If you are looking for the textbook on the environmental impacts of meat production and consumption, then look no further than Simon Fairlie’s new book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, just released by Chelsea Green Publishers in the US. As long as you can get past his use of quaint British terms like “ley, smallholder, and hectare”, you will find a trove of information on all of the controversial, hot topics around animal agriculture.
At first the title perplexed me- “benign” means harmless, like a tumor that just sits there and “extravagance” means a luxury you could do without. Is the consumption of meat a harmless luxury? That is certainly not what usually comes to mind for me- a luxury yes but not exactly benign. There are impacts of animal production, both good and bad, influenced by how and where they are raised. Nonetheless, I dug in.
This book is organized as a series of independent, meaty essays. They are not tender or easy to digest, so approach them in chunks. Thus far I have chewn off an easy little chapter on the history of livestock and civilizations, finally walking away with an understanding of where the whole cattle vs. pigs divide came from. I read about the land efficiency of meat and dairy production and how it might compare to an equivalent amount of calories, protein, and fat generated from purely plant sources. One of my favorite statistics shows that the production of vegetable oils (such as soy & canola) uses as much land as a similar kilo of beef, supposedly the most 'inefficient' form of meat to produce. I like this statistic because when I hear the constant drone of meat critics saying that meat is just too expensive to produce (in terms of land), I often wonder how much land and inputs the equivalent amount of vegetable-based fats consume. In another chapter, Fairlie points out that 'default livestock', which is to say 'animal products and services that arise as the integral co-product of a wider agricultural system', may take little land away from food production at all. Default animals are usually grazed on non-arable (read: no irrigation, too hilly or rocky to till) or fed on food wastes of human societies, which the omnivorous pig and chicken are particularly adept at. Of all the production systems that Fairlie outlines in this book, the concept of 'default livestock' appears to be the most sustainable path for animal production on this planet.
At times the chapters gets tedious with statistics, but you can’t say that Fairlie didn’t do his research. Quite the contrary, this book is the most thoroughly researched treatise I have ever seen on the subject. Simon does not obscure his biases- he is a small-scale stockman that wants to see animals as part of a sustainable, biologically-based farming system. Yet he approaches his subject with refreshing openness. He sees some potential in vegan ‘stock-free’ agriculture (meaning without animals), although fails to talk about where the mechanical power will come from in that system. Without animals for draft power, a vegan farmer becomes highly reliant on petro fueled machinery. Fairlie spends considerable time comparing chemical agriculture to organic, both with and without domesticated animals in the mix. There is no definitive ‘perfect' sustainable farming system according to Fairlie but he recognizes the many deficiencies of moving animals away from crops, thus breaking the nutrient cycle and requiring more and more synthetic substitutes of nitrogen and phosphorus. Everyone talks about Peak Oil, but Peak Phosphorus is about to get much more serious to our way of life much sooner than the oil reserves start to run dry. It is time we start talking about where it will come from. Too much of it is wasted in our sewage systems or manure lagoons.
As a former meat producer myself and an ardent environmentalist, I am sometimes challenged to explain the complexities of why I think livestock and meat eating are an integral part of a sustainable agricultural system. Animals are best at harvesting inedible forages, utilizing marginal lands, recycling nutrients and waste, and providing draft power. In many cases they can provide more nutrient-dense foods in terms of calories, protein, and fat than vegetables, grains, or pulses grown on an equivalent amount of land. Next time I am challenged to verbalize the compatibility of meat eating and ecological sustainability, I will simply point someone in the direction of this book. This is an important book for anyone interested in the future of agriculture, family farmers, and rural landscapes, especially those that like to chew on some animal flesh now and again.
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