Tipping sacred cows: Reviewing “Meat: A Benign Extravagance”

Mainstream culture and news abound with broad statements about our food system and the choices we make about what we put on the dinner table. Surely you’ve heard that if you want to save the planet, you should eat a vegan diet, since raising livestock contributes significantly to carbon emissions and thus to climate change. Or perhaps you’ve been told that organic agriculture can't possibly "feed the world."

Who’s right? What, ultimately, is the best way to produce food in the world today, to both feed our growing population without destroying the earth it depends on?

In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, recently released in the U.S. by Chelsea Green, UK writer, editor, and farmer Simon Fairlie picks apart study after study in wonkish detail and shows why easy answers are hard to find.

Densely packed with enough studies and statistics and technical information to make even my food-nerdy eyes cross at times, the book offers occasional notes of Fairlie’s dry wit, especially in his scathing comments about industry-supported studies or what he calls the Global Opponents of Organic Farming (yes, GOOFs). As he says in sketching his vision, “Farmers have lived and worked like this with plants and animals for centuries, and it is arguable that advocates of permaculture would have had to coin a new name only because industrial farmers have brought the term agriculture into disrepute.”

Because meat in general has taken a lot of heat from critics of the world’s food systems -- mostly fueled by the environmental degradation and cruelty to animals embodied by factory farms -- Fairlie focuses his research on the question of “not whether killing animals is right or wrong, but whether farming animals for meat is sustainable.” Unlike the narrow lens of many studies that regard large-scale industrial farms as the norm, Fairlie examines the use of land, water, feed, and energy in animal husbandry operations of varying scales and in different agricultural settings. For every statistic Fairlie can pull from a highly regarded study, it seems that he can offer an alternative statistic that encompasses a broader view of agriculture or insight into the neglected pieces of the farming puzzle.

For example, Fairlie rips apart a well-known U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report ("Livestock's Long Shadow") that holds livestock raising as responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does the report reveal a bias in favor of intensive farming, he argues, but it also attributes the largest portion of that 18% to deforestation, a figure that is now decreasing and that is not wholly attributable to animal husbandry. He also addresses a study on soil carbon sequestration, arguing that for every action that could sequester carbon, there's usually an opposite reaction that releases it. Ultimately, he believes that we should spend our efforts not on “sequestration” as an activity but rather on “increasing the biomass productivity of our land, and its biodiversity, by whatever sustainable ways can be found.”

So what, then, would be a truly sustainable form of agriculture?

Fairlie examines possible scenarios, both industrial and organic and with livestock or stockfree (vegan), and proposes a “permaculture livestock economy.” Most permaculture books and teachers neglect the value of grass (a perennial) in a permaculture system, he explains, but grass farming and animal grazing provide balance to organic grain crops as well as a calorie-generating function to land unsuitable for cultivation. Animal husbandry enhances typical permacultural practices by providing manure for fertility, labor for cultivation or transportation, and a way to clean up food wastes and crop residues, thus closing the cycle of farm activity. And because this form of farming is necessarily small-scale and localized, raising livestock and using the byproducts of those animals (fat for cooking, hides for clothing or shelter, and bones to return phosphorus to the soil) increases a community’s self-sufficiency.

What if the vegans have their way, and animals are no longer raised for human consumption? Exploring that vision, Fairlie argues that despite a growth in forests and wilderness, society could become more detached from nature by keeping wild animals separate. (And what, he asks, happens when those wild animals find their way into the garden?) In his own vision for a new agriculture, though, Fairlie describes more balance between the land uses of cultivated fields and gardens, pastures, managed woodland, and wildlife, with market crops grown closer to where they will be consumed and livestock providing some of the necessary labor to replace dwindling fossil fuels. Both scenarios are clearly based on U.K. agriculture as well as the current awareness of “energy descent” issues found there, and as an American reader I have my doubts about their feasibility here on a widespread scale.

Still, the permacultural livestock economy Fairlie paints has great appeal for me and for other local-foods activists. He incorporates local slaughterhouses and markets (as well as agricultural fairs and festivals to celebrate harvests and food production). More human labor would be required to realize this form of agriculture, from shepherds to milkmaids, but none of these activities are completely absent from the world today and would fall “more in line with the public’s expectations of what our farms should be like.”

Meat shows the complex role of livestock in our world today and gives a thoughtful, reasonable way for us all to reconsider what we think is true about our food. As the press release for the U.S. edition -- and Ethicurean editor Bonnie Powell wrote on Grist -- even George Monbiot, a well-known British environmental activist, “retracted his support for veganism” after reading Fairlie's book. I’ve never been a die-hard vegetarian who preached the virtues of my diet to others, but I found myself wincing at some of Fairlie’s information on dairy farming, realizing that my consumption of dairy products inflicts a sizable negative impact on the world around me and needs to be curbed.

Read Meat in small chunks, as Fairlie would have us lower our meat consumption, and savor a better understanding of what our agriculture can be.

4 Responsesto “Tipping sacred cows: Reviewing “Meat: A Benign Extravagance””

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    Sounds like a description of Joel Salatin's farm. Glad to know others see things the same way.

  2. azure says:

    Joan Dye Gussow discusses this issue in "This Organic Life", in the course of discussing what she does about the wildlife (rats, woodchucks, rabbits, birds) who feed upon/destroy her vegetable garden & fruiting shrubs & trees. Also discussions in a nutrition course she taught (maybe still teaches) re: no matter what you eat, whoever grows it will end up killing other species, and that some lands are better grazed then used for plant crops (other than what you might be able to "gather" from a grass land.

  3. Jane O'Brien says:

    Ireland have now backed down over their GM plans, meaning livestock will feed off modified crops in the future. Surely this will add to the impact of our food system as well?

    http://insideireland.ie/2011/02/08/ireland-to-back-gm-crops-plan-7246/

  4. da says:

    "If the vegans have their way"
    That would only happen through everyone's independent decision to adopt veganism as an ideal of world wide non-violence including but certainly not limited to diet, agriculture and farm animals.
    I think through veganism we can become more aware of the diverse world of creatures including the wild ones,
    and closer to nature. But we're destroying both those anyway.
    His vision of balance seems interesting however we can already see not just in N America but many other countries, pastures for cows are gaining more of a foothold over wild areas that we need to keep and leave alone to keep out environment stabilized.