If there’s one thing that Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance reinforces, it’s just how utterly complex the issue of food can be. Especially when it comes to the meat debate. Is eating meat “bad”? Is veganism an appropriate response to decreasing our environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions? Just where the heck did some of these popular numbers about carbon emissions and raising animals come from, anyway? Should humans eat meat?
Fairlie does a respectable job of breaking down all of this and much, much more in his book, and though there still isn’t a totally 100% absolute answer by the end (when do absolutes ever exist?), there is definitely a sign pointing in a pretty good direction of what sustainable agriculture can look like, and what is included in it. And some folks will either be pleasantly surprised or disappointed by the message, depending on their proclivities.
I think that perhaps the title of the book says it in a nutshell: meat, a benign extravagance. Meat is indeed benign in the best of scenarios, yet often extravagant, too. These are two contradictory qualities. Humans are naturally omnivorous, predisposed to eating both plants and animals. From that standpoint, why should it matter that we eat meat? Quite obviously, it’s not that simple, as 99% of humans no longer live a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, and most food must be either grown or raised to be consumed.
The rules have changed with the advent of civilization, when humans decided to save seed and plant it, and domesticate animals for a myriad of purposes — for food, labor, companionship, etc. Especially with the advent of industrial agriculture, it seems as though any sense of balance seems to have been completely distorted and lost. Industrial ag is causing rampant damage on not only a huge environmental scale, but social and human health is suffering, as well. Raising animals for food today often comes at a very high ecological price.
Dissecting Issues of Agriculture
Fairlie writes from a perspective in Great Britain, and so many of the sources he cites are similarly from that country, but in his writings he traverses all over the world in breaking down and dissecting the brand of globalized, industrial agriculture that has come into unfortunate prominence today.
One of the main questions of the book is this — is eating meat “bad” from an environmental standpoint, or do animals and eating animal protein have a genuine place in agriculture today? Is animal husbandry ecologically destructive and expensive, by default? Is going vegan a long-term solution to addressing all of the damage done through exploitative, energy- and carbon-intense agriculture? His analyses are far-reaching; Fairlie goes as far as scrutinizing permaculture as it is practiced and touted by several different proponents.
In exploring these questions, Fairlie presents many, many figures and statistics, some of which he (at time arduously) debunks, shedding a new light on deceitful numbers that get commonly tossed around in popular media. (I can only imagine the research hours spent writing this book.) This is one of the most valuable aspects of the book, and Fairlie does an admirable job of painting a more realistic picture of just how much energy, land, feed, and water to takes to raise animals, how and why the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is really taking place, what percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions livestock can claim, and other big questions of the times. (Anyone looking for better information about why cow farts are simply not on the same scale of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to transportation should consider reading this book, for one of many examples.)
Can We Sustainably Feed Ourselves, and How?
One of the most valuable chapters, Can Britain Feed Itself? is an excellent example of the depth Fairlie travels to provide a meaningful analysis and comparison of different modes of agriculture. Using Scottish ecologist Kenneth Mellanby’s book as a starting point, Fairlie updates, expands, and enhances the original statistical exercise to try to answer the question posed by the title itself, and he crafts various scenarios (with livestock and without, conventional ag and permaculture all included) to find out what kind of land area is necessary for Britain to be food self-sufficient.
It’s a complicated affair, but the information paints a good picture of the sort of situation we will likely soon find ourselves in — the genuine need for countries to be able to feed their own people, as transportation costs and climate change continue to escalate to unsustainable levels. Is there actually enough land to do it without artificial nitrogen fertilizers? What might we lose or gain in the process?
Meat Bad, Veggies Good? Or Something Else?
But what about the question that everyone wants to know about? Who is right, the meat eaters or the vegans? Well, again, it’s not that simple, and Fairlie maintains good standing, respectfully addressing each side of the debate, though it’s clear by the end that Fairlie has some amount of disdain for and lack of confidence in the vegan worldview.
The answer seems obvious that people indulge in way more meat consumption than can be maintained over the long haul, especially when animals are fed grain, but the fact is that animals (if allowed) can provided hugely valuable services other than their flesh — in fact, it may be their manure that is most important. Especially in times of terrible soil degradation, manure may be the way towards rebuilding soil that has been foolishly squandered. Soil building and biodiversity are major hurdles on a vegan farm, since the web of nitrogen and nutrient flows become overly simplistic without animals in the equation. This alone is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for keeping animals in the picture — in times of decreasing biodiversity, rising energy costs, decreased land quality, and too few people living in the country, a rural livestock permaculture economy poses many exciting possibilities.
Be sure to check out Meat: A Benign Extravagance if you have even the slightest bit of interest in exploring issues of sustainable agriculture. There’s a whole lot of food for thought to be explored here, well beyond what I’ve highlighted here, and you may be surprised at what you learn.
Thanks to Chelsea Green for the opportunity to review this book.