This post was kicked off George Monbiot’s review of Simon Fairlie’s new book Meat: a benign extravagance. In spite of (or maybe because of) having grown up on a farm in the American Midwest, I have struggled with eating meat all my life. I have now settled for the “eating it rarely and trying to find out where it comes from” solution, which as many of you may know is easier said than done. Fortunately we have a great local butcher and farmer’s markets here in Bristol which ease that pain significantly. But I haven’t been able to shake off all the climate change objections to livestock raising, or the memories of my family farm reduced to an unending sea of corn to feed bloated cattle in feedlots full of excrement. So I was heartened to read about Fairlie’s new book, which advocates a return to a more balanced and common-sense treatment of the topic. If we could only let pigs be pigs and cows be cows and eat what nature intended them to eat! I am also an admirer of Fairlie’s earlier paper, Can Britain Feed Itself, especially the livestock permaculture option, which several other studies about relocalised food systems have built upon. -KS

I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly

George Monbiot, The Guardian
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.

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.

If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.

It’s the second half – the stuffing of animals with grain to boost meat and milk consumption, mostly in the rich world – which reduces the total food supply. Cut this portion out and you would create an increase in available food which could support 1.3 billion people. Fairlie argues we could afford to use a small amount of grain for feeding livestock, allowing animals to mop up grain surpluses in good years and slaughtering them in lean ones. This would allow us to consume a bit more than half the world’s current volume of animal products, which means a good deal less than in the average western diet….
(6 September 2010)

A benign extravagance

Simon Fairlie, Permaculture Magazine
Simon Fairlie explores the debate about food localisation in a transition culture and discusses its wider implications.

For about 10 years I lived in a community which (since the comments I make here can apply to other similar permaculture settlements) I don’t need to name and will call Happy Valley. There were many things I liked about the place, but one of the aspects that I found difficult was the collective diet. There was no prohibition on eating meat; but since communal meals had to provide for the common denominator of collective acceptability, a vegetarian ethos prevailed. If you were on kitchen duty, it was more convenient to cook without using any animal products, because then you didn’t have to prepare anything special for vegans…

About the author: Simon Fairlie worked for 20 years variously as an agricultural labourer, vine-worker, 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 organisation that provides planning advice to small-holders and other low income people in the countryside. He is also editor of The Land magazine, and earns a living by selling scythes.
(9 September 2010)
I have provided only a brief excerpt to this article from Permaculture Magazine as they have very strict copyright provisions. The article provides a good summary of Fairlie’s justification for including sustainably raised livestock in resilient and permaculture food production systems. Find out more about the book here. -KS

The water footprint: the hidden cost of our meat consumption

Arjen Y. Hoekstra, the ecologist
Watching our leaky taps is the least of our problems when it comes to water wastage – agricultural practices and animal products are by far the greater danger

The desirability of reducing our carbon footprints is generally recognised – if not necessarily acted upon – by governments, corporations and individual consumers. Yet the related and equally urgent need to address our water footprint is often overlooked.

Campaigns aimed at getting the public to save water are usually aimed at reducing domestic or industrial consumption of water. But only 10 per cent of our water consumption is related to industrial products, and only 5 per cent to domestic water consumption.

About 85 per cent of humanity’s water footprint is in fact related to the consumption of agricultural products, particularly animal products, which generally use much more water per calorific value than crops. This means that if people are considering reducing their water footprint, they need to look at their diet rather than at their water use in the kitchen, bathroom or garden.

Feeding the animals

The biggest contribution to the total water footprint of all animal products comes from growing their feed, rather than the water volumes required for the animals to drink. Many grain crops are for animal consumption. In the US, for example, 68 per cent of the grains produced are used for animal feed. But this step is the furthest removed from the consumer, which explains why people generally have little notion that animal products require a lot of water…

…A water footprint generally breaks down into three components. The blue water footprint is the volume of fresh water that is extracted from surface and groundwater. The green water footprint is the volume of water extracted from rainwater stored in the soil. The grey water footprint is the volume of water that is required to dilute polluted water to such an extent that the quality of the ambient water remains above agreed water-quality standards.

…Global issues

Water problems are in fact an intrinsic part of a global economic structure in which water scarcity is not translated into costs to either producers or consumers. As a result there are many places where water resources are depleted or polluted, with producers and consumers along the supply chain benefiting at the cost of local communities and ecosystems. Animals are often fed with a variety of feed ingredients, and feed supply chains are difficult to trace. So unless we have milk, cheese, eggs or meat from an animal that was raised and grazed locally, it is hard to say how any individual product has affected the world’s scarce freshwater resources. The increasing complexity of our food system in general and animal products in particular hides the existing links between the foods we buy and their resource implications…

Arjen Y. Hoekstra is professor in water resources management at the University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands

He will be speaking on water footprinting at Compassion in World Farming’s Peter Roberts Memorial Lecture – ‘Beef, Bread and Water: Ethical food in a warm and thirsty world’ – in London on September 20th.
(2 September 2010)
Another reason to support locally raised and grazed animal farming. -KS