Author Simon Fairlie aggressively tackles the sensitive topic of eating animals in his new book Meat: A Benign Extravagance (out Feb. 8). His explicit purpose is to evaluate the sustainability of raising livestock–or the long-term ability to feed the human population while maintaining as much of the natural ecosystem as possible. Dietary health and morality, he rightly suggests, are topics for other books.
Meat examines the many facets of the debate at great length. For example, Fairlie examines the oft cited statistic that each kilogram of beef we eat required 100,000 liters of water. After consideration from every possible angle, he determines that this figure is “wildly inaccurate” for the majority of cattle around the world. Other topics covered include: land requirements for livestock versus plants, the natural place for animals in an ecosystem, vegan agriculture, the interesting alliance between the meat and vegetable oil industries, greenhouse gas contributions of eating animal products (very thorough), and permaculture.
Fairlie himself spent several years as a vegetarian, but now eats meat. He has considerable and varying farming experience and presents the arguments as objectively as can be expected (no one can be perfectly objective, which he acknowledges). In many cases he points out when pro-vegan or pro-meat writers make misleading statements, present statistics steeped in partial-truth, or repeat “facts” without proper groundwork. In the end he pushes for a “default livestock” agricultural system where animals fit into the picture without consuming considerable resources that could be directly consumed by humans. For example, grazing cattle on steep, natural grassland that can’t readily be farmed. Or feeding food scraps or excess harvest to pigs, which can be eaten in leaner times. In effect, a pig acts as a caloric savings account (piggy-bank?) that can be accessed later. The “default livestock” system represents a lower level of meat consumption than the current Western average, but specific types of meat eating is supported nonetheless.
Meat is written from an English perspective, even addressing the question of whether Britain could feed itself. This has no real bearing on the book, however, because many situations are evaluated, and his conclusions apply well around the world. To say the least, reading this book was an educational experience. Many other books have addressed this topic, but none so thoroughly as Fairlie’s work. This is a tremendous reference, albeit a thick one, that should be perused by all.
Thanks to Chelsea Green for providing a review copy of the book.