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

Heather, here are some of the calves we rescued from the dairy industry:


Here is a video of them being treated so well by the dairy industry:

Ok, so in the first video they committed felony theft of veal.  I personally won't buy veal or foie gras because I do dislike the way the animals are being treated, but I've never seen a place that would waste space to pen an animal to let it starve (and the video showed no evidence of that) when they could could just shoot a non-viable animal in the head.  A 22 is sufficient to make an instant kill, but if the guy doesn't like it then why not just take a high powered handgun to work?  It is was in Texas after all, wasn't it?


Furthermore, the place was breaking the law (at least Canadian law and they said it was a crime there was well) so why not report the offense and stop the carpenter hammer killings altogether?  I assume the biggest reason for it is that it is a great place to make videos of abuse.


In the second video it appears to be the same damn farm, but they aren't using a carpenter hammer as suggested in the first, now are they?  It's still a crime, and Temple Gradin wouldn't stand for that sort of thing.  She happens to be famous in the industry for designing systems that get the cattle through the process with little to know anxiety.  Having a deep love for cattle (her favorite animal) she is not a vegan and feels the industry can provide a pleasant life for the animals.  If you would like to know more about her insights into animals, you might try reading one of her books:


Anyway, what you've shown here is a place that is breaking the law in an industry (veal) that I already find repugnant.  You have not rescued any animals from anyone like me, but you have stolen some animals from a despicable person while failing to report their crimes - I think that's actually hypocrisy upon hypocrisy.

No, the rescuers didn't commit a single crime nor were they ever charged with one. On the other hand, 5 workers were charged with felonies and the owner was recently found guilty of cruelty to animals:


These were not veal calves. They were being grown out for the dairy industry. Many were replacement heifers.


Yes, the facility was breaking the law. But you can be sure there are cruelties being committed on every dairy farm - legal or not. For example, you mentioned you work at a dairy farm. Let me ask you a few questions:


1. How often are the cows impregnated (a procedure you already admitted causes a degree of suffering)?


2. At what age are the calves taken away from their mothers and locked into crates to be raised as replacement heifers, sold for slaughter or sold for veal?


3. How do the mother's react when you take their babies? (hint, I've seen them mourn and it is one of the saddest things I've ever witnessed)


4. Do the calves you take from their mothers get sold for veal? If so, do they feed them an artificial milk replacer meant to keep them borderline anemic so they have pale colored flesh? Are they chained by the neck in tiny crates so they can't move and their flesh is tender?


5. Do you tail dock the cows and dehorn them? If so, do you use any painkillers - or is that too expensive?


6. When the mother cows are worn out from constant birthing and lactation, I'm guessing 4-6 years old, do you label them as "spent" and send them to a slaughterhouse?


6. Are any of the practices described illegal? Are any of them considered non-standard in the dairy industry? Would you admit that all of these cause suffering?


7. Since humans don't need to consume dairy products any more than we need to consume Pepsi or potato chips, isn't all of the cruelty and violence described above unnecessary?


8. If the cruelty and violence is unnecessary, can you really be that surprised when people object to it on ground of morality?


9. Have you ever considered growing a type of food that didn't require needlessly hurting animals?

First off, they say in the video that they stole the cows - that isn't a crime in Texas?

Secondly, they said they planned to have the guy work undercover there long term.

Third, the video didn't say they reported the crimes - was that in the end credits?


Generally the cows are impregnated every other year.  It causes a moment of distress, but not suffering.  It certainly doesn't compare the the trauma that a human rape victim experiences, if that's what you mean.


Calves are normally removed from the main heard after a few weeks but aren't locked in crates unless they are intended for veal.


I've never witnessed a mother display 'mourning' for the separated calves, they meet up in the pasture every afternoon.  I have seen a mother jump the fence to be with her calf, but rarely.  I already told you I'm opposed to veal.  I won't work veal operations.


General anesthetic shots are required for docking, dehorning, and denutting.  The inspectors here do audits of meds being purchased compared to head counts to ensure people aren't cheating.


Killing animals with a hammer is illegal, is definitely non-standard, and looks like it can cause a painful death, yes.  What is your point?  You found a place where they did these things and criminal charges were laid - according to you.


Animal products provide a convenient source of nutrition - you still haven't answered me about your hemp seed so I can't finish the numbers on your 'menu'.  I've been against veal and foie gras for decades.  The dairy industry, when complying with the law and as I have experienced it, provides lives for the cattle that are less stressful than that of most humans.  So there is a need for the product and no reason to object to it.  Furthermore, you are free to switch to duck, fish, or even wild game - why make this radical diet change to exclude all animal products when the only one you seem to find objections to is veal?


Cruelty and violence is unnecessary, and generally absent in the industry.  Why would I be surprised that anyone would object to it?


I've worked dairy and pork and it doesn't require needlessly hurting animals - not sure what you are missing here.




In the video, they say they worked out a deal to obtain the cows. It was done legally. The investigation was still under way when the video was made and Mercy For Animals was in contact with law enforcement. Law enforcement conducted its own investigation and charged the facility owner, the foreman and five workers with cruelty to animals. The investigation took a total of two weeks. All of this was in the links I provided.


I didn't compare the impregnation of cow to the trauma a rape victim suffers. Again, that is the comparison implied by the dairy industry with the term rape rack. My point has been, and continues to be, whatever level of suffering these animals endure is too much since all of their suffering is needless. If I were to punch you in the face for no reason it would be of little consequence to you if I pointed out it would have been worse if I stabbed you. It would matter little to you if I pointed out the suffering endured by a more intelligent person would have been greater. Punching you in the face for no good reason is still wrong.


You say you oppose veal, but it sounds as if you are admitting you sell calves into the veal industry. Is that accurate? If you worked dairy and pork you now that animals are killed. Killing animals causes them harm. We don't need to eat animals, so killing them causes needless harm. What are you missing here?


Considering the fact that 1 billion humans go hungry in the world it could very well be true that some dairy cows have better lives. Again, that really isn't the point. Showing that some people have it worse doesn't justify me punching you in the face for no good reason.


I understand that people derive food from the animals they exploit. That, again, doesn't change the fact that we don't need to exploit or harm these animals in order to easily obtain all the nutrients needed to sustain human life. By many estimates, we could feed far more people if we stopped wasting so much food on fattening farmed animals. For example, a recent Foresight Report titled "The future of food and farming: challenges and choices for global s...," featuring contributions from 400 researchers around the world, called for a drastic reduction in global meat consumption to help meet the food demands of the growing human population.


Here are nutritional stats on hemp seeds: Yes, it is legal to buy and consume hemp seeds in the US. They are available at pretty much any health food store. I eat them all the time.


Here is a really good resource on vegan nutrition regarding protein needs, with sources. In general, if people eat at least 3 servings of legumes a day they can easily obtain all the amino acids they need. Grains, seeds and nuts are also packed with protein as are fruits and vegetables. Protein deficiency is so rare that only people with genetic disorders or who are literally starving for lack of food suffer from it. I know that in our culture we have been brainwashed to associate protein with meat, but it really is very easy to meet our protein needs without ever eating meat. People have been doing it for thousands of years. Some of the greatest athletes have been vegan, including Carl Lewis who is considered to be the greatest athlete of all time. Hell, Germany's strongest man is a vegetarian:


In closing, I apologize if I have been a bit snippy. It's mostly been in response to your incredibly rude comments to me and your continued misrepresentations of what I have actually said. I know that the exploitation and killing of other animals has been a part of your life for a long time and that probably makes it more difficult for you to come at this from an objective standpoint. I suggest you look into people like Howard Lyman, a fourth generation cattle farmer and dairyman, who is now vegan and advocates we put an end to our destructive system of exploiting and killing animals for profit:


Or Harold Brown, who also abandoned the violence of animal agriculture in favor of a more compassionate way of living:


Take your time. I am not judging you. I participated in this system for many years myself. But just like I shed my religion when I really took a hard look at the facts, I managed to shed my reliance on the exploitation and deaths of other animals. I feel better now and I eat better now. So, I suggest you open you mind and our heart just a little and look at this issue a little more closely.





stellar post allen ;) I admire your tenacity in sticking with it!

Ok, well if they just bought the cows then there was no secrecy about the deal and no need to make it seem like someone just left a gate open so they could get those calves.  Why not video themselves picking up the calves?  This isn't a 'resuce', it's a standard purchase - typical vegan hysterics.


You go on with this 'suffering' argument as though you lament the very concept of life itself.  Why don't you take a look at all the joy these animals have?  They never wonder where their next meal/drink is coming from, spend most of their time socializing, wander around a field not being forced to do work, and get all the sleep they want.


Domestic dogs and cats are frequently abused, often spend a big part of the day hungry or alone, get yelled at by frustrated owners, and in the end they usually have to suffer a great deal before their owner will finally take them to be put down - without providing nutritional value to anyone. Wild animals often go hungry for lengthy periods, spend most of their life in fear, and almost always die in a violent exchange that is terrifying for them.


If you have no appreciation of life, well then I'm terribly sorry for how awful yours must be.  If we just nuked the entire planet then we could put an end to all suffering encountered by every creature - we could put an end to this terrible thing called life altogether.  There are those of us, however, who appreciate life, even with the suffering it brings.  Take a moment to look at some happy cows on a typical dairy farm without all your vegan hysterics:


Killing animals causes them no harm - they are dead, a state they will naturally achieve one way or the other.  Killing them in a slaughterhouse, however, means they don't end up dying slow painful deaths from disease or violent painful deaths from predation.  If you think it is better that they never live at all then, again, that reflects on your poor view of life in general.


I haven't sold calves into the veal industry, but even if I had that isn't the end from which the market is determined.  Few dairy farms sell calves into the veal industry and even fewer participate in the raising of veal.  The veal industry is small in North America specifically because of awareness of the type of life veal calves live.  It is the consumer end that determines the market size, and I am not one of those consumers.  I have processed veal heads, which are normally a throw away product of the industry though.  The meat from the face is good for head cheese, the brains were sold to specialty shops, and the remaining skull was roasted a boiled to make sauce demiglace.  It was just part of my job last winter but I don't actually like headcheese or brain, and almost all sauce demiglace I consume comes from mature beef shank (I should say all, but there may be other places using the veal head throw away product while that market continues to dwindle).


We could feed the entire world population if we re-engineered our society for a sustainable economic model and sustainable population.  World hunger is an economic/wealth issue and your radical diet isn't a very good solution.  I would finish analyzing the meal you tersely provided earlier to show you this if you would actually answer my question about the hemp seed - the source you provided does not break down the essential amino acids, and your meal is very low on histidine (no surprise).


In general, the vegan diet comes withe a lot of problems:

1. Vegans have higher presonderance of calcium deficiency is substantially, leading to weak teeth and osteoperosis. Especially dangerous for children.

2. Vegan diet has an average higher acidity (plants are more acidic) which leads to tooth decay and other issues.

3. More vegans are underweight due to the less kcal/g. Especially dangerous for children.

4. Anemia and irregular menstruation for women is not uncommon. Especially dangerous for adolescents.

5. Lower average bone mass.

6. Higher presponderance of bloating and gastro-entistinal problems.

7. Higher risk of food borne illnesses such as salmonella and e.coli. due to larger intake of raw vegetables.

8. Higher traces of herbicides and pesticides.

9. Lower cholestorol yes. But also LDL.

10. Lactobascillus (found in milk) increases the gasto-intestinal health and decrease cancer risks.


Now the omnivorous diet tends to have health problems due to over-consumption of meat products, and especially very fatty meat products, but that is much more easy to overcome with moderation than a diet as radical as vegans propose.  A moderate omnivorous diet is also easier to maintain and is just plain tastier.  As much as I love porc, I really really love duck and cheese and you've offered me nothing here in terms of the slightest incentive to give those up.  YUM!


I know for a fact that a fully balanced diet can be accomplished on a vegan menu - I have produced several such menus.  The fact remains, however, that vegans generally do not obtain a fully balanced diet because it is difficult to do.  I'm sure a vegan health e-zine will say otherwise, but that is just more cult indoctrination.  You haven't shown me that you have enough knowledge of nutrition to ensure you are getting your full balance of aminos as well as enough b-12 and various trace minerals.  Furthermore there is glycemic index to consider, for which it is greatly beneficial to the pancreas to consume whole proteins - just take a look at any medically backed source on diabetic nutrition.


I'm certain you feel better now - personal absolution does that.  For me it comes from a rationalist approach, for you it comes from a vegan approach.  To each their own.



Even someone with no knowledge of nutrition other than what they learned in grade school can recognize as a matter of common sense or common knowledge that point 3 above is patently absurd.   Plant foods VARY--a LOT--in terms of their caloric density.  Even a typical grade-school child knows that the following foods that either are always vegan or are if no animal products are added are HIGH in caloric content: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white flour, vegetable oil, and margarine.  We could also add alcohol, nuts, coconut and avocados to the list.  The majority of these are foods that most Americans, whether vegan or not, eat a lot of.  They contribute about as much to the fact that 34% of Americans are obese and 34% are overweight as animal products.  I can tell you from personal experience that it's quite easy to become overweight even as a vegan if you eat lots of fried food, sugar, white flour products, foods with a ton of added oil, etc., and it took some pretty dramatic changes in the type of vegan diet I ate to take the excess weight off.  And I know lots of other vegans who have been or are overweight on a vegan diet.  So please, spare us this NONSENSE that a vegan diet is necessary low-calorie.  And even if it were...again, 68% of Americans are overweight, most of them by more than a little bit.  It's a VASTLY more common problem than being underweight, EVEN AMONG VEGANS, in my experience, because most Americans, even some vegans, eat too much processed, fatty, sugary junk.  On a side note, there are vegan bodybuilders (e.g., Robert Cheeke) who've been quite successful; obviously, there's no such thing as an underweight bodybuilder.


I don't have time to respond in detail to the misinformation about nutrition contained in the rest of your post, but for crying out loud, read a book or look up information on the Web or something, and get it through your head that, just like animal foods, PLANT FOODS ARE DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER (DUH!).  Some are high-calorie, some are low-calorie; they vary in protein content, acidity, calcium content, and everything else you mention.  I don't actually expect you to try to honestly educate yourself about nutrition because you have a vested interest in continuing to believe in and peddle misinformation, but for the benefit of other readers who might like to learn more about nutrition generally, is a good resource for information about the nutrient content of specific foods of all kinds.  As for the issues pertaining specifically to vegan nutrition, just type "vegan nutrition" into Google and you'll get tons of "hits," many of them with citations of articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  The recent documentary Forks Over Knives is a good one to watch for this purpose; a large amount of scientific research pertaining to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, as well as the many case studies of people who have reversed major health problems such as heart disease or diabetes by following a vegan diet, are discussed.

Also, newer studies show that dairy actually decreases calcium, I get all I need from dark greens, which the bodily readily accepts. 


Plus the stats Heather is posting are from raw food diets, not vegan, though it does have similarities, it is not the same.

The biggest problem with argueing for the lack of suffereing of livestock is that farming causes animal suffering and destruction of the environment no matter if its beans or beef you are farming.


Not eating meat doesnt stop suffering or environmental destruction it just passifies those people who only see the direct suffereing of particular animals represented as meat. The idea of no livestock farming only shifts the land to destruction of other animals such as rodents and millions of insect lives. 


The land becomes necessary to be chemically fertilized for nutrients even the lands currently farmed for vegetables then have to be switched to chemical treatment from the natural manure they get now on mixed farms(which a huge portion of the US farming is).


The fact is a world without meat eating would still be killing animals in farming. Period.



If we worked hard to replace naturally occurring fish stocks and then relied on wild fish we would not need pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or even nearly the amount of fossil fuels for food production.  If vegans were truly looking to limit animal suffering while maintaining a healthy diet they would be pescarians.

So Stephen and Heather -- is there any good moral reason to avoid eating human babies?  Since they don't have the ability to worry about their futures, that should be acceptable, right?  As long as you kill them quickly with a sharp knife!


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