Meat Book Club, Part 3

by wil — Feb 7, 2011

The symbolism of meat-eating is never neutral.
To himself, the meat-eater seems to be eating life.
To the vegetarian, he seems to be eating death.
Mary Midgely

As the sole survivor of the Meat Book Club, I hereby present my final commentary on Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

Meat reminds me of the old line — There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Throughout the book, Fairlie drives home the point that statements such as “cows pollute more than cars” or “the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer” are often more ideological/political statements than well-researched, reasonable conclusions. He spends 300 pages looking at the data — delving into the complexities and interrelationships behind the data — adding to it his own personal experience as a farmer, and lays many of these simplistic statements to rest.

But who wants to read a 300-page treatise on meat — or, God forbid, do original research — just to answer a few questions about cows? Not many (see demise of Meat Book Club, mentioned above). Which leads directly to the issue of trust. Most of us are not animal husbandmen or climate scientists, so we have to look to others for information regarding pork conversion ratios or global warming. Very few people have the time and energy to really delve into a given topic, so we just try to pick trustworthy sources of information and let them serve us condensed nuggets of information. Which is fine, but we should keep in mind that we are only getting part of the picture. We don’t know what’s being left out. We can’t assess the quality of the research when all we get is the conclusion.

Fairlie wades through mounds of research data, makes some educated guesses, and offers his conclusions. He cites his sources (so we see where the data is coming from) and clearly, step-by-step argues his case. Is he biased? Yes (everyone is). But his arguments are convincing and his tone is measured. He doesn’t come across like a raving carnivore.

As I mentioned before (See Part 1, 2), Fairlie is not willy-nilly, all-you-can-eat pro-meat. He argues for a sustainable level of “default” production and consumption. He states from the get-go that meat is an “extravagance”. But he also points out that meat (beef in particular) is often scapegoated. Take, for example, Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign (personally I have nothing against MFM, I’m just using it as an example). McCartney urges us to “help the planet” by skipping meat once a week, but if you read the fine print, what McCartney really seems to be saying is that we could help the planet by skipping factory-farmed meat once a week. There’s a huge difference between sustainable default meat and factory-farmed meat. And you could actually be increasing your environmental impact if you switched from local grass-fed beef to rain-forest soy products.

[T]o invoke the emissions from rain-forest beef as an argument for halting meat consumption, makes as much sense as arguing that we should boycott all vegetable oil, because palm oil is responsible for deforestation in Indonesia, and soya oil responsible in the Amazon.

There is a direct relationship between the amount of petrol a consumer puts in his (or her) car and the amount of carbon he emits into the atmosphere. There is no such relationship between the amount of meat he eats and the amount of deforestation he is responsible for.

Like most things, meat isn’t a black-and-white topic, there are plenty of shades of grey. One of the subtleties that Fairlie repeatedly touches upon is the notion of the non-essential as buffer. Meat is arguably non-essential. Organic produce is arguably non-essential. Strawberries and asparagus are arguably non-essential. But once we throw out the non-essential, we are left at the very edge of survival. If we don’t halt or reverse our large-scale destructive activities, getting rid of non-essentials may buy us some time, but inevitably we will suffer the consequences.

[T]argeting methane…may be the most effective strategy in an emergency, but it involves scapegoating methane emitters to compensate for our failure to address the long-term effects of fossil fuels.

For example, some argue that population growth is such that we can’t feed the world on organic. If we accept this argument, yet do nothing to halt population growth, soon we will reach the point where we cannot feed the world at all (organically or conventionally).

In the latter half of the book, Fairlie also looks at the idea of “Nature”. What is “Nature”? Is it static or evolving? Is “Nature” what the world looked like 50,000 years ago? Are we participants or simply observers? Are some humans, namely members of indigenous cultures, part of “Nature” and others not? Is “Nature” limited to protected wildlife preserves?

Is it “natural” to eat meat? “Unnatural” to not eat meat?

“The whole of Nature” said Dean Inge, “is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.” Every animal consumes living things, and in turn must be consumed, either by another living being, or by fire. Nature is cruel. By rejecting cruelty, by choosing not to eat nor to kill fauna, the vegan forces the greater part of the animal kingdom into exile from the human world, on the other side of the fence.

Is it “natural” to spend so little money/energy/time on food?

Currently…the margins on livestock are ridiculously small, sometimes negative. Nix in 2007 listed average gross margins as £14.69 on a fully reared pig, £1.33 on a turkey and just 8.1 pence on a broiler hen, and that is without factoring in rent and other overheads…. These pittances are an insult to the animals themselves, and to the people who look after them.

Fairlie argues that it might do us good to return to a far-less-urbanized, low-fossil-fuel, agricultural society — something akin to the Amish way of life. But he’s also aware this could be quite a tough sell:

This may be the point at which some readers, if they have persisted this far, will finally throw this book away in disgust exclaiming that the author is off with the fairies. There is a certain kind of person for whom anything that smacks of Luddism is on the same level of acceptability as Stalinism or paedophilia. The concept of “progress” is so deeply engraved upon their psyche that the idea that some of the activities which humans carried out for thousands of years and then stopped doing about fifty years ago might actually have been quite sensible is beyond their comprehension.

He’s not particularly optimistic about the chances of such a shift — and though I’m sympathetic to such notions, I’m not all that optimistic either. I might be better off (spiritually, mentally, physically) working outside, tilling the earth and herding sheep up into the highlands, but…I like my Web job and it’s so nice and comfortable sitting here in this chair.

I recommend Meat to hardcore local, sustainable, foodie/enviro types. If you’re a fan of Michael Pollan, you might like Meat, but I should warn you, there are some dry patches. Sometimes it feels like you’re slogging through an issue of The Farm and Pasture Journal and you might start asking yourself, Do I really care this much about cheatgrass or how many hectares are being put toward the cultivation of rapeseed?

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