Meat: A Benign Extravagance
By Simon Fairlie
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010
In the debate between vegans and omnivores there is disagreement not just about which dietary approach is nutritionally better, but which is better for the environment. Simon Fairlie takes a detailed look at the environmental side of the issue.
Many environmentalists claim that we can get about ten times as much food from an acre of grain than from that same acre used to produce meat. Fairlie devotes a number of chapters to examining that claim in excruciating detail. The short answer is that there is a multitude of factors that affect efficiency, and the estimates of the experts vary widely. The subject is extremely complicated and the ratio of ten to one in favor of grain is more of a rough average than a consensus—and it is almost certainly wrong.
Fairlie also takes a look at the water requirements for animals. There are some rather wild claims out there about how much water a cow can soak up. Some imply that a cow will slurp up twenty-five thousand liters per day, which is obviously absurd. Regardless of how much water a cow really needs, most of that water is returned to the environment. It doesn’t just disappear from the face of the planet.
The book scrutinizes every angle of food production efficiency. It takes a lot of mental focus to read. So it is rather funny when a simple question comes up. If environmentalists are right and we have over-populated the planet, why are we concerned about efficient food production? Won’t that just make the problem worse? This makes me wonder what “they” are really up to when they claim meat is an unaffordable extravagance. Next thing you know, they will be trying to save millions of poor, defenseless evergreens by canceling Christmas. While I doubt that Scrooge environmentalism will catch on anytime soon, what may catch on is the notion that environmentalists are a bunch of killjoys. We can’t eat anything good, just the politically correct twigs, sprouts, and mulch-in-a-box. We can’t breathe because that creates CO2. Bah, humbug.
But I digress. Fairlie goes on to take a fascinating look at the various vegan agendas. In all fairness, there are many different flavors of veganism and Fairlie understands that. Some are just experimenting, or choose the diet for personal health reasons and don’t care what everyone else does. Others want to convert the whole human race. Still others want to end predation among all species, and then there are the extremists who think the planet would be better off without the human race.
The predator issue is an interesting one. Experiments have been carried out to see what happens when predators are removed from a local ecology. One or more of the remaining species will become dominant and crowd out other species. The end result is less biodiversity among the remaining non-predator population. There is also a tendency to start outstripping the food supply and then slowly starve. Predators maintain a balance that people who are disconnected from nature don’t understand. Sharing a house with a large rodent population while deer and other wildlife chow down on your precious veggie crops can change your mind about predation fairly quickly.
There are a lot of other good points including an excellent explanation of how a carbon credit system would quickly degenerate into a huge scam. There is also a simple and elegant explanation of the false economy of non-local food systems. As usual, there are some points I disagree with and I’m still not sure whether the author literally considers meat an extravagance or if that was meant tongue in cheek. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and point the thumb UP for this one.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2011.