“MEAT: a Benign Extravagance”

Simon Fairlie (Permanent Publications, 2010)

Reviewed by William Edwards

As a first time reader of Simon Fairlie`s work, I found Meat to be an all embracing experience and definitely in the top 5 books I have ever read.

In this, his latest book, Mr Fairlie examines the role of livestock in the British countryside and as a onetime vegetarian, he pulls no punches. Whether you are a committed vegan or a carnivore and just want your prejudices caressed, then this is not the book for you. However if you are prepared to have your beliefs subjected to the utmost scrutiny, then this book will be a thorough workout.

The book is a veritable cornucopia of references and research on the whole world of food and land use and yet it is somehow irresistibly readable. Anything you ever wanted to know about sustainable agriculture is somewhere in “MEAT.” It is incredible to believe that this is the work of just one man.

We are led through some of the absurdities of our time, such as the British government`s almost superstitious banning of the use of pig swill and meat and bone meal which now tends to be replaced with soya shipped in from cleared rainforest land. Fairlie`s answer is simple, recycle our food waste properly into feed for pigs and poultry and use grazed grass for ruminants.

Fairlie talks of preserving the country`s “default livestock” which is how he describes those animals which are necessary to hoover up our waste food(pigs and poultry) and graze our land only fit for grazing together with building fertility in arable rotations. He also thinks that after oil, the equation will be tipped again in favour of animals as we value once more their traction, leather, wool and fat together with animals ability to heat a rustic house and move nutrients to where they are needed.

Very few escape his attention, not the least The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, whose  “ Livestocks Long Shadow” is so comprehensibly disassembled as to be revealed as either a work of gross incompetence or ideological fiction. Carefully he takes us through the fraud used to calculate the FAO`s claim of livestock being responsible for 18% of green house gasses and shows us how this damagingly discredits climate science.

The chapter on veganism takes no prisoners. Even as a meat eater I positively winced at the scattering of vegan myths as time and again Fairlie held vegetarian beliefs to the light and watched them wither. Vegetarianism apparently is not for the temperate climes, nearly all of the key ingredients of a veggie diet such as soya, palm oil and nuts have to be imported from hotter countries and are invariably driving rainforest destruction. Vegetarian philosophers can never quite explain the final solution to the presence of animals, yet curiously they are often the allies of chemical and mega corporations in advocating intensive agriculture. Vegetarians support albeit less tacitly, factory farms, by removing their purchasing vote from high welfare or sustainable meat, they possibly condemn animals to worse conditions. Elsewhere in the book, Fairlie seems to curiously let vegetarians off the hook slightly, as if not wanting to offend old friends.

Time and again, we hear of the importance of animals in securing a subsistence for the world`s poor. Landless peasants in India or Africa for instance are able to scratch a meagre living for their families by grazing a family cow or goat on roadsides and unclaimed scrublands, turning the poorest forage into nutrition. We learn how nearly every famine in the last 200 years had at its heart, the driving off of peasants and their animals with the enlightened imposition of some new land use or crop. He gives examples of cotton growing in Ethiopia (resulting in Band-Aid) and greedy landlords in The Raj (post 1857) and Ireland (1840`s.) Some climate activists would repeat this horror with ruminants.

Some of the numbers are staggering; the Indian dairy industry provides a livelihood for 18 million people. 50% of the world`s pigs live in China, 30% of the worlds pigs are  kept in Chinese micro herds of as little as one pig by householders, nature`s recyclers,living off scraps.

Intensive farming comes in for harsh scrutiny not only for the poor conversion of fossil energy calories into food calories, but also in terms of the vast amounts of nutrients being mobilised across oceans to eventually end up flushed down western toilets. Approaching peak phosphate in 2033 amongst other trends, renders this indulgence particularly fragile. Smaller grass based herds and flocks beckon.

Curiously, genetic engineering barely gets a mention, other than as a cohort of nutrient and hydrocarbon profligacy. Perhaps it reflects the general realisation that genetic engineering is a spent force, not the least in light of the more reliable marker assisted selection now available.

Throughout “MEAT, the benign extravagance,” Fairlie is deliciously sceptical, analytical, critical and harsh on all our separate sacred cows, reducing our theories and dismissing others. Therefore if we are to apply that same rule of sternness to his  last chapter where he describes a post oil paradise of small economies and communities, then we must say that it comes over a little whimsical in that he doesn`t explain exactly how our consumptive society is to reach that point. Fairlie has no qualms about calling into question the whole vast trajectory of integration and specialisation that human society has been surfing since agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent 11,000 years ago. Like some stubborn literary Canute, He sits on his page defying the timeless tide of progress that the world has been floating on as he describes the rural communities that he sees as the successors to the age of oil. The message of this magnus opus from a corner of Devon is quite clear; if man tinkers with nature, the bubble will burst. He may very well be right, but I cannot see our bling-glittering, pretentious, carbon-obese species moving to such a rural ideal easily. It is more likely that we will follow the pattern of history and use up all our resources before plundering the resources of those weaker than us and ultimately descending in to a vortex of collapse. Pity.

3 thoughts on ““MEAT: a Benign Extravagance”

  1. Ref Mr Edwards’ review of Simon Fairlie’s book – I don’t quite understand which one of them is assuming that Vegetarians blindly eat soya, palm oil and nuts, but I can assure you that I don’t know of any that do, and I have been one for over 40 years! Most vegetarians I know are naturally concerned about the source of ALL their foodstuffs, that’s the whole point of being a vegetarian after all.
    Its also ridiculous to say that vegetarians are depriving responsible animal/meat production of its ‘vote’ – this is absolutely NOT the case since I still buy cheese, milk eggs and yoghurt and buy meat (organic) for my dogs. Have a go at vegetarians by all means but do your research first please.

  2. I totally concur with Simon’s exhaustive study of meat- it is an extremely well researched, objective work. Simon outlines convincingly why people have eaten meat and continue to do so. However it doesn’t touch upon the moral aspect which is often at the crux of many vegetarians’ and vegan’s philosophy. There are plenty of objective reasons why I could eat meat but I don’t because, if I can lead a healthy and happy life without causing the death of hundreds or thousands of animals, whether naturally reared or not, then I chose to do so. Chosing not to eat meat, can of course be a political, economic, social, environmental or a moral issue, or all at once. There can be few personal gestures which can tick so many “boxes” as stopping eating meat. Simon’s book is a great work and I would recommend anyone to read it but to balance it against their own moral values.

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