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, btw, it should come as no surprise that the USDA nutrition database has no entry for hemp seeds.  Is that a product that you can even legally buy there?  If so, where do you get your nutritional numbers for it?  So far the numbers I'm getting indicate you haven't got a good spread on aminos, so I'm hoping this magical hemp seed of yours actually fills in those gaps.

If you consider it dismantling my argument that you say its immoral.. and i dont find any moral objections sounds like a standstill to me.


You really cant be a self imposed herd animal and expect a predator to care about your moral objections.

I consider it dismantling your argument that I pointed out the obvious fact that having the ability to do something doesn't make it moral. Heather agreed when she said "likewise" it doesn't make it immoral. "Likewise" in this context indicates that she agrees with the previous point, which was mine. So, we agreed that your argument was invalidated, yet Heather remained intentionally obtuse in order to distract attention from that point.


Considering your predominately frugivorous (meaning fruit eating) primate heritage, your continued insistence that you are a predator seems strangely similar to penis envy to me. Why fetishize the predators? Why not emulate the strong bull elephant who defends the gazelles?

In any case, who is more like a herd animals, one who eats what everyone else is eating or one who decides to break from tradition and seek a better way?


I hope you give this topic a little more careful consideration when you aren't feeling the egotistical need to defend yourself. I could be wrong, but I image you do care about the suffering of animals. You wouldn't stand by and let someone beat a dog or set a cat on fire, even if they said they enjoyed it.

Anyway, food for thought. And nobody had to suffer for it. Good night.

We are a predatory mammal. You can try and deny it but chimpanzees are predators and often hunt and fish. While yes their diets consist of more plants then meat so do most humans. Even bonobos who have no reason to hunt do so from time to time. The mosses they eat in their habitat have enough protein to mean they never need to hunt. They do however choose to and eat fish, eggs, reptiles, flying squirrels, shrews etc.


The herd animal was literal, since pretty much all herbivore mammals are herd critters, not figurative, but cute attempt at insult.


There is a huge difference between not liking the suffering of another creature and empathizing with it on the same level as a human suffering. Animals lack self awareness in a contemplative sense. Its one of those things that makes the human experience unique. And as humans we have to also take note of where our feelings come from so we can temper those emotions with reason. 


We have a built in need to care about things with big bug eyes and round heads and find them cute so that we dont kill our own children. But that doesnt mean all the creatures that fit that model are our children. 


Vegans preach a meat abstinence agenda with really no Humanity benefiting reason. And yes that is key for me is that Humanity comes first foremost and above all else.


I dont disagree about moderation, about humane conditions for animals, about making the suffering that is endured as little as possible. What i do take offense to is the idea that behaving like the animal we are is immoral.



You claim that other species of animals aren't capable of contemplating life in the way we are, then you turn around and claim that since humans have always tended to hunt animals and eat meat to some extent, they shouldn't use that contemplative faculty to consider whether it was the right thing to do.  That's absurd.  There are lots of things that many humans have done for thousands of years if not for their entire existence that many people would consider unethical and wouldn't generally do--for example, killing other humans for some ulterior motive such as to take their property.  People have always probably developed hatreds for other groups of people; prejudice is arguably a natural thought pattern for humans.  Does the fact that people's natural cognitive and emotional tendencies include a predisposition to become prejudiced mean it's okay to, say, hate Jews?  To not even try to overcome prejudices that arise from some combination of learning and natural human tendencies?  I hope you'll recognize that this is a ridiculous argument in this domain, and the same logic applies to our treatment of animals. 

There's no such thing as humane animal farming.  In dairy farming, calves are taken from their mothers shortly after birth (and killed for meat soon thereafter) even in a "humane" dairy operation, because otherwise the calf would get their milk instead of us.  Dairy cows are killed as soon as their milk production starts to wane significantly, which is well short of their natural lifespan.  Male chicks with mothers who are "layer hens" are, unless used for breeding purposes, usually slaughtered as soon as they are born, because they can't lay eggs and usually aren't the breed of chicken that chicken farmers raise for meat.  In real-life conditions, animals suffer when they are slaughtered, no matter how that slaughter is carried out.  Do you really think that there's such a thing as "humane" slaughterhouses where animals are anesthetized before they're killed?


You seem so resistant to contemplating the significance of the fact that we would never treat humans in these and other ways that you think are perfectly okay to treat most other animals, even claiming to be "offended," which I think is bullshit, but you can't seem to offer any reason other than "that's what we've always done" for the double standard.  That's because there isn't any logical reason why it's okay to kill animals any time we want as long as it's supposedly "humane," but it's not okay to do the same to humans; all it is is a prejudice that says nonhuman animals' lives and well-being are not worth worrying about much, simply because they're animals.  But that's okay because it's "behaving like the animal we are," right?  Wrong.  The Holocaust, slavery, rape, etc. also involve humans "behaving like the animal we are," and the majority of humans use their contemplative powers to reject such actions as wrong.  In fact, most people in countries where dogs are kept as pets would consider it wrong to treat dogs in even the supposedly "humane" ways you're talking about.  Most people I know would never say it's okay to kill a dog whenever we feel like it as long as the dog's death is less painful than it could be.


As for humanity-benefiting reasons, there are two big ones for not using animals for food: It's healthier, and it's better for the environment.

If everyone who touted the moral imperative to eat so-called "humanely" raised meat actually did, we would have dismantled the factory farming system years ago. I contend that the majority of humane meat proponents are hypocrites who use that as an excuse to avoid engaging vegans in an honest dialogue.

I'm a humanist first, and I'm sorry you have such little regard for our species.  The unnecessary human suffering in this world as a result of multi-national corporations and gluttonous consumerism is disgusting.  It is 1000 fold more disgusting because humans are capable of understanding the futility of their plight as well as the decadent lifestyles of those in better positions than themselves.  Factory farming represents maybe 1% of the suffering caused by this economic model, and 100% of that suffering can be impacted by a minimalist lifestyle coupled with an anti 'globalism' campaign - but you dont' give a shit, because you're just looking for some personal absolution by condemning other people as you look at a microscopic fraction of what is truly wrong with this world.  So get off your high horse you blind, ignorant, anti-humanist.

As convenient as it may seem for you to brush me off as having little regard for our species, I have indicated no such position. Like you, I am also anti-consumerism. I am an avid human rights supporter. I donate to the Red Cross, volunteer with Amnesty International and with the Human Rights Campaign. I too am a humanist. I don't see how choosing a veggie burger over a beef burger means I hate people. That is actually a really good example of a red herring, not to mention ad hominem. But hey, who needs logic when you can resort to name calling.


Sorry, I actually came back to mention to Stephan how ironic I find it that he, while comparing himself to predatory animals, made the claim that it is morally repugnant to compare humans to other animals.

It's not an ad-hom or red-herring, it's my evaluation of your comparison of the suffering of livestock to the emotional trauma of a human who has been raped.  That you can't see the disregard of humanity that reveals is disturbing, to say the least.

Okay, then you are just lying then. Because I never did that.

Then what was with the 'rape-track' comment - or was that just an attempt at pleading to emotion?


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