Meat Book Club, Part 1

by wil — Jan 12, 2011

I became aware of Simon Fairlie a few months ago — he’s been featured in Time magazine, The Guardian, etc. — but had to wait for his book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, to become available here in the US.

I received Meat soon after Christmas and started reading it a few days ago, then discovered that Melissa of Hung.Gather.Love is hosting what may well be the first ever (cyber) meat book club, discussing Meat, so I signed up.

I realize that discussions involving diet/food/food-production (like those involving religion or politics) can easily devolve into heated arguments (I’ve been guilty of getting unnecessarily and unhelpfully riled up by the topic myself), so I’m going to try my best to steer clear of purposefully inflammatory statements. And I suppose it might help here to talk a bit about my own diet/food practice/philosophy: I’m a pro-vegetable, one-time vegetarian (married to a pro-vegetable, recovering vegan) with sensitivities/mild allergies to most grains (wheat, corn, rice). I’m largely an organic, free-range, slow-food, sometimes farmers-market, raw-milk, butter and bone-broth omnivore. I eat this way for several reasons: personal preference, health, a concern for the environment, etc.

Meat is somewhat different from other foody books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals in that it doesn’t have much to say regarding nutrition or the morality of meat-eating (e.g., animal suffering). Meat‘s main focus is animal husbandry and its environmental impact/sustainability. In the introduction, Fairlie sums it up thusly:

This book is concerned with the environmental ethics of eating meat. The central question it asks is not whether killing animals is right or wrong, but whether farming animals for meat is sustainable. From this springs a range of secondary questions: Is meat-eating a waste of resources? Is meat a way of robbing the hungry to fatten the well-fed? Does meat-eating cause disproportionate levels of global warming? Does the rearing of animals for meat deprive wild animals of habitat and the world of wilderness?

And I would add, those secondary questions raise a host of tertiary questions, and the answers to all of these questions are complex and intertwined. For starters, what is “meat”? Is it beef, chicken, pork? (nb: Fairlie deals almost exclusively with beef and pork.) Where was it raised? Was it factory-farmed or pastured? If raised on feed, how was the feed grown? Where was the feed grown? Was it raised eating crops that might otherwise have been eaten by humans?

If you want an in-depth discussion of these matters and more, by all means, pick up the book! But for this post, I’ll try to synthesize and summarize.

First off, eating meat is an extravagance. Fairlie doesn’t beat around the bush:

Nowhere in this book do I put the case for eating lots of meat, because there isn’t one. Meat is an extravagance. However, to conclude that veganism is the ‘only ethical response’ is to take a big leap into a very muddy pond.

But how much of an extravagance? How does it compare to other extravagances, such as strawberries, chocolate, coffee, tea, wine, etc?

Chapter 3 attempts to answer the extravagance question by way of feed conversion ratios (the ratio of nutrition fed to an animal vs. the nutrition available when that animal is eaten as meat). I’ve compiled a list of them below:

UK pork: 4:1
Factory-farmed chicken (Src: CIWF): 2.1-3.0:1
Farmed fish: 1.5-2.0:1
US (NY) dairy milk: 3:1 (cow raised on 50% cultivated grain, 50% cultivated forage)
US (NY) dairy milk: 1.5:1 (cow raised on 50% cultivated grain, 50% uncultivated/uncultivable forage)
Cattle: 10:1 (cow raised on 100% human-edible, cultivated grain crops)
Cattle: 8:1 (cow raised on 100% human-inedible, cultivated crops)
US feedlot cattle: 3.2:1 (cow raised on 60% uncultivated/uncultivable grass, 40% grain and human-edible forage)
US pastured cattle: 2:1 (cow raised on 60% uncultivated/uncultivable grass, 40% grain and human-inedible forage)
Global aggregate of all human-edible meat (Src: FAO): 1.3:1

It may or may not be clear from this list that conversion ratios depend on the species, the product (beef, milk, etc.), and what the animal is eating. If the end product is beef and the cow is raised on corn or wheat or other cultivated, human-edible crops, the conversion ratio is high. If the end product is beef and the cow eats lots of uncultivated grass supplemented with alfalfa and clover, the conversion ratio is low. Basically, for beef, pastured/grass-fed/grass-finished = better. Feedlot = worse.

Fairlie adds:

However inefficient the conversion ratio of any given animal may be, if it is grazing entirely on land which could not otherwise be used for arable production or some other highly productive activity, then it cannot be said to be detracting from the sum quantity of nutrients available to the people of the world, but is adding to them.

And though Fairlie doesn’t get into the nutrition or humanity* of beef, others like Pollan and Foer do, and the same rule applies: pastured/grass-fed/grass-finished = better. Feedlot = worse.

In chapter 4, Fairlie covers “default” livestock production: “animal products and services that arise as the integral co-product of a wider agricultural system.” Fairlie opts for “default”, but it might equally well be described as low-impact, eco-friendly, integrated, permaculture, etc. — describing animals integrated into a well-managed farm system, raised on crop residues and food waste, grazing on uncultivated/uncultivable land, etc.

Fairlie estimates default livestock production at 50% of the world’s current meat and dairy produce (the other 50% is high-impact, energy-intensive produce). Based on 2000 figures, that comes out to 18.5 kg of meat/year + 39 kg of milk/year per person, or roughly .78 lbs. of meat/week and 1.33 pints of milk/week per person.

So if you’re eating more than three quarter-pounders a week, you’re eating more than your fair share of “default” meat. But then the question arises, can we sustain above-default levels of meat/dairy production? Fairlie estimates we might be able to sustainably add another 8 kg of meat/year (another third of a pound of meat/week per person) via additional non-default production. That would raise your sustainable fair share to a little over 1 lb/week. Beyond that, you’re probably in unsustainable territory.

I could go on and on — there’s tons of good stuff in Section 1 ( a critique of current pig farming, water-usage myths dispelled, etc.) — but I think I’ll stop for now and leave you with this:

To some extent, the stance which the thoughtful person takes in respect of animals in agriculture must be related to the stance they take on the use of artificial fertilizers. In a world where chemical fertilizers were banned or unobtainable, the advantage of a vegan diet would be slim indeed. If arable crop and meat production took place on organic mixed farms where the whole rotation operated at less than 1.5:1 conversion rate, then the produce of those farms, added tot he meat provided by beef and pork fed entirely on pastureland and crop residues would probably produce at least as much food as could be obtained from universal organic vegan production.

Put another way, the superior efficiency of a universal vegan diet can perhaps only result in a significant increase of food production if it is ‘subsidized’ by petrochemical inputs which a livestock-based system can do without.

* The “humanity of beef” sounds strange, doesn’t it? Of course I’m using humanity in its humaneness sense.


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