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

Very informative. I'm not very informed about the ethical positions about vegans and their opponents and this article does a good job of explaining a lot of the misconceptions there are. I still may not be ready or willing to be vegetarian or vegan, but my views are being carefully molded by such writings.

Here are some sources you might want to take a look at if you're interested in the ethical arguments for veganism: (see the pamphlet that's linked on the front page)


I'm already being presented with many arguments, and most of them seem absurd, all of them seem dogmatic, and none of them are the least bit compelling. Too bad, so sad.

Keep in mind that this article focuses on fairly narrow environmental implications of veganism.  It compares a mythical ideal of veganism (one that involves no animal farming) to a small scale farming utopia.  The author appears to take issue with the scale and problems associated with modern factory farming. 


There has been a huge shift from small scale farming to large scale factory farming over the past 40 years.  Even omnivores should be aware of the problems (both environmental and ethical) that arise from that system. 


The average American consumes more than his weight in meat every year (about 235 pounds).  Over 10 billion animals are killed in the US each year to support our meat-heavy diets.  Most animals in that system aren't really protected from mistreatment.  Those animals are often prophylactically treated with antibiotics to keep their inevitable wounds from leading to severe infections (and pre-mature death).  


Even ignoring the animal suffering inherent in this system, you can start to see massive issues with pollution from animal waste and proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria (as highlighted in a recent Huff Post article). 


I can only hope that more people will start to recognize the problems of factory farming and try to reduce the amount of meat we consume.  Perhaps then we can start to return to a more balanced and ethical farming industry.

That, amongst other reasons, is why I prefer duck, mollusks, crustaceans, certain fish, and wild game.  I find I get a lot more flavour/dollar, if such a thing can be quantified; if not, then I'm at least getting a subjective benefit there.


My biggest concern is the distance created between the consumer and producer by big multi-national corporations.  In my ideal world, at least 75% of my purchases would be of product that originated in a 250 mile radius.

@heather, i changed the profile picture just for you, so you can get a closer look. in the previous picture, i was about to run a half-marathon in columbus, just fyi. 

@stephen, you are just a douche. just remembered an old saying from india, "if you throw a stone in shit, it will fall on you", so i will leave u with ur shit to smell. 

Your profile says you are in your 30's but you look like a 12 year old.  Sorry, definitely not interested.

damn right, a hot 12 year old.

darn now i have to go to my hot vegan wife, who is within the BMI range. 

I hope she's older than 12.

Actually Heather I just turned 28 this summer! And believe me when tell you, my husband looks far from 12 where I'm standing.



You know, I don't know if the two of you are actually trying to entice me into a threesome or just offer the most ridiculous support for veganism I have ever encountered.  Either way, I'm not finding myself the least bit compelled.  To be honest, I have to wonder if you are not just a photo-shopped version of him, which gives me even worse shivers down my spine.

How is anything we put to you any kind of proposition? I think someone has been single for a bit too long...
I don't know you personally and that means there is a chance you aren't the rude, pretentious, arrogant, know-it-all you come out to be on this site.


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