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

The name of that device goes back to comparative psychologist Harry Harlow and a device he developed for animal experimentation.  There are a lot of colloquialisms in the food industry though, for instance the 'stairway to heaven' found leading to the kill chamber in many slaughterhouses - because cattle can walk up steps easier than ramps.


Artificial insemination of cattle does cause them some distress but you can't begin to compare that to the emotional scarring suffered by a human rape victim.  To do so truly reveals your disdain for your own species.

And I didn't make that comparison. The dairy industry did.

No, you did - you typed the words, without any citation, so it was a comparison made by you.  If you are now claiming that the comparison also happened to be made elsewhere then you are offering nothing but a post hoc rationalization of your moral repugnance.

I'm assuming that means you still have nothing to bring to the table other than your obsessive concern that eating meat will make you or your child obese.  Get help.

I didn't compare a cow to a woman. You implied it is morally justified to eat animals simply because we can. I asked you if you thought that the ability to do something automatically made it moral. I then gave you a couple of examples of things we have the ability to do that are not generally considered moral. I apologize if you were unable to follow this line of reasoning. I'll try to be more simple from now on so I don't lose you.


I understand that you don't care about the suffering you cause animals. You have made that quite clear. You still have not offered a moral justification for needlessly causing animals to suffer. You have only expressed your sense of apathy.

Predatory animals (not just mammals) do kill other animals and eat them. One key difference between humans and these other animals is that we do not need to kill and eat other animals to survive. Another difference is that we have evolved a more sophisticated awareness of the consequences of our actions. Just because other animals do certain things, does not mean that we should. Some animals eat their own young. Does that mean that we should?

I told you its not a moral question for me since i dont consider it needless. 


There is a need and that is as a predator i want to eat that. Plain and simple.


And if you want to eat your young go for it. There are social laws about that. Lucky for us there isnt one about eating tasty meat though.

You do understand the difference between a need and a want, right? 


I want


They need to die to satisfy that.


Seems clear

I wonder if that would hold up in a court of law for other things. Imagine someone who stole a car stereo told the judge "I wanted it. I needed to steal it to have it. Therefore, stealing is okay."


Oh wait, I hope I didn't lose you again. To be clear, I am not comparing a cow to a car stereo.

Hey if you want to eat a car stereo i would defend that in court.



There is a reason we have eyes in the front of our head - we are the predators. Vehement little lot, these vegans.


As always, brilliant Heather and Stephen - I am still laughing....


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