Meat: A Benign Extravagance Paperback – Dec 17 2010
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The Western penchant for the overconsumption of meat has led to concerns about sustainability, food security, and social and environmental justice. In response, some activists have proposed a worldwide transition to vegetarian or even vegan diets. In this comprehensive, meticulously researched study based primarily on an analysis of professional literature and focused mostly on food production in the UK and, to a lesser extent, the US, Fairlie (community farmer; editor, The Land, UK) views vegetarianism/veganism as only a partial solution. Although he sees advantages to the adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets, he maintains that vegetables do not produce the higher quality protein of meat diets. Further, he argues that meat can be produced efficiently on a smaller scale and then distributed equitably among nations. His solution to the problem of efficiency is to reject the specialized industrial farming model sanctioned by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, which is based on the expensive and wasteful production of grain, for what he terms a "default livestock" model. This model is an integrated agricultural system of raising vegetables in which both vegetable byproducts and land unsuitable for other agricultural purposes are used to produce meat, dairy, and other animal products.
“Simon Fairlie, a farmworker and editor of Britain's prestigious Ecologist magazine, has given us a wonderful treatise on the ecological niche and cultural history of the world's primary livestock animals: beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry. There is more to this than retrospective, however. Fairlie's aim is to shed light on the current debate over the role of meat in the human diet, economy, and perhaps most importantly, the flows of carbon dioxide and methane from human activities that threaten to unhinge the climate. The value of this book is chiefly the well-argued case that it makes against both industrial forms of meat production and the folly of veganism as a universal dietary solution to animal cruelty and threats of climate change. Vegan eaters and farmers might well work and eat in a matrix of integrated livestock farming. Fairlie is kind toward individual vegans but little social or ecological value is to be gained and much lost from expanding vegan dietary practices. A secondary and significant value of Meat is the careful explication it makes of the complementary roles of our familiar livestock animals in mixed farm production, a system far more likely to serve us well through the coming decades of energy descent than industrial agriculture. Erudite, well grounded in the author's farming experience, and delightfully written, this book recommends itself to all permaculture designers, and to every intelligent reader who has concerns for climate stability and a regenerative land use. It is more than a primer, offering an insightful examination of the central problems of agriculture itself, both past and present.”
"This book is a masterpiece: original, challenging and brilliantly argued. Simon Fairlie is a great thinker and a great writer."--George Monbiot, Environmental and political activist, author and journalist
"Simon Fairlie's Meat: A Benign Extravagance is the sanest book I have read on the subject of how the human race is going to feed itself in the years ahead."--Gene Logsdon, Author of Holy Shit and The Contrary Farmer
"Simon Fairlie provides us with an unusual and extremely important gift in his new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance. By helping us understand how our food choices actually shape the landscape in which we live, he provides a perspective that is all too often missing in the more simplistic judgments which are all too prevalent in our public discourse about food. Even scientists who do Life Cycle Analysis often miss the landscape impact analysis. Fairlie corrects that problem. Everyone interested in how their food choices can affect the ecological, social and economic health of the communities in which they live, should read this book."--Frederick Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture
"No-one has ever analysed the world's food and agriculture more astutely than Simon Fairlie-an original thinker and a true scholar. Here he shows that while meat is generally a luxury it is often the best option, and could always be turned to advantage-if only we did things properly; but this, with present economic policies and legal restrictions, is becoming less and less possible. Everyone should read this book-especially governments, and all campaigners."--Colin Tudge, Biologist and author
"This is a tremendous and very timely book: the world's meat consumption is rapidly rising, leading to devastating environmental impacts as well as having long term health implications for societies everywhere. Simon Fairlie's book lays out the reasons why we must decrease the amount of meat we eat, both for the planet and for ourselves. This brilliant book is essential reading for anyone who cares about food and the environment."--Rosie Boycott, Founder of Spare Rib and Virago Press, ex-editor of the Independent, Independent on Sunday, Daily Express and Esquire magazine, broadcaster, writer and campaigner and currently Food Advisor to the Mayor of London
About the Author
Simon Fairlie worked for 20 years variously as an agricultural labourer, vineworker, shepherd, fisherman, builder and stonemason before being ensnared by the computer in 1990. He was a co-editor of The Ecologist magazine for four years, before joining a community farm in 1994 where he managed the cows, pigs and a working horse for ten years. He now runs Chapter 7, an organization that provides planning advice to smallholders and other low income people in the countryside. He is also editor of The Land magazine, and earns a living by selling scythes. He is the author of Low Impact Development: Planning and People in a Sustainable Countryside (Jon Carpenter, 1996), and Meat: A Benign Extravagance.
A prolific nonfiction writer, novelist, and journalist, Gene Logsdon has published more than two dozen books, both practical and philosophical. Gene’s nonfiction works include Holy Shit, Small-Scale Grain Raising, Living at Nature’s Pace, The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening, Good Spirits, and The Contrary Farmer. His most recent novel is Pope Mary and the Church of Almighty Good Food. He writes a popular blog, The Contrary Farmer, as well as an award-winning column for the Carey Ohio Progressor Times, and is a regular contributor to Farming Magazine and Draft Horse Journal. He lives and farms in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. You can visit his blog at http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
Anyway, I had multiple vitamin deficiencies being vegan for 2 years, despite an almost soy-free, veggie and beans based diet (multivitamin included). I started drinking raw milk, eating raw cheese, and then I got to thinking about veal and what happens when the cow is too old, etc. Since our local organic small-town family diary farmer eats her cows (the males as a result of producing the raw milk I drink, and probably others), I started to consider eating them as well. It didn't make sense to drink the milk and refuse her meat. So yes, vegan turned local omnivore, and trying to adhere to the default livestock diet that Fairlie lays out in this book.
This book has hundreds of references, you can just go right to those papers and look for yourself. Fairlie has just put all the info in convenient form. I really enjoyed the chapter on what a vegan society's landscape might look like. This is something that the big vegan organizations never really go in to, and they should, because the picture isn't pretty. If you need a book to help you explore what kind of diet really does less harm to the planet, this is a great read. I was shocked at the chapter with the graph showing how vegetable oil production takes up as much land as beef (the least efficient meat to produce), and even more to learn how the pork industry and soy bean industry (veg oil) are so intertwined.
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.
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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