Book Review: Meat- A Benign Extravagance
Chelsea Green 2010
My name is Graham, I’m 46 years old and I am a born-again carnivore.
Like many of my generation, my first act of rebellion was to become a vegetarian sometime around the age of 14, following in my sister’s footprints and unfairly taking out my concerns for other species on my mother’s cooking, which was mainly of the traditional variety of English food, including a wide range of meat dishes.
“Rich westerners’ eating meat is the equivalent of eating the children of Africa, South America and Asia” admonished a Marxist text that came into my hands around that time, making a profound impression on me: we in the developed rich world were taking more than our fair share of the global pie, and starvation in other countries was the end result.
Clearly we had blood on our hands, of both the animals themseleves and that of the poor. The reasons for this were that it takes several times more land and resources to feed omnivores than it does vegetarians; in a world where many were brought up to “eat what I was given because there are starving in Africa” meat became a symbol for extravagance and exploitation.
I dont think I ever really took an ideological postion regarding humans’ right or otherwise to take the life of animals for food. Social justice and environmental concerns were paramount- it seemed obvious to me then that land taken for animals was not available for the greater biodiversity afforded by woodlands, and thus an early interest in trees drew me naturally to permaculture with its vision of forest gardens and great diversity combined with habitat.
By this time, in the mid-1980s I was living in a small rural commune on the Welsh borders where I had gone to learn to grow vegetables. This happened to be a vegan commune, and although I was never ideologically a vegan, I was happy to partake of the vegan diet and learn the pleasures of home-made soya milk and tofu. One year we even grew a reasonable crop of soya beans.
There were however at least two broad categories of vegan in this commune. On the one hand, there were those from an urban Animal Rights background, who were not too fussy about other considerations such as food miles, or whether their food included meat-substitutes like TVP, and were happy to eat white bread and even to go skip-diving for free food. Anything went so long as it was vegan, and this extended to other animal products such as clothing and footwear. They had ties with hunt saboteurs and wanted to give over some of our land for ailing sheep as an animal sanctuary.
On the other hand there were other vegans there who just didnt like animals. They wouldnt tolerate pets of any kind, much less farmed animals, retired or otherwise; land was for growing vegetables or natural habitat, period. This group tended to be much more purist about food on many levels- had to be organic and wholefood, while they didnt object so much to leather clothes.
I abandoned the vegan diet towards the end of my stay in the commune in the midst of what I thought of as The Vegan Wars, but almost never ate meat until much more recently when I moved to West Cork and meat has become a once or twice weekly part of my diet- much to the relief of my mother for now when I visit she no longer has to make a special vegetarian dish.
Here I am surrounded by small-holders who often keep some animals and local meat, fish and poultry are readily available. While factory farming has always been distasteful to me and the problems of a diet of meat three times a day seem all too obvious, I have long been persuaded at the environmental benefits of eating some meat and the ecological functions of animals in a permaculture system.
It is to these, and many other, issues of meat, veganism and farming that land rights activist Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land Magazine has addressed his fascinating book “Meat- A Benign Extravagance”.
The book is information dense, packed with statistics and graphs,and Fairlie gives a comprehensive analysis of many aspects of meat, farming and sustainability.
Interestingly, he states in the opening section that it is specifically to counter the arguments put forward by vegans that he has written the book.
His initial chapters are aimed at addressing a common figure quoted by many in the environmental movement, that it takes around 10 times the land to feed a meat eater as it does a vegetarian. Fairlie’s analysis shows how difficult this is to actually quantify: not all meat is the same; pigs traditionally were able to eat food and crop wastes and so didnt necessarily take any land; sheep can run around happily gathering nutrients from marginal land not suited to crops; farm animals can also provide other yields and services, the most important of which is manure to add fertility, without which the vegan would require more land for green manures.
Two other important points he makes which are often missing from this debate: first, that animals can be herded and shepherded, thus making the default farming system of the landless poor; second, that keeping animals acts as a buffer against shortages, allowing feed to be diverted quickly for human consumption in times of hardship or failed crops- a function that works apparently both on the small farm scale, as well as the global scale.
Fairlie has done an important analysis of 8 different land use models and calculated the land requirements to feed Britain, comparing each of organic/chemical (conventional) versions of vegan, livestock and permaculture systems.
Because organic yields of wheat and potatoes are only 60% of conventional production, and the need for grain to feed high-yielding beef and dairy cows, he concludes orthodox organic livestock-farming would have the most difficulty feeding Britain on the available land, but that with the use of traditional and permacultural practices to enhance the nutrient cycling abilities of animals, together with more dispersed production and rural settlement, this could be improved significantly.
Fairlie concludes that the actual figure is much more favourable to meat production than conventionally believed, taking all factors into consideration “the effective ratio of human edible feed to meat and other animal products in US feedlot beef comes to about 3.2:1″
Having established this- and making a strong case that the ecological benefits could outweigh the extra land with good animal husbandry- Fairlie then takes on the vegans first hand: what would the British landscape look like if it were all vegan? He suggests that few vegans have really contemplated this, and that we break our long-standing relationship with animals at out peril: the immediate question for the stockless gardener becomes, how to deal with the pests- from slugs to deer- if we cannot kill them, and what indeed will our relationship to the natural world be at all if all the unused land is simply fenced off, as Failrlie envisages would be the case if some strands of vegan thought were carried to their logical conclusion. He pokes fun at the vegans:
Nothing causes sleepless nights for conscience-stricken vegans so much as the sound of rats scuttling in the cavities in their walls.
Worse than that, is the danger of vegan dystopias of concentrated high-tech urban settlements, with vegan food produced entirley without animals in labs, possibly including synthetic meat cultured from artificial animal tissue, genetic engineering, and even transhumanism. Such visions of the future are promoted for example by influential vegan philopsopher Peter Singer, who apparently sees such developments as the logical result of a Buddhist concern to reduce suffering.
Those of us who value the natural world, and more especially our relations with members of the animal kingdom, wild and domestic, would do well to keep an eye on the vegan agenda, for it may not turn out to be quite as meek, disinterested and innocuous as it might seem.
He even takes on Greenpeace and other activists who continue to oppose whaling even of species whos stocks have increased beyond danger levels, and defends the rights of the hunter:
To the extent that they campaign against whaling on humane grounds, WWF, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherdand the like are no longer protectors of the environment, but have set themselves up as the world’s ethical policemen.
Fairlie goes onto argue that this dysfunctional vegan ethic has had a disproportionate influence on the permaculture movement, and gives an analyisis of the core text for cool temperate permaculture, Whitefield’s “The Earth Care Manual”, which he says reflects the general permaculture bias towards nuts, woodlands and forest gardens and hardly any mention of grass:
What some seem to forget is that permanent grass is an entire ecosystem of perennial species (with its own stacking system) which doesn’t have any above-ground infrastructure to maintain” and goes on to sing the virtues of grass: “it is highly bio-diverse and resilient, it creates organic matter in the soil, it introduces nitrogen and improves fertility, its fertility can be moved easily from one place to another with the aid of animals, it can be cut up for mulch, it opens up ground for sunlight, it can be walked on or driven on when mown or grazed, it is the easiest surface for picking up windfalls or shaken fruit, and it is good for playing football on.
In similar vein, Fairlie takes issue with recent claims that ruminants contribute to significant amounts of Greenhouse Gas Emissions through their release of methane, which he argues are exaggerated and hide pressure for policy to favour a move towards intensive models over pastoral practices, at the expense of tackling the real causes of climate change,which is clearly burning fossil fuels.
Fairlie hardly tries to hide his own ideological bias: a small holder and stock-keeper himself, he clearly feels a strong cultural and “spiritual” need for our traditional relationships with animals in addition to the environmental benefits.
He lets his ideology run away with him however when he dismisses genetic engineering as part of a techno dystopia, in opposition to the pre-industrial rural lifestyle he clearly favours; and he criticizes initiatives like The Declaration in Support of Protecting Nature with high Yielding Farming and Forestry signed by 800 scientists and pundits of the Center for Global Food Issues:
The gist of this declaration …is that to provide sufficient nitrogen to feed a future population of 8.5billion which industrialisation will spawn, we will have to resort not only to nitrogen and other fertilisers but also to genetic manipulation. Any attempt to secure nitrogen and other nutrients through organic means would require undue encroachment upon natural habitats- if not their total destruction. If we want to feed the world and preserve biodiversity then we’d better continue with industrial agriculture. Rather than share agricultural land with nature we should spare land elsewhere. To protect nature we have to farm unnaturally.
It is a shame Fairlie does not seem aware of the essential “Tomorrow’s table” by Ronald and Adamchuk which argues that GE and Organics make the perfect bedfellows- precisely because GE is a biological, rather than a chemical approach. One might ask, what is the meaning of the world “unnaturally” in the last sentence. Why should GE be any more “unnatural” than conventional plant breeding, or indeed than any other use of technology, agricultural or otherwise? GE is just another technology, which could be and I believe is being used to help organic farmers also, and to make organic farming more competitive and sustainable- surely something Fairlie would welcome as part of his hoped for “biological agricultural revolution”.
Fairlie then goes on on the next page to accept that it is nonetheless hard to believe these more integrated, small-scale and low-tech approaches could work for the burgeoning populations in countries such as China, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Egypt, thus tacitly accepting that Center for Global Food Issues are largely correct: it is the richer countries who now do indeed have the luxury to examine their food and farming systems critically, for there is clearly huge scope for improvement; but Fairlie is wrong rubbish the Green Revolution as benefiting only the rich at the expense of the poor, as it clearly did achieve its aims of feeding millions of people and staving off famines.
He misses the point that Paalberg makes (“Starved for Science”), that the majority of the remaining hungry people in the world are in Africa where they have not yet had the benefits of the Green Revolution, and where they are already practicing traditional organic small-scale agriculture- that is why they are hungry and poor because yields are so low.
Fairlie also gives a hard time to the Haber-Bosch method of manufacturing artificial fertliser from the air: both scientists were associated with the Nazis, Haber supported the war effort and developed the chlorine poison gas; he later became head of the chemical Warfare Service but was discovered to be a Jew and removed from his post. He died in 1934 befroe he could see the gas he had helped develop be used in the death camps.
So Fairlie asks the interesting question, since the fertilisers we use were a bye-product of the war, what would have happened had we not revolutionized farming with them,increasing yields but creating a dependence on fossil energy and interfering with traditional practices of nutrient cycling in the farm? Could humanity have not taken a different path?
This rather smacks of romaticism to me: certainly chemical farming did help displace people from the land, but this process was already underway for other reasons, for example developments in horse-drawn machinery, which was already reducing the labour force on the land and causing migrations to the city. It is an interesting question, but I think one of those “what ifs?” that could be asked equally of every other major technological development we have seen- perhaps even going back to the discovery of fire.
Fairlie fails to make a convincing critical appraisal of his own clearly stated bias against modernity and preference for what appears to be a mode of living somewhere around 2-300 years ago, where people were poor but happy, living in small family groups and villages with a cow and a couple of pigs and going to country fayres. No mention of how for example education would have to be rather severely curtailed if we all went back to the land to this degree, nor any discussion of the downside of the typically conservative, religious and even oppressive values held in many rural communities, or the historic vulnerability to famines, both of which may have contributed to people fleeing the countryside when they got a chance to. Perceived negatives in this Fairlie’s romantic vision are all dismissed as a result of the pressures of capitalism and the march of modernity forcing people off the land.
Fairlie’s book is an important contribution to permaculture, and discussions on animals in farming and diet, and more broadly, humans place in relationship to nature and the landscape in an increasingly urbanised world. He does a very good job of unpacking the ideologies behind some aspects of vegan movement and asks some very interesting questions about how this may be have created a strong vegan bias within the permaculture movement, and made a strong case that an element of meat in the diet- albeit a modest component- can still be sustainable and that farm animals play a crucial ecological function in the landscape.
I admire Fairlie’s work with The Land and of course as a rural permaculturalist I support moves to make it easier for people to create sustainable livelihoods for themseleves on the land.
I suspect however that far fewer people than he thinks really want to do this, and for good reasons: the city offers more opportunities in many ways, and life on the land is far harder for a society as a whole without various backups than he suggests. I dont accept Fairlie’s general view, the conventional one within the environmental movement, that times were necessarily better in the agrarian past at some undefined point, and people have always been forced off the land against their will;
nor do I assume as he does that people living even more post-industrial lives than they do now, would necessarily be any less happy than the self-sufficient small-holder, even if they were fed on synthesised meat tissue grown in a lab. I dont have such a horror of possible future technologies, nor do I have such a contempt for the life of the urbanite.
In fact I do wonder just where exactly Fairlie is actually coming from when I read this extraordinary statement in the final chapter:
The natural world is controlled by God, while the technological world is controlled by scientists. Both are tyrannical, but as tyrants go the former has a better record than the latter.
At this point I part company entirely with the author, who although he has done a good job of exposing some of the more extreme warped versions of what “nature” means in the end may be just trying to replace them with another, equally fanciful, of his own making
I am however glad to have such a well-researched and argued book to back me up as I go off to cook me sausages.