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

Is this what it comes down to then?  When you recognize the logical paradox of your own doctrines you simply clam up like Pahu or ondej?  How can you expect theists to take your metaphysical rebuttals seriously when you won't stick to the logical conclusions of your own dogmas?

No, it's just that you're trying reductio ad absurdum and it's not valid because i'm not making some kind of argument that all life is sacred, or any other kind of universal arcane metaphysical assertion.


There is no absurd attempt here whatsoever - I'm simply trying to delineate where you draw the line.  If it were factory farmed animals and you were encouraging other people to stop supporting that system I could almost jump on your bandwagon - but I would want to know how you defined a factory farm.  As it is, however, giving up all meat because of 'who-knows-what' is the absurd thing here.  I know what you've said in other posts, but how does this even begin to apply to oysters?  That's why I asked about anti-biotics - because you do in fact have a line somewhere and I would just like to know how you have come to set it.  This is why I view you people as nothing more than theistic elitists trying to establish your own moral superiority by creating an arbitrary out-group to condemn.


Fair enough (for the most part). The 'delineation' issue is valid, but i'll have to get back to you tomorrow on that.

Ok, so the question is basically this: How far do you have to travel on the tree of life, away from the human species, before you get to a life-form that is non-sentient, that can feel no pleasure nor pain. The short answer is: I don't know exactly where that line is, or even if there is a strict line. Using Singer's criteria for whether an organism can experience pain, "1) there are behavioral indications, 2) there is an appropriate nervous system, and 3) there is an evolutionary usefulness for the experience of pain," it seems to make the most sense to just draw the line at kingdom Animalia.

Sometimes, you just have to tel lit like it is!  Douche, and Douchette!


Ummmm... How many people are struggling to survive in the wilderness?  And if the deer you think you need to eat can survive in a particular wilderness, so can you, eating pretty much the same things.

That's very admirable you are wanting to fix societal problems such as food and energy.  Meat production is resource intensive, and the way society seems to be going we will soon have no choice than to be vegan.  (Well, except for soilent green...)

@ Oneinfinity - re-anchored to facilitate replies, :D


Ok, so the question is basically this: How far do you have to travel on the tree of life, away from the human species, before you get to a life-form that is non-sentient, that can feel no pleasure nor pain. The short answer is: I don't know exactly where that line is, or even if there is a strict line. Using Singer's criteria for whether an organism can experience pain, "1) there are behavioral indications, 2) there is an appropriate nervous system, and 3) there is an evolutionary usefulness for the experience of pain," it seems to make the most sense to just draw the line at kingdom Animalia.


For me that's a big leap.  First off, tracing the evolutionary tree for 'distance' is not relevant as far as I'm concerned because it may or may not reflect the experience/sentience of the creature in question.  I can understand boycotting veal, and I do, because the existence of the animal is a terrible one - anyone who says otherwise has not witnessed it.  The calves are not continually distressed or in pain or anything, but if you've worked dairy and seen veal calves, you know they do not experience the pleasures and comforts of those raised for dairy.


For me there is no connection between 'ability to experience pain' and nearly instant, unforeseen death.  If I had any concept that any animals I worked with were distressed by the 'plight of their situation' I would not just be boycotting meat from that industry, I would be working tirelessly to terminate it.  In big hog barns, however, not only do the pigs have no concept of their 'plight' but they live very stress free lives.  Millions of dollars have been spent to create these 'stress free' environments because it pays off big time in the pounds of flesh that can be harvested.  Not only that, but the kill box eliminates the stress of singling out animals that I've seen on small farms where a range fed animal was selected for a weekend BBQ.


I see absolutely no rationale for foregoing the nutritional benefits of oysters, especially considering the consumption pleasure offered, based on a neuro-system that can experience a final moment of pain that would only be much more drawn out if the oyster were left to live out its life on the seabed.  The arbitrary exclusion of kingdom animalia from the human diet is nothing more than an arbitrary dogma that I refuse to conform to on principal of despising arbitrary dogma.


That there may be a line in between somewhere is something that I am willing to entertain, and even adopt, but only if I can be convinced that creature suffering is increased by our consumption.  As I've said, I can readily see this with veal and foie gras and I do not purchase these products.  The large hog operations I've worked, however, have shown me very positive experiences that make them the sort of thing I would prefer to support over small arm's length operations.



Our viewpoints are actually quite close since it is obvious that you really are concerned with how the animals are treated. I really think the only difference is our different views on 'the right to live'. What is your position on rights anyway? Human rights. Do we have rights? From whence are they derived if we do? 

Human rights are nothing more than conditions agreed upon from time to time between different groups as to treatments deemed unacceptable for other humans.


What we are disagreeing on here, however, is what we deem as unacceptable treatment of animals.  You made a connection with one particular animal and then arbitrarily decided the kingdom animalia was off-limits as a food source.  I'm not sure if you own the products of 'forced breeding' of domestic animals (pets), how you feel about the 'forced labour' of working animals (guide dogs), or how you even begin to quantify the quality of life of an oyster or mussel.


Once you set an "I'll take no life to prolong my own" agenda, I have no idea how you eat any plant that was protected by pesticides, especially if it was grown in a field that might have otherwise been populated by might oaks.  I have no idea how you take part in the 'holocaust' of antibiotics or even bring yourself to pour bleach down your kitchen sink.


It still comes across as completely arbitrary dogma that you use to overcome some big guilt in your life, seemingly triggered by eye contact with a single dolphin.


Perhaps you could explain to me the 'right to live'?  This seems like nothing more than a hollow metaphysical claim to me.  We protect our species because we love our offspring as a result of evolutionary tools used to proliferate our genes - otherwise we wouldn't be here.

Who besides psychopaths doesn't believe that humans (once born, at least) have a right to life?  Such a belief is a part of every major document pertaining to human rights, from the US Declaration of Independence ("inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("right to life, liberty, and security of person").  There's a basic theme running through various claims about rights found in all such documents: People have the right to have other people leave them the hell alone!  It's not just a "hollow metaphysical claim," it's a principle that humans have almost universally agreed to that other people shouldn't have the right to intentionally take our life (i.e., MURDER us) regardless of how painless or unexpected it is or whether anyone else finds out.  Do you also think it would be perfectly okay for someone to roofie and rape you, as long as they didn't get you pregnant, give you a disease, or injure you, and as long as no one found out?  The right to not be exploited by others, to not have things done to us that we haven't consented to just because some other person feels like it, is pretty basic.  It's astounding that you would not accept such a fundamental tenet of a civilized society.


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