Review: Meat: A Benign Extravagance

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

The meat in the sandwich


Nowadays, the phrase ‘it changed my life’ is as common in social circles as ‘changed the world’ is in the current events section of a bookshop. Laser-eye surgery? Changed my life. An interesting self-help book? Changed my life. A DIY course? Changed my living room – and with it my life. To take the first example, I have had laser-eye surgery and, successful as it was, it merely allowed me to do my normal activities without having to worry about my contact lenses drying out. Similarly, altering one’s diet can hardly be deemed ‘life-changing,’ even if, as in my case, it leads you to begin eating meat after a lifetime of vegetarianism.

I hope with that last comment I don’t appear to be downplaying Simon Fairlie’s powerful book, Meat: a benign extravagance. Far from it; my friends and family were stunned when a man who had long been so critical of the meat industry suddenly began eating chicken, fish and pork on the basis of one book. There were other reasons, but Fairlie’s dissection of the vegetarian and vegan utopia was primal.

Meat A Benign Extravagance‘This book,’ Fairlie writes in the introduction, ‘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.’ That said, Fairlie, an experienced farmer and agriculturalist, does touch on the former point, as he must; even if it were sustainable many vegetarians would still shun meat because they cannot countenance the idea of, say, slitting the throat of a chicken or knocking out a cow with a stun-gun. In my favourite episode of The Simpsons, ‘Lisa the Vegetarian,’ Lisa stops eating meat after feeding a cute lamb at a petting zoo and forming a link with the lamb chops on her plate at dinner that evening. “Lisa, get a hold of yourself,” says her ever thoughtful dad, Homer. “This is lamb. Not lamb.” Fairlie’s point to those as sensitive as Lisa (which includes yours truly when I stopped eating meat at the age of eight) is that this idea, noble though it is, tends to lead to a world in which humans are cut off from nature and don’t appreciate that we have a role to play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. I was most moved by the example Fairlie cites of the Luangwa valley in Zambia. There an indigenous population had lived for many thousands of years, establishing a balance with the mega fauna. This equilibrium was destroyed when the government declared the area a national park and removed the drum-beating, game-hunting locals, also known as the top predator in the food chain. The catastrophic effects of this change have been observed elsewhere, notably in Yellowstone National Park, which has benefitted enormously from the reintroduction of wolves.

In other words, something has to eat the meat. Most humans do not have the opportunity (or the need) to hunt their own meat, of course, and this is Fairlie’s main focus. I discovered his book through the website of the writer and social activist George Monbiot, who is one of Fairlie’s early targets. For years I parroted the claims I’d read in Monbiot’s articles on meat: the meat industry produces 18% of the world’s CO2; every kilogram of beef requires 100,000 litres of water; a vegetarian society would be more environmentally sound. Fairlie debunks the former two simply enough. The latter requires a more detailed analysis, but is also proved to be not wholly true.

Fairlie makes the point that all agricultural systems produce waste (he also has an interesting section on the etymology and significance of that word). The best thing we can do with that waste is feed it to pigs, which efficiently turn it into meat. Further, there is quite a bit of land that is not suitable for growing crops. The best use of this land is as pasture for cows and other ruminants. Picture the scene: many species of bee pollinate a field of clover; the clover is eaten by cows; behind the cows come chickens sifting through the cow pats for edible remnants (OK, don’t picture that last part too vividly, but you get the point). Most meat is currently produced with spectacular inefficiency, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We should support the farmers that do it correctly; small-scale, local and low-waste systems can benefit human society while contributing to healthy ecosystems.

Fairlie’s book is for meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. It won’t change your life, but it may change your dinner plans.

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