Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

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?

Meat Book Club, Part 2

by wil — Jan 19, 2011

Melissa’s Meat (Section 1) discussion questions:

  1. What does extravagant mean? What do you think Fairlie means by it? What does it mean to you? What foods do you consider extravagant?
  2. Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? Do you agree with Fairlie’s definition of default?
  3. At what point are regulations part of a “nanny state?”

What does extravagant mean? Extra + vagant. Obviously. But I have no idea what “vagant” means, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster offers this etymology:

Extravagant — Middle English extravagaunt, from Middle French extravagant, from Medieval Latin extravagant-, extravagans, from Latin extra- + vagant-, vagans, present participle of vagari to wander about — more at VAGARY

So, etymologically speaking, extravagant means wandering beyond, wandering afar, wandering outside the normal range. I tend to think “lavish”, “excessive”, but at its most basic, it can mean simply “beyond the norm”. Is meat-eating extravagant? In its “beyond the norm” sense, clearly not (by all accounts, hominids have been eating meat for millions of years). But is meat-eating excessive, lavish? Again, I would have to answer, No. Meat-eating, much like corn-eating or cabbage-eating, is not, in and of itself, excessive. Excessive meat-eating/corn-eating/cabbage-eating is excessive. But, one might argue, isn’t it more energy/nutrient efficient (thus, less excessive) to eat plants directly? Generally speaking, Yes*. But does that make meat-eating, with its inherent inefficiencies, “extravagant”? My personal answer is No (yours may differ).

But what about this?

There is currently not enough meat around for every human to eat at the level at which it is currently consumed in the USA and other wealthy countries.

Isn’t it extravagant for the rich to consume more than their fair share? Isn’t it extravagant for the rich to eat meat when more than a billion people worldwide are malnourished? These questions are important and complex — and reach far, far beyond meat-eating.

Fairlie responds to some of these complexities here — referring to agricultural exports from the Sahel during famine conditions in the 80s:

The export of food under famine conditions is indeed an obscenity, but the accent on livestock is misplaced. It is largely because of demand for animal feed that any surplus food is grown in the first place. Under famine conditions the animal feed should have been turned over to human use, because that is partly what animals are for: to ensure that there is always a surplus of grain. The reason why it wasn’t…was because the people who were starving didn’t have control over it.

And here:

The causes of famine are many and complex; but one has to hunt high and low find any example of a famine being caused through ‘inefficient’ animal husbandry displacing ‘efficient’ arable agriculture…. [T]he distinction between livestock and agriculture is a red herring. The conflict is not between animal and vegetable, or between peasant farmer and nomad herdsman…. The conflict is more often between a locally rooted and proven tradition of land-use which invariably has its animal element, and a superimposed ‘efficient’ agricultural improvement, often a monoculture, designed to extract and deliver resources for the international market. Whether the commodities so delivered are to provide consumers with meat that they don’t need, cotton tee-shirts they don’t need, or palm oil they don’t need, is almost immaterial.

And here:

Ownership of a cow, a goat or a pig is a way for the landless to sequester whatever scraps of vegetation may come their way and harvest them, either daily in the form of milk, or at one final reckoning in the form of meat.

Those of us who live in countries where social security payments cover the unemployed’s supermarket bills may need reminding that while meat is the rich man’s luxury, in many parts of the world it is the poor man’s necessity.

[T]he poor and landless of India obtain four benefits from the cow: milk, manure, muscle-power and meat. The amount of milk produced by these hardy Zebus is pitiful by industrial standards, but it is protein for the poor and the feed is free.

The “extravagant” question leads directly to deep questions of an economic, political, and agricultural nature. What is your stance on foreign trade? Long-term sustainability? Short-term profitability? Social justice? Urbanization? International development? Privatization? Job creation? Self-sufficiency? Nationalism? Localism? Globalism? Monocultures? Synthetic fertilizers?

It is certainly laudable to offer a helping hand to those in need; for the rich to share with the poor. Absolutely. But as activist/writer/journalist George Monbiot states, “the world produces enough food for its people and its livestock, though some 800 million are permanently malnourished.” That is not an indictment of meat-eating, but rather the political/economic/social system. Inequality exists. Should it be eradicated via the State? I am by no means a radical communist (far from it) and am often highly critical of the State, but my opinion is that the State should indeed assist the very poor and curtail the excesses of the very rich.

So where am I going with this? I feel like I’m starting to veer off track. Let me wrap this post up before I start ranting about heavy-handed State regulation of raw milk.

What does extravagant mean? I dunno, but to quote Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? I read this question as the corollary to: Should meat production be sustainable? My answer to that question is, Yes.

At what point are regulations part of a “nanny state?” Regulations become part of a “nanny state” when they annoy you. ;-)

* See Meat Book Club, Part 1 for a list of common conversion ratios.

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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