Have your steak and eat it

Meat: a benign extravagance, by Simon Fairlie (Permanent Publications), reviewed by Christine Haigh

November 30, 2010
5 min read

Remember that statistic about how it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef? Or that livestock production is responsible for a greater contribution to climate change than transport? They are so frequently quoted that their basis is never questioned. In this dense but readable volume, former Ecologist editor Simon Fairlie does exactly that.

In what began as a personal quest to justify not giving up on his taste for meat, Fairlie argues that, in a future sustainable society, we can have our steak and eat it – although we might have to take it in turns.

The book’s central thesis is that a low, ‘default’ level of livestock, where animals are used for what they’re good at – namely disposing of food residues and in return producing a range of useful stuff, including food, fibre and manure – can be part of a sustainable food system. Moreover, a sustainable system that doesn’t include some domesticated animals has a whole new set of problems to deal with in providing fertility for arable production and a varied year-round diet that doesn’t rely on fossil-fuelled transport to deliver it from the other side of the world.

Along the way, Fairlie demolishes a host of myths, including the water inefficiency of meat production (it turns out that your two pounds of beef only requires that much water if it’s fed on irrigated feed from the Californian desert). He also challenges the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s famous statistic that livestock generates 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which Fairlie argues confuses one-off emissions from land-use change with on-going emissions from production.

In doing so, he illustrates the bias of policy in favour of urban over rural patterns of settlement. He argues that this is a prejudice that is evident not just in planning policy the world over but even in the focus of climate change mitigation efforts on methane, a potent but relatively short-lived greenhouse gas largely generated by land-based activities, at the expense of the more stubborn carbon dioxide mainly arising from the fossil-fuelled activities of urban consumers.

The book thinks big. Fairlie’s essay ‘Can Britain feed itself?’, previously published in The Land magazine (its regular readers might recognise one or two other chapters too), finds its way into the book, and is the basis for much of the thinking behind it. What, he asks, would Britain – and other temperate countries – look like under the extremes of various combinations of agricultural production? You can take your pick between vegan chemical, stock-free permaculture or organic with livestock (or any other possible permutation) and figure out which looks most like a world you’d like to see.

It’s a new look at a sometimes bizarre range of topics, from the relative merits of wheat and chestnuts (which used to be a staple in southern France), to the role of animals in food security. Fairlie spells out the importance of livestock for the landless (a way of sequestering whatever scraps of feed come your way, with harvesting on demand) and the way they provide a buffer for a population’s grain stocks. But in the context of his focus on temperate countries such as the UK, his promotion of the use of animal traction has no doubt raised a few eyebrows, however convincing his arguments.

While Fairlie clearly has an agenda, he doesn’t shy away from subjecting both sides of the argument to scrutiny. Perhaps most interesting is his detailed knowledge of Britain’s agrarian history: the book is peppered with snippets from thinkers on food and feed from days gone by. In essence, the book is a wake-up call for us to realise how disconnected we are from the land, and why it might be worth getting back to nature before we start planning our collective future.

Of course, we live in a world of compromises, and none of the scenarios in Fairlie’s thought experiments and back-of-the-envelope calculations is ever likely to be realised. But then Fairlie was never under the impression that the world was going to turn vegan. He accepts animal-free lifestyles as an option but rejects them as a global prescription. The real debate, his book recognises, is about how we produce food, and with key players like the UN demonstrating a distinct bias towards the type of intensive livestock production that sees animals being fed on increasingly valuable grain and generating huge waste problems that their surrounding environment does not have the capacity to deal with, it’s a battle we might all do well to be prepared for.

The book is unself-consciously anthropocentric, and Fairlie doesn’t go near animal rights issues, which makes much of it irrelevant for many vegans. But anyone for whom eating animal products raises issues of social justice and sustainability should certainly have a read – it’s a refreshing new take on the increasingly polarised debates about the role of animals in our food system.

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