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

Equally well, just because a behavior is common in the animal world does not mean it is immoral.  The determination of morality is a function of our human consciousness and should be intellectually debated.


To that end, literally billions of livestock animals would never have even experienced life if it weren't for our taste for them.  Those same livestock animals also experience a higher quality of life than most humans.  To this end, eating meat creates more conscious life of higher quality than a vegan diet.


Obviously the moral high-ground here is carnivorism.

Interesting, if not grasping. I personally would not wish our current factory farming model on my own species, even it meant more of us were born. Would you?


Plus, what about all the wildlife that our "livestock" have wiped out as we clear forests to make room for grazing or to grow feed crops to feed to animals?

Factory farming is a recent development that is indeed a troubling trend.  Buying directly from conventional producers as well as boutique products moves your consumer dollars away from supporting that trend without making radical dietary choices that take a great deal more effort in obtaining balanced nutrition, however.


There are a lot of troubles with our current market structure and I abhor a great deal of consumerism, although I wouldn't be so arrogant as to call those who don't subscribe to my measures in this regard immoral.


As far as the wildlife displaced by livestock, well the livestock have much higher quality of life than the fear induced chaos that is the life of a forest dwelling animal.

It's actually quite simple to obtain a balanced diet from plant-based foods alone. In fact, the American Dietetic Association just released a report indicating that vegetarians, on average, tend to obtain higher levels of nutrients than non-vegetarians.


Plus, I can find plenty of vegetarian and vegan foods at pretty much any grocery store or restaurant. It's much more difficult to find "traditionally" raised meat.

I'm sorry if you are offended by my assertion that causing others to suffer needlessly is immoral. I understand that applying that basic moral tenant to animals who we profit from exploiting is considered "radical" but I'm okay with that. Forward thinking people are often considered radical.

Forward thinking.. lol


Vegetarianism doesn't begin to compare to veganism when it comes to facility of proper nutrition - and after 26 years of working in the food industry, having planned out just about every kind of menu you might imagine, I can assure you that I do not make that statement flippantly.


As soon as I bring up nutrition, vegans tend to either switch to talking about a vegetarian diet, pretend nutrition is just propaganda generated by the meat industry, or (on 3 occasions) actually acknowledge what is required in terms of getting a full range of essential aminos and certain exotic trace minerals on a daily basis.  It seems you've taken the first course, and I will have none of it.  You have been talking vegan here, and now you are dodging it.  Try again.


Your final paragraph is an inverted-red-herring that I will have none of either, thank you.

Heather, my point that it is immoral to cause others to suffer needlessly is of prime relevance in this discussion. Assuming you know a red herring is an argument that diverts from the key issue. How can that be a red herring? The entire point of veganism is an attempt to avoid causing animals to suffer needlessly. This post is about veganism.


Moving on. The study only compared vegetarians to non-vegetarians so it would have been inaccurate for me to claim it was talking about vegans. I wasn't attempting to dodge anything. Far fewer animals would suffer needlessly if you were to adopt a vegetarian diet. But, since there are no nutrients in meat, dairy or eggs that you can't just as easily obtain from plant based foods, my point remains the same. Veganism is easy. Finding "traditional" meat is not.


And show me where I compared eating cows to rape. I did not. As I explained to Stephan, I pointed out that simply having the ability to do something does not make it moral. Having the ability to steal does not make it moral. Having the ability to murder does not make it moral. Having the ability to kick puppies does not make it moral. Likewise, having the ability to eat animals does not make it moral. The comparisons in the above statements go only as so far as these are all actions that we are capable of. So yes, in that sense, eating animals is like raping women in the sense that these are both action that we are capable of. But to suggest that I am comparing the victims of oppression here misses the point. In fact, it misses the point by so much that it becomes obvious that you are being intentionally obtuse to draw attention away from the fact that I completely dismantled Stephan's argument.


If the post is about veganism and our debate is about veganism then stick to veganism.  My point is that the average person lacks the knowledge required to maintain balanced nutrition with a vegan diet and you dodged that by jumping on a vegetarian study.  You once again make the claim that you can 'just as easily' obtain proper nutrition from a vegan diet as from an omnivorous diet - and I repeat my statement that having professionally prepared menus of all kinds, that simply isn't the case.


Children have very critical nutritional needs that are often ignored by vegans, which is why there are continually cases of vegan parents on trial because of their children's malnutrition.  Few vegan mothers are well enough nourished to nurse their children, and still others refuse to because they hold some bizarre ideal about their children never consuming an animal product - but we are mammals for gawd's sake and require levels of histidine that infants can't obtain without milk.  The full range of aminos isn't available in any single plant, and before you give me some new age link on soy nuts I would ask that you try to confirm your beliefs through the USDA food nutrition database, checking for all 14 essential aminos - then check RDA's of selenium and b12s for that food product.


Now, I'll give you a challenge - design three different 'meals' containing only vegan products that any average homekeeper could toss together in 15 minutes to feed her children.  Ensure those meals contain 25% of RDA's for all 14 aminos, as well as at least 20% RDA's for 80% of remaining micro-nutrients.  I'll assure you that it can be done, but I'll bet that 90% of vegans couldn't do this on the spot if asked.  On the other hand, toss together some chicken breast, mixed 'asian veggie mix' with some oyster sauce as a stir fry and put on top of brown rice and you are there - boom!  It's a much easier formula to follow.


Your comparison to rape continues to disgust me.  If you truly feel that the average livestock animal is subjected to anything comparable then you either have zero regard for women as human being or know absolutely nothing about modern animal handling procedures other than what a couple of lame PETA youtube videos have managed to edit together.  If you want to actually discuss the nutritional challenges of a vegan diet, then drop that rape comparison - it makes you a despicable example of sentience to anyone who has experience with either side of your comparison.



Let me get this straight, you are saying that you think people are just not smart enough not to eat meat? And you call me anti-human.


Anyway, challenge accepted: beans, rice, mixed Asian veggies sprinkled with hemp seeds, Bragg's amino acid sauce and an apple. Done, and with more fiber - a nutrient commonly lacking in the typical non-vegetarian diet.


Non-vegetarian children die from malnutrition all the time too. The leading cause of death in this country is heart disease. The fact that people are ignorant of nutrition is no excuse to advocate eating things loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol.

Again, point out where I compared the treatment of livestock to rape. Until you can actually point to where I said anything of the sort you are being dishonest and shameful. I don't care how much animals suffer. The fact that they suffer needlessly is enough for me to assert we have a moral obligation to avoid participating in that system if we don't have to.

Ok, so at least you acknowledge the need for a commercially processed supplement to provide quick balanced nutrition in a vegan diet.  You have yet to provide any evidence that livestock animals suffer anymore than wild animals.


If factory farming is your only issue, then why not become a pescarian?  Fish aren't subjected to the factory farming conditions that some livestock are.  How do you feel about oysters and mussels?  What about sea urchins, or goat cheese?  I'm still not seeing the justification for your radical diet religion here.

Actually, you could leave the Bragg's out and it would still work. I just threw that in there because I thought it might approximate the flavor your were going for with the the oyster sauce.


I don't recall claiming livestock suffer any more than wild animals. I'm not even sure how that matters. My point is that we ought not to cause other animals to suffer if we don't need to. That counts equally for wild and domesticated animals.


Factory farming isn't my only issue. I think I've been pretty clear that I object to causing animals to suffer needlessly. Are you even reading my comments before you respond?


Fish are factory farmed. It's called aquaculture. But even wild caught fish suffer needlessly, so I don't see any reason to support those industries with my money.

Mussels and oysters are basically shit filters in the ocean. Why anyone would eat them is beyond me. Sea urchins? Really? You want to eat animals so bad that you are willing to go with sea urchins?

Goat cheese... let's see. Like all mammals, goats must be impregnated in order to produce milk. Pregnant goats leads to baby goats. "Surplus" goat kids are sent to slaughter. Once the mother goat's milk production slows and is no longer profitable, she too is killed. Yep... needless suffering. I don't see any good reason to support it. I'll choose the wide variety of delicious plant-based foods that are available to me instead. Thanks.


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