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Meat eating vs vegetarian or vegan diets

Meat eating vs vegetarian or vegan diets

Simon Fairlie's explosive new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, argues that a more subtle approach to the environmental impact of eating meat is needed, taking full account of how livestock can be constructively integrated into agricultural systems

Meat - A Benign Extravagance?
For about 10 years I lived in a community which (since the comments I make here can apply to other similar permaculture settlements) I don't need to name and will call Happy Valley. There were many things I liked about the place, but one of the aspects that I found difficult was the collective diet. There was no prohibition on eating meat; but since communal meals had to provide for the common denominator of collective acceptability, a vegetarian ethos prevailed. If you were on kitchen duty, it was more convenient to cook without using any animal products, because then you didn't have to prepare anything special for vegans.

Food Miles & Self-Sufficiency

Initially I agreed with this policy, because meat is environmentally extravagant, but over time I found this approach problematic, both at consumption level and at production level. On the one hand, Happy Valley, although it aspired towards self-sufficiency, was spending about £200 per fortnight on pallet-loads of food imported from the four corners of the world, notably China, Turkey, India, Brazil and the USA. Most of this food was either high fat or high protein: olive oil, sunflower oil, margarine, peanut butter, tahini, soya milk and yoghurt, nuts, chick peas, beans, lentils, molasses, dried fruit, rice, quinoa etc.

On the other hand the production of animal products on site was marginalised, a matter that I was sensitive to since I was the main stockman. Certainly the milk, cheese and yoghurt produced were eaten, and we also sold cheese. But whereas the vegetable garden was a collective responsibility, towards which every-one was expected to contribute on communal work days, the grassland management and animal rearing were viewed as a voluntary option – even though there were some 4.86 hectares (12 acres) of grass to look after, compared to less than an acre of arable horticulture. Moreover, although the grass and dairy oper-ation produced perhaps 350 kilos of meat, dripping and lard a year (through the calves, and the whey fed to the pigs) this was shunned by the communal kitchen, and had to be sold on the open market – a procedure that was halted when Environmental Health cottoned on and insisted on premises built to a standard that was completely uneconomical for a subsistence community.

In short, Happy Valley was producing, from the grass that we all walked on, a substantial proportion of the protein and fat that we required for our nutrition, but we weren't eating it and instead were import-ing it from countries where people go hungry.

An Enquiry into Eating Meat

This wasn't the main reason why, around 2004, I left Happy Valley, but it was a contributory reason, and when I left I decided to spend some time trying to reconcile my misgivings about the community's mainly vegetarian diet with the very cogent arguments that vegans and others were propagating concerning the environmental impact of meat. In 1813 Percy Shelley became a vegan because, in his words: "The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter consumed in fattening the carcase of an ox, would afford ten times the sustenance... if gathered immediately from the bosom of the earth".

Two centuries later, 700 million tonnes of human edible food are poured down the gullets of livestock every year to provide a luxury commodity for the wealthy, while around a billion people in the world do not have enough to eat. The Gandhian response, of rejecting such a tainted product, is understandable; yet the net result – importing protein and fat from third world countries – has perverse repercussions.

What began as a personal enquiry in 2004, grew into a research project, and has ended up as a book, published under the title Meat – A Benign Extravagance. The principal conflict I set out to address I have resolved to my satisfaction.

Default Livestock: A Way of Farming

Every agricultural ecosystem produces a certain amount of surplus, waste and otherwise hard-to-use biomass which in many cases is best kept in the food chain by feeding to livestock. The meat or dairy produce which results from cycling biomass in this fashion is 'free' in the sense that it has little or no environmental impact beyond that which is engendered by an ecosystem dedicated primarily to the production of vegetable food.

I have adopted a term used by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for this traditional approach to animal rearing – 'default livestock' – but it could equally be referred to as 'permaculture livestock', because the animals, the meat and dairy produce are all playing a subsidiary role in a balanced ecosystem. By contrast, the dedicated production of meat achieved by feeding grain or other biomass 'efficiently' to large concentrations of animals overrides sustainable agricultural systems, and introduces perverse effects such as the concen-tration of excessive amounts of manure in one place, greater risk of disease, and the accumulation of biomass by the wealthy at the expense of the poor and landless. A 'default' or 'permaculture' meat diet (depending on where one lived) might provide perhaps a quarter or a third of the quantity of animal protein currently enjoyed in the over-developed countries.

Animals & Global Warming

When I began writing the book the methane and carbon emissions of live-stock, although recognised, were not viewed as unduly significant. But in the last few years, the global warming impact of meat has assumed a much higher profile, largely thanks to a much publicised announcement by the FAO in their 2006 report 'Livestock's Long Shadow' that farm animals are responsible for 18 per cent of all human generated global warming.

The most interesting thing about this statistic is not the figure itself – criteria and numbers can be juggled so that almost any result can be defended – but the fact that a United Nations organisation ostensibly committed to the support of farmers worldwide should choose to promote such an elevated figure, and announce publicly that 'the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas than transport'. The authors use it, not (as one might expect) to argue for a reduction in meat consumption, but instead for a doubling of meat consumption through intensive agriculture and factory farms.

Their secondary argument is that 'by far the largest share of emissions come from more extensive systems where poor livestock holders often extract marginal livelihoods from dwindling resources'. 'Livestock's Long Shadow' goes out of its way to stigmatise peasant farmers rearing default livestock whose carbon emissions are far lower than ours in the developed countries, and advocates that they move into the intensive, globalised meat economy which we know to be heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

Needless to say, this is not an agenda that I support (and indeed it met with considerable opposition within the FAO itself). I am also sceptical about the elevated figure of 18 per cent. The lack of scientific knowledge about the methane and nitrous oxide cycles, the fact that methane has remained stable in the world's atmosphere for the last ten years and a number of other factors, lead me to conclude that the global warming case against livestock is not as strong as many would like to make out.

Land Use

In my view the strongest case against livestock, and for a move towards a more vegan diet in the UK, is the argument that the large areas of grassland currently devoted to sheep and cows could be dedicated to other uses; in particular tree planting, bio-fuel production or wildlife. To some extent this is an 'aesthetic' matter, a question of personal preference. In a world increasingly reliant on renewable energy, any decisions we make about how land is used will inevitably be grounded in personal and political preferences: do we value our meat more than our mobility, or our warmth above our wildlife?

I tend to agree that for a variety of historic reasons there has been too much emphasis in the uplands on sheep, which require large areas of land to produce not very much food. But we need to recognise that the roles that animals play in a fossil-fuel-free environment go beyond the mere provision of meat and milk – in fact food is often just a by-product.

Livestock provide the biodiversity that trees on their own cannot provide. They are the best means we have of keeping wide areas clear and open to solar energy and wind energy. They harness biomass that would otherwise be inaccessible, and recycle waste that would otherwise be a disposal problem. And they are the main means we have of ensuring that the phosphate which leaks out from our arable land into the wider environment, and that is crucial for agricultural yields, is brought back into the food chain.

Striking a Balance

In short, livestock have a role to play in nature just like plants and minerals, and therefore they have a role in a well-balanced permaculture system. That role should not be exaggerated, otherwise the system will become un-balanced, but equally it will become unbalanced if you don't use it. There will always be a certain amount of animal produce, essential to the well-being of an agricultural economy, that it would be foolish to disdain, because if you do, as I found at Happy Valley, you may end up having to import a shortfall unsustainably from elsewhere

Simon Fairlie worked for 20 years variously as an agricultural labourer, vine-worker, shepherd, fisherman, builder and stonemason before being ensnared by the computer in 1990. He was a co-editor of The Ecologist magazine for four years, before joining a community farm in 1994 where he managed the cows, pigs and a working horse for ten years. He now runs Chapter 7, an organisation that provides planning advice to small-holders and other low income people in the countryside. He is also editor of The Land magazine, and earns a living by selling scythes.