Meat eating vs vegetarian or vegan diets

Simon Fairlie
Wednesday, 1st September 2010

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

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

More resources

Have Simon Fairlie and George Monibot Got it Wrong About Meat Eating?

Val Grainger |
Thu, 03/05/2012 - 12:41
Here Here Simon!!!! Well said!
Paul Angel |
Wed, 01/08/2012 - 14:03
While the article above is a good analysis of some practical aspects of using locally reared animals as a tool and a food-source, it doesn't comment on the ethical arguments about the killing sentient beings in order to eat them. I admit to not having read your book, so perhaps you go into the ethics of killing there, but the main argument against meat for most vegetarians and vegans is the unnecessary death of animals to provide food that we choose to eat for pleasure but don't need for our nutrition.
Beefwalker |
Mon, 04/03/2013 - 23:05
... and anyone who can change George Monbiot's mind has to be a meticulous researcher. Well done. @Paul Angel - the ethical 'I shan't take part in killing' argument behind veganism/vegetarianism falls to bits in the face of a proper 'human' diet. A paleo-esque diet of pastured/grass-fed animal flesh, good fats and lots of leafy greens - and devoid of wholey unnatural fake-foods such as grains and soy and seed oils - has far, far less impact on life than a vegan/vegetarian diet could ever hope to acheive, while providing us with the nutrition we're built for. Possibly one exception to this:- If you went local-raw-fruitarian (which would substantially diminish your health and life-expectancy) you'd be ostensibly "impact-on-life-free" but you'd be a miserable wretch ;-)
beeflover |
Mon, 01/04/2013 - 22:20
@Beefwalker, I'm having a hard time understanding how eating meat has "less impact on life than a vegan/vegetarian diet could ever hope to achieve." Killing has a pretty extreme impact on life. Living in the way most animals-for-food are grown also has a pretty extreme (and horrific) impact on life, but I do understand that you are advocating pastured/grass-fed animals, which don't suffer as much of the penned-up nightmare that most animals-for-food live in. Lastly, regarding the "nutrition we're built for" argument. I don't know what people are built for - I wasn't there when the design plans were passed around and approved. I only know about urges people have and things people can handle. People have horrible urges of many kinds, and people achieve adaptive behavior and even greatness by overcoming those urges. Just because we have the urge doesn't mean that obeying that urge is the right thing to do. And regarding the nutrition - lots of vegetarians/vegans are very, very healthy. On average, much healthier than omnivores. See, for example, the 2009 article "Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets" ( Right in the abstract, without any ifs and buts, the authors state: "Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes." In this day and age, we do not NEED to eat animals to be healthy and happy. And if it's only for my pleasure that an animal dies, whether it's for food or for viewing, then I prefer to forgo that pleasure, and let the animal be.
Dana Seilhan |
Tue, 28/05/2013 - 00:03
"While the article above is a good analysis of some practical aspects of using locally reared animals as a tool and a food-source, it doesn't comment on the ethical arguments about the killing sentient beings in order to eat them." I am more concerned about the sentient beings we're sickening and killing by perpetuating this belief that eating animals is unnecessary for human nutrition. We as a species are known--KNOWN--to be poor converters of the plant precursors of three out of the four known fat-soluble vitamins. Some of us, such as American Indians and coastal Irish, are also KNOWN to be poor converters of the plant precursors to the essential fatty acids. You are never going to get real methyl B12 out of plants no matter how hard you try, and depending on supplements or shots is not sustainable. And many of us are also very poor at carbohydrate metabolism, probably because human beings evolved in a milieu of fatty acid metabolism and frankly, if there *are* any human beings who can handle carbohydrates efficiently without giving themselves chronic disease, they're relative latecomers to the evolutionary game. I don't care to be made into a guinea pig in the name of someone else's moral cause. I already know I can't handle sugars and starches in the high amounts that would be necessary in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Some people have certainly made themselves guinea pigs in this cause and have paid with their lives. Don't make me go back through the records of the early deaths of celebrities from cancer or cardiovascular disease and count how many of them have been vegetarian or vegan. Linda McCartney is one famous example. There have been many others. Where you see a meat-eater fall from such a disease you will also find they had large amounts of plant matter in their diets, usually the bulk of which are grains and sugars. But these foods are still *plant* foods. And I notice you always, ALWAYS overlook them in assessing the health of meat-eaters. Why is that?
sumanx73 |
Fri, 04/07/2014 - 12:22
I have read on a lot of portals that non-veg foods contributes to global warming. I myself is a die-hard vegetarian, and i totally avoid non-veg products. I found that there are a few supplements that people take on daily basis to fulfill their nutrition needs are actually made up of non-veg ingredients. Source : <a href="">healthgenie</a>
vachespagnole |
Fri, 29/05/2015 - 19:24
There is no doubt that in the current situation vegans are dependent on trade, particularly with Asia, for our sustenance. And there is also no doubt that forests and wildlands need animals -preferably a wide variety- to be healthy as ecosystems, but there is nothing which says that the earth needs herds of animals tended by humans for everything to be all right. That is just cultural chauvenism. 'Anthropocentrism'. What we vegans and veganics might suggest to the 'Happy Valley' 'dillema' is that if they were to jettison the meat-herd and easy lucre (i.e. hypocritically selling meat to buy vegan packaged goods) and planted a wide variety of pulses, including soy, fava, pigeon, lentils, beans of all kinds as well as a wide variety of common vegetables, including lots and lots of potatoes, cabbages, gourds, squash, tomatoes, peppers, corn, etc or whatever you eat where you come from, this may be lotus for all I know. You could also plant some hardy grains, buckwheat, some hemp, and inoculate wood with edible and medicinal mushrooms. If someone in a commune like Happy Valley is craving meat they should go out into the surrounding woods on agreed-upon days and shoot their own venison, and share it with those who want to eat it. There is absolutely no need for animal exploitation of any kind, we would not die without it, rather we would flourish… Simple solution for responsible people. There is no reason a fully veganic agriculture could not feed us all and also heal the earth from the trauma of human exploitation of just about everything for some supposed gain or pleasure that the earth does not already afford us. The possibilities of wildlife-friendly veganic food production are endless. Here's a good place to start though:
Sharron May |
Sat, 19/12/2015 - 13:08
I recommend reading Fairlie's book as background to the conversation of permaculture with or without livestock. His findings are very comprehensive and include the impact of each type of agriculture adopted on a larger scale on our landscapes, wild areas and populations, etc. Most of the responses seem rather reductionist and disconnected from the land and ecosystems, like my fruitarian, raw foodie friends in our cold climate. It is a luxury indeed to be able to have the conversation. Let's start with the permaculture principle of observation Where do you live? What proteins, carbs and sugars occur naturally? How can we STEWARD these resources to produce not only our food, but fiber, fodder, fuel, fertilization, farmaceuticals, furniture, fungi and fun? I understand that this doesn't address the ethical questions, but perhaps we should address the ethics of replacing polarized, dualistic, either/or thinking with both/and conversations (the permaculture principle of integrate vs. segregate).