On meat, the environment, and data

This is huge. In his review of Simon Fairlie’s new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, British environmental journalist, climate campaigner and long-time vegan George Monbiot looks at the assumptions underlying the argument that eating meat is bad for the environment, and concludes with the author that many of them are false.

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…

[Current] idiocies [such as feeding grain to livestock], Fairlie shows, are not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model.

Fairlie makes a bunch of points (or, as Monbiot says, “butchers a herd of sacred cows”):

  1. We’re using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. We should be looking not at the conversion rate of feed into meat, but on the amount of land required to grow meat, with the amount of land needed to grow plants of the same nutritional value to humans.
  2. Meat becomes an efficient means of food production if livestock are fed with food for which humans don’t compete – residues and waste for pigs, straw and grass from fallows and rangelands for cows. (Second-generation biofuels, anyone?)
  3. The commonly quoted claim that “it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef… is wrong by around three orders of magnitude. It arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.”
  4. Farmed animals produce about 10% of the world’s GHG emissions – not 18% or more than transport, as the FAO claimed based on such faulty assumptions as saying that “all deforestation that culminates in cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle: in reality it is mostly driven by land speculation and logging,” confusing “one-off emissions from deforestation with ongoing pollution” as well as gross and net production of methane and nitrous oxide.
  5. Many vegetable oils have a bigger footprint than animal fats.

Monbiot concludes by saying that those who advocate for veganism for environmental reasons are better off campaigning for meat, milk and egg-producing systems that are “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” (and, still, eating much less of it than we do).

Important reading, not just for the arguments (and note, I am not saying anything here about veganism as an animal rights choice, which I respect greatly) but as a larger reminder of the thin ice that many of our assumptions skate on, and the dangers of relying too much on data rather than principles to tell us where to go next in this complex world. It makes me think of Michael Pollan’s response to the endless debates over which nutrients and how much in what proportion from where: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Eat vegan if you believe it’s simply wrong to eat meat, otherwise go “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale” – which, come to think of it, is a set of principles that makes sense for all forms of production.

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