I (Bernard Brown) recently wrote two reviews of Simon Fairlie’s new book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, and since I never get the word limit I really want (no fault of the editors – this is just a topic I like to run on about), I thought I’d provide a more comprehensive, less-edited (=disorganized and rambling?), reaction to the book here.
I’m not sure how this book will go over in the States. In England it managed to convince the prominent environmentalist George Monbiot to renounce his support of veganism, but the book is very much focused on England, and much of it is not applicable to agriculture in the States (see notes on this below). Also, in England, veganism seems to have been more successful as an environmental action than it has in the States. I won’t say this is a good or a bad thing – the PB&J Campaign is not a vegan campaign per se, in that it emphasizes each meal as the opportunity to make a positive difference by eating something plant-based instead of animal products. Taken to its extreme (eating every single meal plant-based), though, one could end up pretty close to vegan, though we see that as similar to someone who fights deforestation and the other ills of the paper/pulp industry by using only 100% post-recycled content paper (if any), completely avoids print publications, uses only handkerchiefs instead of tissues, bidets instead of toilet paper, etc. Going from strong moderation to complete abstinence is admirable but probably not necessary to address the major environmental impacts in both cases. But I digress! The book may only get a few permaculture advocates really excited and that’s it, but in case every cattle rancher in the country plus the Center for Consumer Freedom starts citing it as a valid counter to Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) and every other environmental report detailing the destruction of the livestock industry, I thought a detailed critique might come in handy:
Fairlie is essentially doing two things with this book, at least as I interpret it. (1) He is countering environmental arguments often made by advocates for veganism, and (2) he is explaining how livestock production can be part of what he considers to be an environmentally friendly vision for society, expressing his particular philosophy about relationship to land and natural systems.
First, Fairlie does counter some of the more exaggerated arguments sometimes made by vegan advocates (not that difficult), but, in my opinion, fails to discredit LLS’ account of the livestock sector’s role in global warming, incorrectly dismisses concerns about water use, and only manages to get livestock’s overall food productivity (essentially how much land it uses to produce enough food) to come close to the plant alternatives by comparing the two under some overly-idealistic conditions. If you’re making choices in everyday, modern America, his analysis is not nearly as useful as if you are planning a nearly self-contained, organic, traditional, small-scale, extremely local (more local than we tend to think of it) life in the English countryside.
On the second point, this book ends up as an extremely interesting thought experiment on what agriculture could look like if we abandon all fossil fuels and most manufactured inputs (namely fertilizers). I think he ignores some important factors here too (for example the role of alternative energy sources), and that relatively few people share enough of his perspective to buy into what follows, but it’s a good conversation starter.
Let’s start with the counter-arguments to the vegan environmental case:
The core of the low-on-the-food-chain argument is that animals are inefficient at converting what they eat into what we can eat. So, the argument goes, we can use resources more efficiently if we eat plants instead of animals. Thus Fairlie’s task is to come up with a system that reduces that feed conversion ratio. He makes the good point that vegans tend to overstate the ratios for livestock. A feed conversion ratio is the amount of feed you have to give to an animal compared to the amount of food (meat, but also applicable to eggs and milk) you get out of it. You’ll see 10:1 thrown around a lot, saying that you need to feed, say, ten pounds of corn and soy to a steer to get one pound of beef. Fairlie does correctly note that this ratio is often used without explaining what exactly is being compared (land? water? feed by weight? calories? protein? iron?), and that one cannot use one ratio to refer to all animal products. Factory-farmed poultry and hogs might get you below 4:1 and farmed herbivorous fish such as tilapia or carp might get you a little below 2:1, whereas grain-finished beef might be above 8:1.
Fairlie ends up dealing with the inefficiency of using animals to produce food in three ways: (1) by proposing we eat about half as much animal protein as we do now, (2) feeding hogs and chickens largely on waste (both kitchen scraps and matter inedible to humans), and (3) by keeping the bulk of his comparison to two highly idealized systems: both organic, both omitting fossil fuels for the most part, both highly local (note that he discounts even Michael Pollan’s beloved Polyface Farms‘ production numbers by noting the feed they get from off-the-farm). Crop production is not boosted by nitrogen manufactured from fossil fuels, but only from manure and nitrogen-fixing cover crops (green manure).
I have a couple big problems with this analysis. One is that in the United States (I write this from the fertile Mid-Atlantic region) we have crops he doesn’t include in his very English analysis, most importantly soy. Soy is generally the most productive way to produce edible protein (See Pimentel’s work on this), but they don’t grow it in England, so Fairlie rightly leaves it out of his extremely local analysis. The same goes for peanuts, easily grown in the southern quarter of our country along with middle latitudes of much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and a protein staple particularly in parts of Africa. This means that we could have more-productive vegan systems here than he could in England.
The other problem I have with the analysis is that the choice we actually have is almost never between these two systems. Instead we’re scratching our heads at a restaurant or maybe even at Whole Foods or a farmer’s market, in any case all systems likely using combines, tractors, trucks, and (if not organic) manufactured inputs that Fairlie excludes. I think it’s a great idea to raise chickens on kitchen scraps and graze cattle only on fallow fields covered with nitrogen-fixing clover, but where can I buy those eggs or that cheese (honestly, I’d buy it)?
Unfortunately there are relatively few studies analyzing a range of more realistic choices here in the States. Fairlie’s analysis is interesting, but unless we’re all going to start living like Kibutznics in England, it doesn’t help us make dining choices in the real world. The feed conversion ratios cited by vegans might overstate their argument, but the general case that animal products are relatively inefficient to produce still makes the most sense.
Fairlie is right in noting the hyperbole you sometimes see in vegan-advocate water figures. It doesn’t take 100,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef, and no one should be throwing that figure around anymore. Still, I think he overshoots when he discounts the entire concept of embodied water and essentially dismisses excessive water use as a problem in livestock agriculture.
Embodied water is the notion of counting all the water it takes to produce something and attributing it to that product. For livestock we’re not just talking about what the hog or steer itself drank, but what it took to grow the feed, process the fertilizer to grow the feed, etc. See the Water Footprint website for some pretty sophisticated analysis of this, though Fairlie goes so far as to claim that since water isn’t really used up (it’s breathed, sweated, evaporated, or peed out somewhere) we shouldn’t consider its use important.
I’ll cede one point, that water use might not matter much in some regions (lush England, say) compared to others, but in many of the places we grow crops or raise livestock here, it does matter. Water shortages are very real in the American Southwest, the Southeast, Florida, and the Delmarva. In all of these places we’ve had to make choices between some uses of water versus others, and it’s worth asking whether it’s worth using a lot of water to produce livestock – extra water that often ends up contaminated or is not available to us or to natural systems. Even if the water will appear again downstream (or in a cloud over the Atlantic Ocean…), it generally is not immediately available again where it was used in the first place. So, it might not take 100,000 liters of water to produce a kilogram of beef, but it still might take 16,000 (water footprint number) – worth considering next time you’re standing in line at the burrito joint. In all fairness, generalized water figures necessarily muddle various measurements that might make more or less sense to us, revealing more than anything to me that it’s extremely difficult to nail down specific figures beyond the general scale of use. For example, how much water does it take to grow alfalfa? Is it water pumped from a deep aquifer, water diverted from the Colorado? Water falling on the fields? Only the water each plant sucks up by its roots and uses to grow? These are legitimately difficult questions that Fairlie identifies, but they don’t justify throwing the baby out with the… (rim shot).
Livestock’s Long Shadow is most famous for adding up all of the global livestock system’s impact on global warming and coming up with 18% of the total, a little more than transportation’s 17%. Much has been made of the fact that the authors did not include some emissions with the transportation figure that they probably should have – stuff like manufacturing cars. That said, I think this complaint is a red herring; if transportation is actually higher, say 21%, the 18% for livestock is still really high and needs to be addressed.
Much of that 18% comes from (1) methane belched up by ruminants such as cattle and goats, and (2) converting land from natural habitat (particularly rain forest in the Amazon).
Fairlie offers a strange, rambling argument against the methane. He grudgingly ends up admitting the global warming power of methane (generally accepted to be 25 times as powerful as CO2) and that livestock produce it, but he complains that the role of methane in the atmosphere is complex and that we don’t completely understand how even natural systems produce it, and that regulating it will unfairly target traditional farmers. (He reminisces about the “ soothing cadence of mastication, farts, belches, and showers of piss” produced by a flock of sheep. I have to include this quotation, not just because I got a chuckle out of it, but because I think we’re seeing his pro-traditionalist, pro-livestock bias – to which he freely admits in the introduction – manifested here. I’ll still take his argument at face value (even biased people can be correct), but when I look at the book overall, I see him ignore more modern solutions to our modern agricultural problems, and I think this bias is to blame for that.)
First off, given the disaster of global warming that we’re facing, we should err on the side of caution and try to limit production of a powerful greenhouse gas even if we’re not totally sure how it works. If we can pick ways of feeding ourselves that produce a lot less methane (say chickens or better yet soy beans) we should favor those. I’m sorry that this will unfairly hit traditionalists who do not burn much coal, oil, etc., but global warming is probably going to be much harder on them than on anyone else, and we can’t leave any powerful counter-measures on the table.
Some studies have found ways that farmers can get their livestock to produce less methane (Fairlie doesn’t emphasize this, but see Nicole Hahn Niman’s piece from the NY Times discussing this), but I have seen no indication that such methods have been widely adopted yet, or how they perform in a broader lifecycle analysis. Until we see that kind of widespread use and evidence that they end up making cattle less atmospherically destructive than non-ruminant alternatives (rather than just a little better than other beef), this isn’t very useful to those of us making dining decisions right now. On the grain vs. grass point, this point tends to get ignored, mainly because we’re rightly disgusted at other aspects of the factory farms where we stuff cattle with grain, but cattle eating grain produce less methane per unit of feed than do grass-fed. Their manure does produce more methane, but that’s swamped by the methane they belch up from ‘enteric fermentation.’ (see the IPCC’s tables on methane from livestock) (They also use more total land (see the Pelletier et al.). Fairlie makes the general argument that this land gap (and the general advantage in producing factory farmed livestock) narrows or disappears as you take away the modern advantages of manufactured fertilizers and mechanized support and that the arable land is supplemented with other land you can’t otherwise farm – in other words it makes less sense to feed grain to cattle if you’re farming like a pre-modern peasant.)
Fairlie also claims that the LLS authors incorrectly counted emissions from deforestation, primarily because that CO2 is released just once while land might be worked long after that point. Lifecycle analysts do differ in their approach to accounting for this kind of deforestation, but again, if we adopt a precautionary principle (which Fairlie states he does) and err on the side of caution, I think we should count them.
The causes of Amazon deforestation may be difficult to untangle, but grazing cattle and growing feed crops are two of the leading contenders. You’ll see some people say (as per the links in the preceding sentence) that soy producers don’t tend to cut down rainforest; they instead tend to take over rangeland, so you can’t blame them for deforestation. Others will say that by buying up ranches, the soy growers then give the ranchers an incentive to cut down another chunk of rainforest to graze. Fairlie notes that people who are trying to seize forested land for other reasons graze it as a convenient use – they might not be grazing it if there were no political/property motives mixed in there. It is genuinely complicated. But even if the isn’t entirely conclusive and the market connections between here and are complex, I think we should should play it safe by easing up. Much more relevant to the US consumer (recall that soy is an import for Fairlie in the UK) is that our beef tends to be grown here, as does our soy (we import about 1% of the soy we use). Others have estimated that livestock products are responsible for about 10% of the USA’s global warming contribution for this reason (See Gidon Eshel’s comments) and that most of our livestock is factory farmed. Of course you might then argue that the markets for beef and soy are so international that we should err on the side of caution again and accept the 18% even here. Long story short, I think Fairlie generally fails at arguing away the global warming impact of animal products. Generally speaking (assuming similar geographies, similar degrees of processing), the plant-based alternatives will have a lighter global warming footprint.
Fairlie also argues against the notion of considering the carbon-storage opportunity costs of range and crop land. Some have argued that we should be counting carbon that isn’t being stored in pasture and in crop fields against livestock agriculture. If this pasture could be a forest or a marsh (as in much of eastern North America) instead, than we should count that potentially-stored carbon against the pasture. Fairlie rightly points out that this kind of argument could apply against other land uses besides pasture, but I see no reason to avoid it – I think we should be looking at lawns and parking lots and asking whether other land uses could be better for the environment – and indeed given that so much of Fairlie’s overall argument consists of examining an alternative use to today’s industrially-farmed crop land and pasture, it is unfair to write off this other alternative use of that crop land and pasture.
More broadly, LLS comes down in favor of intensive (factory farm) livestock versus extensive (pastured) and completely ignores the possibility of cutting back on animal product consumption.This flummoxes Fairlie, and he ends up settling on an anti-peasant bias as the explanation.
Sure LLS has its flaws. For one thing, it doesn’t advocate producing less of the livestock that, as a sector, is “one of the top two or three most important contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,” to quote its authors, but I think we can explain them without accusing the authors of “stigmatizing” traditional lifestyles. First off, the FAO is not an environmental organization. Its goal is to meet demand for food, not to alter demand for food. I wouldn’t expect it to tell us to change the way we eat in such a dramatic way – still a fault, but one easily explained. There are also more technical reasons that intensive livestock operations, however inhumane they may be and however destructive they may be on a local scale, produce more meat, milk, and eggs with less resources and less total pollution. For example the animals in them tend to gain weight faster and produce a higher volume of milk and eggs than their free range compatriots. There’s no pleasant ambling around a pasture or barnyard to waste time and energy. This means fewer days of feeding until slaughter, and thus less total feed. They use less total land. And then there’s that point of the cattle on grain diets tend to produce less methane than grass-fed.
Fairlie does end up throwing some points to the vegan team on the issue of carbon sequestration in pasture – whether pasture can store appreciable amounts of carbon in the soil. This is commonly cited by proponents of grass-fed beef (see that Hahn Niman piece, or just about any comment thread on an article about the environmental impact of beef), though Fairlie notes that although some studies have found that pasture grazed in certain ways can store carbon, other studies of the same techniques have not found much storage. More importantly, this storage happens over a limited time span once cropland is converted to pasture (soil reaches carbon equilibrium after a few years – this time frame varies depending on the land and whom you ask), and that stored carbon basically evaporates if the land is overgrazed of if the farmer decides to plow it under – this is pretty fragile, and likely inapplicable if the land has been grazed for many years. I’ll note also that the only lifecycle analysis (the Pelletier et al. I mentioned above) I’ve seen incorporating this kind of storage found that for that limited time after pasture is converted from cropland it might help give grass-fed beef the advantage over grain-fed, but not over any other commonly employed method of feeding ourselves.
Fairlie presents a future ruralized society with generally village-scale agriculture and economy, and apparently relatively little in the way of international trade. This is a ‘permaculture’ vision, a highly localized system with little to no inputs from the outside. This is one interesting direction to head in, but I’m still not sure that it’s the only one that can solve the environmental problems of agriculture, and I think Fairlie ignores its potential problems.
It might make sense to assume a future without fossil fuels, but that does not mean a necessary return to pre-industrial farming methods. We still might have vast fields of wheat and soy (even vast fields of organic soy) harvested by enormous combines, but maybe those combines will be charged off a grid by solar and wind power.
As for the potential problems, the fact that one might be able to practice traditional agriculture with a lighter impact (though even that remains to be demonstrated, especially if we don’t take Fairlie’s water and global warming analysis at face value) does not mean that we will once it reaches a meaningful scale. Even today we see our most famous traditionalists capable of contributing to local and regional environmental problems, with the Amish of Central Pennsylvania contributing a large portion of nutrient runoff heading into the Chesapeake. I’m not saying that optimal traditional farming can’t be done, but I am saying it won’t be done uniformly, and the more it grows, the more we’ll draw in producers who are less careful. And when we see anyone, Fairlie as well as other advocates for pastured livestock, make the argument that livestock can help us utilize otherwise non-arable land for food production, remember the role that overgrazing played in the Dust Bowl and that grazing continues to play in damaging public lands and damaging waterways, and precluding habitat use by other species from wolves to bison.
In spite of stating his respect for vegans in the introduction, Fairlie treats them pretty harshly towards the end of the book. To be sure, animal rights activists have in many instances overstated their environmental case, but Fairlie goes beyond countering weak arguments to presenting vegans as out of touch with nature (see his diatribe about a hiker eating a cereal bar), in league with transhumanists, and (by generalizing views held by some vegans) eliminating predators from conserved habitat.
More broadly he presents vegans as out of touch with nature. This may be true for many vegans, but no more so than for well-off urbanites or suburbanites shopping at the farmer’s market. Fairlie is particularly harsh on vegans, though, apparently because they have the temerity to propose relationships to the land that diverge from the traditional. I strongly contest Fairlie’s view that a heavily farmed countryside is our ideal relationship with nature, and you don’t have to be vegan to question whether killing is intrinsic to relating to the non-human world. I was particularly struck by his defense of whaling, essentially arguing that cruelty is no reason to oppose a practice, as long as it’s a traditional practice.
I got a little frustrated at this point in the book at how Fairlie evaluates veganism based on how the world would look if everyone were vegan, and how we would manage non-farmed land in that case. It’s an interesting conversation to have, to be sure, but this kind of reductio ad absurdum isn’t all that useful for the real world now. I doubt that even the most idealistic and optimistic vegan expects the kind of success Fairlie assumes, and Fairlie essentially avoids facing those arguing for more moderate degrees of plant-based eating (myself included) by using a vegan straw man instead. Of course he’s not being entirely unfair here – his proposed traditional permaculture society is its own reductio ad absurdum, and I think this kind of argument makes it inapplicable to the decisions we make today in this world.
At one point towards the end of the book, as he’s laying out his vision of a ruralized Britain, he acknowledges that the reader might think that the author has gone a little nuts (he uses a fairies expression that must be more common in the UK).
I don’t think he’s nuts. I think that he’s a passionate defender of traditional lifestyles, that he’s found traditional livestock agriculture to be an extremely fulfilling way of life, that he’s properly disgusted with the environmental ills of our industrial agriculture system, and that he’s been offended by relatively extreme arguments made by people who oppose all livestock agriculture for reasons he considers to be frivolous. He’s an extremely intelligent and ambitious thinker who has tried what few have – a comprehensive proposal for a different way to grow our food and structure our society.
That said, I don’t think that this book presents the modern consumer with useful information. I think that the scenarios that he considers to be acceptable are so far removed from what is actually available that the shopper in the supermarket or even at the farmer’s market will still be left wondering about the stuff they are actually in a position to buy. (again, where can I buy the eggs from chickens only fed on food waste? Do I have to keep them myself? What if I don’t produce enough leftovers – will buying extra feed for them screw it all up if I can’t be sure where it was grown?) More broadly he failed to show that, with the possible exception of hogs and chickens raised on agricultural waste, animals are an environmentally friendlier way to produce food than the plant-based alternatives, particularly so in the modern systems that contemporary consumers can access, but even in his perfect world.
Does the fact that animals are still a resource- and pollution-inefficient way to produce food mean we should all go vegan? Maybe, and please don’t let me stop you from going all the way (of course animal welfare and animal rights might lead you to veganism even if the environmental concerns don’t), but I’d say look at your reaction to other destructive forms of consumption as a guide to what you do next. Fairlie is right in noting that if meat is an extravagance, so are many other things we consume. Have you given up every other extravagance in your life? How about paper? It’s hard to argue that paper is good for the environment; have you completely eliminated it from your life (no cardboard boxes, no toilet paper, no printed books? Or, have you worked hard to reduce, reuse, and recycle?
The broad arguments made by advocates for veganism might still be valid, but that does not necessarily lead to total abstinence. If you want to continue to eat animal products (for the record, I still do), go ahead, but at the very least consume them in the same judicious way you consume other extravagances, and don’t believe that they’re benign.