Image of Meat: A Benign Extravagance
Release Date: 
January 3, 2010
Hyden House
Reviewed by: 

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I enjoy a good hamburger, and I love to cook— and eat—spareribs. As a confirmed meat eater, my confirmed vegetarian friends and sometime vegetarian wife have not been able to do much beyond getting me to add salads more frequently to my diet.

But as a reader, I have long been convinced by the information coming from the vegetarian side of the aisle that we meateaters are sending the planet to hell in a handbasket, that we are overconsuming our share of the available resources, and that feedlots are probably one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell.

So it’s a sincere pleasure to have some—albeit a small piece—of that weight taken off my shoulders by Simon Fairlie, who possesses good credentials as both a farmer and a foodie, and who has now written a book that makes it OK to eat the occasional haunch.

He does this in many ways, not least by raising the concept of “default meat,” which is meat produced on integrated mixed farms where livestock provides draft power, manure, a measure of financial security, and even serves sociocultural functions. Mr. Fairlie goes through an elaborate exercise of calculating that “default livestock farming provides between one-third and two-thirds of all the meat and dairy produce currently produced in the world.”

He goes on to say “There are huge environmental gains to be made from reducing global meat consumption back to this level; it will release large amounts of feed grain for human consumption, easily enough to feed all those who currently are underfed, and a substantial contribution toward feeding the two or three billion extra people expected to be alive on the planet in 40 years’ time.”

He works out this “default” level to just about three-quarters of a pound of meat per person per week, and about 1.33 pints or milk or 75 grams of cheese per week.

That’s far less that what most of us are used to consuming. But Mr. Fairlie makes the point that this is “free.” That is, it’s the default amount of surplus animal meat and milk products we can expect from a farming system devoted to growing the grains and vegetables the human race needs to stay alive. We can have more meat, if we choose, but there is no practical reason on Earth for us to have less.

The problem is that modern “factory meat production” relies on unsustainable doses of petroleum and antibiotics to produce large quantities of poor-quality meats. Some people look at this system and advocate vegetarianism. Mr. Fairlie does not.

One of Mr. Fairlie’s rather simple but startling points is that animals are the most efficient and sometimes the only way we can utilize waste, low grade foodstuffs, and land that can’t be farmed effectively to produce foods we can eat. For example, hilly, rocky, and poor acreage can support animals that yield meat and fat, whey from cheesemaking can feed pigs, while vegetables and meat scraps can be fed to chickens and eggs. All it takes is the right animals, and the right attitude. Accordingly, Mr. Fairlie argues that upland areas that cannot be used to grow anything else may as well be used to grow livestock.

One of the most important parts of the book is Mr. Fairlie’s refutation of a major vegetarian talking point: According to various experts, the production of meat uses copious amounts of water.

Mr. Fairlie starts with his own experience raising Bramley, an Angus/Jersey steer that eventually yielded some 125 kilos of meat. Yet, says Mr. Fairlie, Bramley lived primarily on naturally growing grass and consumed less than 100 liters of water per day—far less than the generally accepted figure for livestock water usage would claim.

Mr. Fairlie’s scholarship on this point seems formidable. Researching the “statistical cliché” that every kilogram of beef requires 100,000 liters of water, for example, he chases one source after another until he discovers that the “calculation takes into account every scrap of precipitation that falls upon the area of land that a beef cow might occupy.”

Fair? Mr. Fairlie thinks not: “If the cow weren’t there,” he writes, “the grass would still grow, and rabbits or deer or bison would graze it and consume the same theoretical amount of water.” Nor is that water lost. It passes through the animal and returns to the environment, where it is utilized again and again and again.

Similarly, when researching the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report (Livestock’s Long Shadow), which suggests that farm animals generate 18 per cent of human-generated global warming gases, Mr. Fairlie discovers the report wrongly attributes all deforestation in the Amazon to cattle, although much of it is actually due to logging and development.

Aside from their relatively small use of resources, Mr. Fairlie has other, sometimes sophisticated, reasons to advocate for the intentional (though not mass) cultivation and consumption of livestock. These animals contribute to biodiversity, and “are the best means we have of keeping wide areas clear and open to solar energy and wind energy. They harness biomass that would otherwise be inaccessible, and recycle waste that would otherwise be a disposal problem. And they are the main means we have of ensuring that the phosphate which leaks out from our arable land into the wider environment, and that is crucial for agricultural yields, is brought back into the food chain.”

Taking the offensive, Mr. Fairlie argues that the net resource savings to be gained by switching to vegetarian diets are far less than many advocates claim, if only because such foodstuffs as olive oil, soya milk, chickpeas, lentils and rice are imported at great environmental cost from various places around the world.

But Mr. Fairlie is not giving the green light to eating as much meat as we like. We should cut back, and we should favor humane livestock farming, even when eating in restaurants.

Of course, whether or not we should eat meat, and how much we should eat, is not only a question of resource efficiency. Many people argue that livestock are individuals capable of experiencing subtle and complex emotions such as grief, joy, loneliness, love, pride, and even shame. Scientific evidence is accumulating to support this view. It’s a short step from such a realization, for some people, to a conviction that we have a moral obligation to the animals we now so heedlessly consume for food.

At bottom, Mr. Fairlie seems to believe that eating meat is nothing to be ashamed of, providing we know it has been well treated, and humanely slaughtered.

Thanks, Simon. And please pass the ribs.