As a vegan I approached this book rather warily on account of its title but as I read it I abandoned my caution and found myself nodding in agreement at most, if not all, of its key points.
My veganism is not borne out of a rigid belief that humans are not meant to eat meat but rather it stems from a complete abhorrence of the cruelty and inhumanity that goes on in an effort to satisfy people’s enormous carnivorous demands, coupled with a growing despair that such activity will speed up our process of devastating the planet we live on.
I was encouraged to see that the central tenet of Simon Fairlie’s new book was that ‘we can’t go on like this’! His reasoning is largely the same as mine. In the past, the amount of meat and dairy products that were consumed was more or less governed by the resources available. The number of pigs in a community would depend pretty much on the amount of waste food and crops available. Pigs are great food recyclers. The number of other animals would be restricted to the availability of land after staple crops such as wheat and vegetables had been catered for.
But then came a change: Population growth, wealth and subsequent demand for animal food products outstripped the supply and broke the ‘permaculture’ type equilibrium. The result was that extra resources had to be put into rearing animals, and crops are now grown specifically to be fed to animals to give us food. It’s a very inefficient process energy-wise, resulting in about 10 calories of energy being put in to get one back out in the form of meat protein. Additionally, the intensification of animal farming reduced livestock to mere commodities that were treated with increasingly horrific methods.
I still find it amazing that most people who express concern for animal welfare are prepared to countenance what goes on in order to allow them cheap meat and dairy products. The environmental impact of this development is immense as was summarised in the United Nations report ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’. Fairlie calls into question the validity of its finding that 18% of global CO2 emissions result from animal processing (you can’t call it farming any more) but the fact remains that it is very harmful and uses an unsustainable level of resources quite apart from being barbaric.
Amazingly the UN report, rather than suggest we all cut down our meat consumption, actually suggests a growth in the level of intensive farming especially in the developing world. Given that we have to do something radical about the way meat/dairy is produced, Fairlie looks at the concept of veganism and works it through to its logical conclusion. Would it matter, for example, if we no longer had cows and pigs and sheep? The answer (which I have never really delved into too deeply up to now) is ‘yes’. Taken back to the basic level as already described, the presence of these animals is an important aspect of our ecosystem and they can exist without placing undue strain on energy demands as well as being treated with respect and high standards of animal welfare.
This book is an immense academic work and Simon is to be heartily congratulated for his attention to detail and his knowledge. He presents the argument for reducing meat/dairy demand in a new way that has really given me cause to think long and hard. I am not about to start eating animal products again, but I can only concur with his overall thesis, and would urge anyone who has an interest in this subject to read the book. I hope it will kick start a new debate about how we feed ourselves and that meat and dairy might just return to the sustainable position of being an extravagance that is reserved more for special occasions rather than demanded every day for every meal by the majority.
Richard Barnett co-chairs New Forest Transition
Watch BBC2 Horizon's 'Should We Eat Meat - How to feed the planet' on BBC iplayer HERE or tonight on BBC 11.25pm