“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.

Pig Business — a film by Tracy Worcester

Three years ago seasoned campaigner and mother of three children, Tracy Worcester, decided to find out what was in the cheap processed pork products for sale in Britain’s supermarkets.

Her journey led her to America and Poland where she found huge, industrial scale, pig farms which supply British supermarkets.

The film reveals that that these huge meat factories overcrowd and mistreat the animals, put small farmers out of business and pollute the water and air endangering the health of local residents.

The owner of 20 of these giant pig factories in Poland is an American company called Smithfield Foods, the biggest hog producer and processor in the world, whose production methods have been heavily criticized not least by lawyer, Robert Kennedy Jnr,, president of the Waterkeepers Alliance,who has won  numerous court cases against Smithfield Foods for violating pollution laws.

Attending  a government committee he explains how the arrival of factory farms will destroy Polish rural culture and livelihoods, “Smithfield controls 85% of hog production in the state, and every factory that is built gets rid of 10 traditional family farmers and replaces those jobs with 2 or 3 minimum waged jobs to workers who work in the plants.

European subsides are given to the giants in the name of helping Poland become more competitive within the EU. Tom Garrett, from Animal Welfare Institute in America, says that Smithfield Foods of America, the largest pork producer in the world with an $11 billion annual turnover, came to Poland funded by taxpayers’ money and   “benefited from a $100 million loan facilitated by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).”

A Polish small-scale farmer, Alicia, complains that the giants out- compete her traditional farming methods, as they give their animals antibiotics and hormones to grow faster and collect huge cheques from the European Union subsidy system.

Former workers admit that because of overcrowding they have to pump the animals with antibiotics. Richard Young, policy adviser to the Soil Association, says that the antibiotic residues in pork are making consumers resistant to antibiotic treatment and creating new forms of super-bug like the pig strain of MRSA that has recently passed to humans

A local Polish doctor confirms that the employees and neighbors are poisoned by the stench due to the vast quantity of effluent which putrefies in slurry lagoons before being sprayed onto neighbouring fields. “The microclimate, a cocktail of 400 gasses inside the shed, restrict the airways”

Bernard Lietar, former investment banker, sees banks as the driving force behind the present day development pattern, “I would compare the money system, as a ring that we put through our nose, and it leads us where it wants to go”.

With democracy in question, Tracy decides that it is up to consumers to choose whether to buy ‘cheap’ Polish pork in the supermarkets or reconnect with a farmer you trust. She and her family visit the local farmers market, local independent pig farmers, and community supported agricultural initiatives that provide viable alternatives to cheaply sourced supermarket products.

For more information, see http://www.pigbusiness.co.uk/