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Meat: A Benign Extravagance [Paperback]

Simon Fairlie , Gene Logsdon

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Book Description

Jan. 28 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing (Jan. 28 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1603583246
  • ISBN-13: 978-1603583244
  • Product Dimensions: 25.7 x 18.7 x 1.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 590 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #177,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  33 reviews
64 of 72 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating foray into the complexities of food production Dec 30 2010
By Z. Cohen - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Since this can be a contentious subject, I will begin this review by disclaiming my personal positions on the core issues of this book, so that my appraisal may be interpreted in light of my bias. I am very passionate about diet, food, and ecology. My concerns regarding this subject matter are nutrition, ecological issues (in which I include agricultural economy, environmental consequences, and sustainability), social issues, and lastly morality. I have lived several years as a vegan, before negative personal experience and review of previously ignored evidence led me to believe it was not the nutritional and ecological panacea I had been led to believe it was. Similarly to the author, I now consume modest portions of traditionally raised animal products along with a whole foods plant based diet.

With that said, I found this book to be thought provoking in the extreme. More than anything else, my biggest takeaway was a deeper appreciation for the incredible complexity involved in the various sciences charged with evaluating the environmental limitations and effects on food production.

Given how broad this field is, Fairlie naturally must limit the scope of the book. Nutritional factors and the morality of animal eating are completely excluded from consideration in this work. Meat is purely focused on an analysis of how much of what type of food can be produced on how much land under what conditions. Also, as noted in the book, each chapter consists of a stand alone essay, so the overall work feels a little disjointed. I didn't find that to be much of a negative.

Despite the author's status as an enlightened carnivore, I found this book to be highly free of bias and polemics. He gives equal space to proponents of veganism and omnivorism, permaculture and industrialized agriculture. All arguments are critically examined using rigorous scientific, statistical, and historical evidence. Furthermore, extensive portions of the book are devoted to analyzing common scientific data, exploring the presumptions and ideological biases that formed potentially unreliable conclusions. One of the first chapters includes a detailed investigation into various productions methods for livestock and plant matter, and what actual yields of each under different conditions really are. Later in the book, this information is used to analyze the food producing capacities of four different models: chemical vegan, chemical livestock, permaculture vegan, and permaculture livestock. I found these sections especially interesting, as most mainstream vegan literature does not include technical analyses of what vegan agriculture actually looks like. When the advantages and disadvantages are weighed, some critical problems arise.

However, again due to the limited scope of the book, the author chose to apply much of his analysis to the unique circmstances of the United Kingdom. While the principles are interesting and informative, it's hard to know how much different his conclusions would be in other locales. Another limitation is that Fairlie assumes that the fossil fuel age will end in the near decades without a new infrastructure based on renewable, zero carbon energy. While the prospects for the future energy economy are varied and beyond the scope of the book, it's worth noting that much of his analysis presumes that there will be no new easily accessible mass source of energy. However, his explanation of the difficulties in properly managing the nitrogen and phosphate cycle and the maintenance of soil fertility, which as he and others argue is vastly harmed by urbanization and chemical agriculture, highlight extremely important issues that must be addressed in the development of a sustainable food system.

Overall, the book succeeds most where it is deconstructing conventional wisdom surrounding the role of livestock. The vegan establishment ubiquitously decries the caloric inefficiency, the extreme use of water, and the contribution to climate change associated with livestock production. These are often cited as reasons to abolish animal agriculture. Fairlie conducts a meticulous investigation into those claims, and the nuanced truth he uncovers suggests that they are fallacious. The 10:1 ratio of animal feed to meat often cited turns out to be a very limited snapshot of the marginal efficiency of grain fed animals in a concentrated industrial operation. Even in that setting, given that most of the animals' weight comes from grass prior to the CAFO, the ratio drops considerably. There are a number of considerations that can affect it, but it seems 3-4:1 is a more reasonable assessment. Similarly, the water usage statistics tend to come either from a calculation of all of the rainwater that fell on grass that animals ate, or an extrapolation of one specific region in a desert climate where pasture land needed to be irrigated. Since the former does not represent water that was available to humans for alternative use, and the latter represents about 1% of overall production, the water use claims are irrelevant to general livestock production. Finally the greenhouse gas contribution claimed by opponents (18%, according to a UN report) was based on a highly subjective calculation that was designed to promote intensive CAFO operations by allocating emissions from deforestation (which are not recurring emissions, and based off a year with vastly higher rates than current trends) arbitrarily to pastured live stock. A more realistic analysis results in livestock production contributing far less green house gases.

Fairlie advocates a return to decentralized, rural based agricultural systems where animals (what he calls default livestock use) are integrated with the land, serving as a source of fertility and a way of converting non arable pasture land (in the case of cows) and food waste (in the case of pigs and chickens) into a source of human sustenance. This would require that advanced industrial economies eat about 50% of the meat that they currently consume, but Fairlie convincingly argues in favor of the role of default livestock production in a sustainable food economy.

As the pressures of population growth and the costs of technological development continue to pose a threat to human civilization, the debate on how to balance the needs of human food requirements and ecological carrying capacity is increasingly critical. This book is a meticulously researched, well documented, and informative investigation of the various problems and potential solutions, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who eats and cares what the world their grandchildren will live in looks like.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You have to read (well, part of) this. April 8 2011
By Jerry Larson - Published on
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This is a phenomenal book. I'd like to give it more than five stars if I could. Seriously, if you are interested in this subject, or these subjects, and want to understand them, you need to read this. "These subjects" include the ethical and environmental issues around eating meat, but also the larger issue of how can we feed all these people, and how can we develop a sustainable civilization on this planet?

On the other hand, you don't need to read the whole thing all at once. I haven't yet. The author himself says that the book is denser and heavier than he planned, and "dense" is actually the first word that came to my mind. It's under 300 pages, the prose is clear, the typeface is legible, but there's a lot of lines on each page, and if you're not already on expert in this field, every paragraph is full of new information and involved arguments, so you can't just breeze through it. That's not the author's fault, just the nature of the beast. Fortunately, although there is a theme to the book, each chapter can stand alone, and in fact most of them are versions of articles or talks that appeared elsewhere. If you just read the first chapter, you may find you need to digest that for a while: it's a pretty dense and rich meal. To read, and really digest, this whole book at once would be difficult. You can read a few chapters, spread the rest out over time, keep it as a reference in the meantime. Or you could read the whole thing now, and I'm sure if you read it again in some time, you'll get more out of it the second time. Deep understanding of complex issues doesn't come all at once.

Some vegetarians and vegans think humans should not eat meat, or should not use animals or animal products. To me that's just silly, and it certainly isn't something we can all agree on. Other animals eat us, and use us, and each other, whenever they get a chance. We never would have reached a level of technology that might be able to do without bone and leather tools, whale oil, etc., if we hadn't used them for so long. We evolved as omnivores; otherwise we couldn't have this discussion. Carnivores couldn't even think about not eating meat; herbivores wouldn't think of eating it. Besides, if we're going to put dwellings, freeways, airports, fast-food restaurants and parking lots everywhere on this planet, there won't be any room for animals that don't serve us somehow or other. There won't be any chickens, except a few hundred in zoos, if we don't eat them, or their eggs. (However, I certainly would like to see those animals treated more humanely. Of course, I'm not in favor of putting people, and our stuff, on every square inch of the planet; it's just that that's the direction we're going, and indeed we're almost there already).

The other argument against meat can't really be refuted. It takes a lot more land and other resources to raise the animals to feed a given number of people, than it does to grow enough vegetables to feed the same number of people.
It's fine to say we claim our rightful place at the top of the pyramid, but the top of the pyramid is supposed to be smaller than the base. Our present meat consumption in developed countries is unsustainable, especially if 6 billion people were to try to adopt it. You can't really argue with that (but you can certainly ignore it, or be completely oblivious of it, which is what most meat eaters do).

HOWEVER-- it is not NEARLY that simple, and that's what this book is about. Yes, meat is a luxury. So are chocolate, coffee, and cinammon. Do we have to give up those too? (on the other hand, we don't consume as much of those as we do of meat. On the other hand...)
So should we all grow rice and potatoes, and just eat that? Well, there are serious problems with that idea.
Maybe if we had, or moved in the direction of, an ecologically sound, sustainable way of life, there would be a role for some livestock in it. And it makes a difference what the animals are eating. There is even a role for inefficiency in a well-designed system. It's an incredibly complex subject, already thoroughly confused by simplistic arguments, and that's why the book is so dense.

Ever wonder why Muslims don't eat pork, Hindus don't eat beef? More puzzling still, why is the Muslim forbidden animal unclean, and the Hindu forbidden animal holy? How come Europeans just eat everything, pigs, cows, sheep, it all seems to work out, no big deal? Just to get the answer to that was worth reading the book for me. Here we have a very important, extremely complex subject matter that very few of us know anything about, and there is a lot to know. This is an outstanding way to get up to speed on these matters. It's also very interesting and pleasant to read, at least in moderate doses.

Some of the other reviewers said the book was too long, too hard, too scientific, or just wasn't what they wanted to hear, damn it. That's all true. Even though it's well written and entertaining, it is scientific, and demands some work on the reader's part, and you're probably not going to like everything you hear. As I see it, those are all good things.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Fairlie" well balanced and well researched Feb. 10 2011
By Wulfstan - Published on
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Very interesting book about Meat and how meat can be part of an Organic permaculture. The author here debunks many myths about meat and how meat raising is bad or good for the environment. Many single issue groups have spread "facts" about how either meat is horrible and dangerous for the environment- or the savior of mankind and our economy.

Of course, the truth lies between. The author presents solid facts how some meat raising, as part of an overall Organic permaculture can be best for the environment (mind you, he assumes we will be eating far less meat, and meat that is grazed, not feedlot).

However, that's not the most convincing or interesting part of the book. What I enjoyed is how Fairlie has found, researched and then debunks various factoids found wandering around the internet, such as that one Kg (2.2 pounds) of meat requires 100000 liters of water to produce. Fairlie sniffs out the original source of such factoids, researches and then prints the real facts- that's it more like 400 liters. Not that the various Meat Councils aren't capable of coming up with their own bogus factoids. He cheerfully deconstructs them too.

Fairly covers how efficient meat is in use of land, how laws in the UK have turned pigs from recycling machines into "grain guzzlers', how there's an "unholy alliance between the meat and vegetable oil industries", how much water it takes to grown that hamburger, causes of famine- and why meat eating can help to forestall famine, and more.

The book is rather UK centric I am afraid, and at times rather dense reading.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read for anyone interested in agriculture & sustainability Jan. 16 2011
By Sarah Pugh - Published on
Someone else has already written a good review; I'll just say that this book opened my eyes to issues in agriculture of which I had no idea and I really appreciated the author's ideological neutrality (or very good semblance thereof). I'm recommending it to all my farmer friends and anyone else who will wade through it. Excellent book.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meat: A Benign Extravagance Nov. 28 2011
By Todd Caldecott - Published on
Recently I was given a review copy of Simon Fairlie's new book entitled Meat: A Benign Extravagance, published by Chelsea Green (2010), right around the same time I wrote what some might consider a rather controversial blog on the subject of meat on urbandiner. The issue of eating meat is a touchy one, especially here in Vancouver - a trend-setting city that has more than it's share of anti-meat advocates, who inspired by films such as Forks Over Knives, have come to equate meat-eating with everything that's bad in the world: from agricultural run-off and global warming, to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

And it is a media campaign they seem to be winning, as everywhere one looks the idea of eating meat and especially red meat is thoroughly denounced. The problem with these claims however is that when they are examined more closely, they begin to fall apart. For example: the much promulgated but nonetheless erroneous notion that saturated fat consumption is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Refuting each one of these arguments however, often with people that have a pre-existing bias or claim the moral high ground, can be a rather tiring enterprise. How refreshing it was then to receive Mr. Fairlie's well-researched exegesis on the subject of meat.

As a farmer passionately invested in the concept and practice of permaculture, Simon Fairlie brings a kind of holism to the subject of his inquiry that can only be borne from experience. Fortified by hundreds of references he meticulously examines the issue of meat, not from a health or ethical perspective, but by looking at the issue of environmental impact and sustainability. And in the process Fairlie invariably encounters more than a few sacred cows. For example, most people familiar with the anti-meat argument have heard that it takes at least ten times more energy to produce meat than cereals. The conventional logic is that if we switched out animal protein for vegetable protein we could feed ten times more people. Simon Fairlie shows us however that the assumptions of this 10:1 ratio are highly simplistic. For one thing, most livestock are fed otherwise inedible food crops and forage on inedible wild grasses and plants. The 10:1 ratio also doesn't take into account factors such as the difference in nutrient bioavailability between meat and cereals, nor the economic value of non-food animal products such as manure, leather, soap, pharmaceuticals, glue and fertilizer. Contrary to what we have been told in the media, Fairlie show us that the 10:1 ratio usually cited for the conversion of edible cereals to meat is actually more like 1.4:1 (p.32) - which is a big difference. This is only one example of the many facts that Fairlie uses to undermine the assumption that livestock and meat production necessarily promotes waste and inefficiency. In Meat, Fairlie weaves a compelling argument that livestock farming actually adds value to the land, and is an integral component of sustainable agriculture. Fairlie shows us that meat production in essence is a secondary function of holistic farming: a gift of land, and is at the very worst, a "benign extravagance".

While Fairlie tackles the most inflated arguments against meat production, his strongest critique is reserved for industrial agriculture, which leverages the use of petroleum to produce a kind of meat that is by any measure non-sustainable. Thus when Fairlie talks about meat as a "benign extravagance" this is not the kind of meat he refers to. Perhaps because he is a former vegan, in his arguments we find a nuanced and sophisticated position: someone who has truly looked at both sides of the issue. As a herbalist clinician I too appreciate the importance of a balanced perspective, seeing the value of plenty of vegetation in the diet, but also the utility of meat and animal products: in the health of children, women, during pregnancy, in the aging, and in specific health conditions such as anemia, osteoporosis, immunodeficiency and diabetes. As I discuss in my book, Food As Medicine, meat and animal products have always been a part of the human diet, and in many ways is the one food that defines us as a species. What else allowed for the evolution of our large brains, much larger than our primate cousins, if not for the high-density nutrition of animal products? Like Fairlie, I appreciate where vegans are going with some of their arguments, but I also understand that there is no eating without some sacrifice. We are born from food and we return to food. In the end, all we have in the vegan argument is the idea that eating meat is inherently wrong, which is less of a scientific or rational conclusion than something more akin to religion. For too long eating meat has been synonymous with not caring about the environment, of not being a good citizen of the earth. For those who are made to feel guilty for eating meat, Simon Fairlie's book is a welcome and insightful resource in a debate that often suffers from too much prejudice, confusion, and outright error.

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