Proof at last: eating meat is not bad for the environment

It turns out that all those green claims that we could save the planet by foreswearing meat were BS. Unfortunately, in the process of exposing this fact, Simon Fairlie still recycles many modern-day eco-prejudices.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

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In an interview last year for a spiked debate about the future of food, animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer put the green case against eating meat: ‘I believe that if we aim to get to a sustainable place in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to be very hard to have large herds of cattle and sheep as we do at present. That problem, combined with opposition to factory farming, really does mean we have to move towards vegetarian and even vegan diets in the medium term.’

Singer’s view has been widely supported by greens and leading figures in the debate about climate change. ‘In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about [emission] reductions in a short period of time, [avoiding meat] clearly is the most attractive opportunity’, said the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, in 2008. ‘Give up meat for one day [a week] initially and decrease it from there’, he said.

Pachauri, himself a vegetarian, had the apparently scientific backing of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which produced a report in 2006 – Livestock’s Long Shadow – claiming that 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions were due to producing food from animals. That is even greater than the level of emissions produced by transport. Forget all those carbon-spewing cars, we were told, it’s our taste for burgers and chicken that was really to blame for screwing up the planet.

As James Panton has previously noted on spiked, the 18 per cent claim is a bit dubious for a variety of reasons. But, surprisingly, the real leg work to get to the truth about that statistic – and the real problems associated with meat – has come from a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist who was for a while the co-editor of the Ecologist magazine. In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie has crunched the numbers on the impact of meat and concludes that those greens who have condemned meat as inherently problematic are wrong. (An article by Fairlie summarising many of his arguments is available on the Permaculture website.)

One of the many jobs Fairlie has done over the years was as a stockman in a communally run farm he refers to as ‘Happy Valley’. The group’s diet was essentially vegetarian, so they passed up the products from the farm’s animals, yet still imported certain specific high-fat or high-protein foods from around the world. Fairlie notes, a little despairingly: ‘In short, Happy Valley was producing, from the grass that we all walked on, a substantial proportion of the protein and fat that we required for our nutrition, but we weren’t eating it and instead were importing it from countries where people go hungry.’

In 2004, Fairlie left the group, citing its attitude to meat as a contributory factor to his decision. With his curiosity sparked by the debates he’d been having, he set out to investigate the ecological impact of meat.

Long before that FAO report in 2006, vegetarians and vegans had argued that meat is a very wasteful use of land. As Fairlie shows, there is some truth in the idea that you get more food from growing crops than producing meat. For example, producing one kilo of beef really does seem to take about 10 kilos of feed, though the figure is lower for pigs and chickens. The implication that many people draw from that bald statement is that we could feed 10 times more people if we switched all land used for meat production over to growing grain.

But, as with all such things, life is just not that simple. Animals fed on grass are often occupying land that is unsuitable for growing crops. Looked at in this way, animals are extremely useful in that they take a low-value source of energy and protein – grass – and turn it into high-value foods like meat and milk. Suddenly, that ratio of 10:1 starts to change according to the degree to which animals are the only way of deriving food from certain terrains.

Next, add in the role of pigs. Pigs can’t eat grass, but they’ll eat just about anything else, so they are sometimes (but not often enough in Fairlie’s view) an extremely useful means of recycling organic material that we can’t eat. That includes both human food waste and the bits of crops that we don’t eat.

We should also bear in mind that animals provide products and services beyond food that would have to be replaced if we did not use them for meat, milk, eggs and so on. In fact, in some cases food is the by-product of animal production, not the main purpose. These products include leather from the hides of cattle and goats, gelatine from bones, wool from sheep. Even when meat or milk is the main reason for rearing animals, little of the animal is wasted. Meat processors often boast that they use everything but the oink, moo or baa.

Less obvious to us ignorant townies are the services provided by animals. Fairlie makes the point that animals are not simply consumers of fertility, but transporters of it, too. If you have sheep on a mixed-production farm, for example, you can have them graze relatively poor-quality land during the day, then keep them at night in a field that will be used for crops. Our little woolly friends will then piss and shit fertility into the field, free of charge.

Animal foods also provide important variety in our diets. We don’t just eat high-productivity vegetable foods like wheat and potatoes. We also need – and want – to eat other foods from salad vegetables to legumes that are simply much less productive in terms of the sheer quantity of nutrition they provide. Eating some animal products – especially in circumstances where crops cannot be grown – makes a great deal of sense even if, overall, it is a little less efficient than the most productive plants.

On the question of emissions, Fairlie is critical of the UN food report Livestock’s Long Shadow, which he argues was actually written to bolster the case for intensive meat production (that is, keeping cattle in giant sheds and feeding them grain) against extensive production (for example, putting more and more land over to pasture). A significant proportion of the emissions attributed by the report to meat production, for example, is actually due to the clearing of Amazon rainforest. But as Fairlie notes, this tree-felling has slowed sharply in recent years, and in any event, animals are often simply an excuse to occupy land and keep it clear. The land grab is the primary thing, the farming of animals is just a by-product.

Another third of emissions comes from the use of fertilisers to grow feed crops for animals. But if we didn’t produce meat, we’d still need to eat, so some of those emissions would occur regardless in the process of producing plant foods instead. Furthermore, if the kind of terrains that can currently only produce food by farming animals was left undisturbed, then wild animals would move in to replace domesticated ones – with all the farting, belching and defecation associated with those beasts, too. Fairlie quotes one study that suggests that in 1500, the huge herds of bison that occupied the relatively untouched landscape of North America would have generated three million tonnes of methane per year.

Fairlie’s conclusion is that if we stopped devoting large areas of agricultural land to growing crops simply to feed to animals and only produced meat from pasture, from waste food, or from animals like chickens that are relatively good converters of grain to meat and eggs, then we could enjoy animal foods with relatively little impact on the environment.

Fairlie’s book has been warmly welcomed by a variety of environmental commentators, even some that Fairlie roundly attacks in his book. In a sense, this isn’t surprising. Fairlie’s analysis squares an awkward circle for these carbon-counters, making the idea of accepting personal responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions more palatable for the wider public. The message is: you are screwing up the planet but if you eat less meat, or the right kind, you’ll be making a major difference without having to become some dull, anaemic vegan.

While Meat provides plenty of ammunition to use against the tofu-munching set, Fairlie still sees humanity as a consumer of finite resources and a polluter of the atmosphere, even referring in passing to ‘overdeveloped countries’. Thus, meat is actually less of a threat to the environment than many think, but only the right kind of meat: more pigs, more grass feeding, and definitely none of those nasty (but very efficient) feedlots that fatten thousands of cattle up on grain. Never mind that hundreds of millions of people enjoy cheaper meat as a result of the industrialisation of these processes – everything must bow down to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

If there are simple and cost-effective ways to reduce emissions, they should certainly be considered. Could we tinker with animals’ diets, for example, to reduce methane emissions, as some researchers are now investigating? If animals are all kept in big sheds, could we capture their waste gases in some straightforward fashion to reduce emissions? Could we find ways of producing meat without farming animals at all? A more problem-solving approach to these issues would be welcome. We really need to broaden out the discussion of climate-change policy beyond the ‘reduce emissions at all costs’ approach to balance a whole range of competing needs in the future, rather than assume that if we don’t drastically shrink our impact on the planet immediately we are doomed to thermocalypse.

That said, Fairlie’s book is still well worth reading. If his sceptical and methodical approach to the question of meat and the environment were to be replicated more broadly, it would make a valuable contribution to the debate about humanity’s future.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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