is not even plausibly the case, let alone clearly, that plants have such feelings; you have cited two articles about plant perception, neither of which makes such a claim.  If you care about not causing other humans to suffer, which unless you're a psychopath you do, there is no logical reason why you should not also care about whether you cause nonhuman animals to suffer.  Or, to put it another way, if you would not do what Michael Vick did to his pit bulls, there is no logical basis for behaving any differently toward cows, pigs, chickens, or any other animals with capacities for sentience similar to a dog.

You seem wrapped up on this concept of 'killing fewer living things'.  Do you have a supernatural belief system about 'life force' or something like that?


Direct study on plant wound reaction so you can throw off that meat eating conspiracy theory.

Which once again says nothing about plants feeling pain or emotions.

Plants have a nervous system.

Plants react to Wounds

Plants react to outside stimulus and defend against it.

Yet you dont define that as pain.

Its really sad that your so invested in your meat eater conspiracy theory to ignore documented peer reviewed science directly from its published journal.




Plants react to stimuli.  So does my toaster.  That doesn't mean that my toaster feels pain, fear and sadness and has consciousness.  Although there may as yet be scientists who claim that plants feel pain and have evidence to back their claims up, that is not the case in the study you cited.  Nowhere in the article did the researchers claim that plants felt pain or any other animal-like feelings.  Yet you claim that I am the one who ignored what this article said (or didn't say)? 

Comparing it to a toaster is bullshit and you know it.


You want to keep your comfortable world view thats fine but dont dismiss scientific documentation simply because you dont understand it. 

Did I not speak English or something?


1) The researchers did not claim that plants felt pain or emotions.


2) I acknowledged that it was conceivable that some researchers at some future point might make such a claim.


3) You claimed that their article supported your position that plants feel pain or have other feelings.


4) You apparently have a reading comprehension deficit.


5) Again, in case you failed to understand point 2, I acknowledged that future researchers might claim, and present evidence, for what you say you believe is the case.  However, the present researchers made no such claim.

I said it supports that they feel pain.


How else do you identify feeling pain beyond as stated in the article


Recent studies have advanced our understanding of the mechanisms by which plants recognize herbivores and subsequently activate direct and indirect defense responses.


It shows they can identify wounds and actively and inactively react to it with defenses. That is recognizing feeling. The other article i posted earlier shows their nervous system. 

I never said the had consciousness. And that is not required to feel pain. Coma patients feel pain and are not conscious of it. Does that mean they do not suffer?

You demonstrated lack of understanding with the toaster comment

I recognize that a coral snake has a red, black and yellow color pattern.  I don't go near it because I have information indicating that snakes with that color pattern are poisonous.  What does this have to do with feeling pain?  Pain is a subjective feeling, not just a response to stimuli.  And how can someone feel pain and not be conscious of it?  That doesn't make any sense!  It is possible that coma patients react to stimuli that would cause pain in a conscious human.  It is possible that some coma patients have enough brain function in areas that produce consciousness to perceive pain.  What does that have to do with whether plants feel pain, or whether the article you cited made any claims that plants felt pain?  Absolutely nothing.


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