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

Oh yea totally.

I have an advertisement on craigslist looking for lesbian vegans who need some penis in them... but noone answers so im bitter.

Maybe this guy is more your type...

Not bad - now if 90% of vegans I met didn't look anemic I might be more tempted to give it a try.


Evidently Natalie Portman had to switch off being vegan because of pregnancy. At least shes rational.

Uh yeah... she's a vegetarian still...  I personally haven't been arguing about eating meat, but you and Heather seem really stuck on the anti-vegan meme. 

Geez, Stephen, do you even read the things you post links to?  She stopped eating a vegan diet because she said she "felt like she WANTED that stuff," meaning dairy and eggs, and also craved sweets but didn't seem to care whether they had dairy and eggs in them.  It had nothing to do with some sort of nutritional need, despite the claims of the idiot doctor farther down the page.  Plenty of vegan women, including some that I know, have had perfectly healthy babies as well as been quite healthy during and after their pregnancy themselves.  As I said a few pages ago, I don't have time to personally argue with all the idiotic claims people here are making about nutritional deficiencies of a vegan diet, but if you type "vegan nutrition" into Google, you'll find plenty of information about the matter.

or should i say in the west, please lay off the meat sandwich manatee

Watch the Matrix and tell me that the machines are moral for harnessing humans for energy.  They make humans think they're living normal lives, while keeping them captive in pods until they die.  That's even a clear improvement over what we do for livestock. 


The only thing questionable about it was the dull nature of the lives they provided.  They could have just as easily given people super powers and/or extremely intriguing lives.  If we could actually induce thoughts into cattle, perhaps we would have the decency to make them crime fighting bovines and members of a romanticized bovinoso crime family. :D

So you're ok with being held captive as long as our machine overlords make things interesting for us?  (side note: that was actually addressed in the movies -- the machines claimed that a more interesting imaginary world didn't work)


Would you mind if aliens came to earth and put us into captivity (and farmed us for food) because we weren't able to pass a test that they had created to determine whether we were a higher functioning life form? 

Do I get to live an imaginary life as a superhero?  Please don't cite The Matrix as indicating that won't work, please - it is just a movie after all.

We dont have to go to those lengths for cows... thats right back to the whole self awareness thing.


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