Is eating meat ethical or sustainable? Interview with Simon Fairlie, author of ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’

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Posted Sep 16 2018 by Simon Fairlie of The Land Magazine
Is eating meat ethical? And what about dairy?

We are sometimes approached by people asking why we provide information on vegetarianism, veganism and keeping animals. Isn’t that a bit incongruous? We don’t think it is, because we want to a) help reduce the overall amount of meat eaten, and b) help people to make a living from smallholding, which becomes a lot more difficult (although not impossible) without animals.

We talk here with Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land magazine and author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

Hi Simon. So if the world turned vegan tomorrow, how difficult would that make life for organic smallholders?

Well it would certainly reduce their options, and it would reduce the number of smallholders. It would basically reduce their options to market gardening, and producing a few other niche things like mushrooms, perhaps. It would effectively mean that you wouldn’t be able to run a smallholding on the very large areas of land that are not arable.

And how difficult would it be for smallholders to make a living from just plants? With planting, weeding, stopping pests, fertilising, harvesting, processing, it’s much more work for a lower financial reward, isn’t it?

I would agree. You can see that very clearly here at Monkton Wyld community, where I produce all the dairy – all the milk, yoghurt, cheese, plus I supply sausages, and I do all that part-time; and that’s for an average of 30 people per day. Whereas, the garden has two people working there, and they’re nowhere near self-sufficient in veg. It’s quite noticeable how it takes much less work to produce rather more nutrition from animal products.

And in terms of income for smallholders?

Well it is possible to make a living without animals. There are people who do it. Ian Tolhurst does it, as do several others. It’s not impossible – it’s market gardening. And at the moment, a lot of our veg is imported from abroad, so there’s room for more market gardeners.

What I’m trying to work out is how difficult life would become for smallholders if they didn’t have the option of producing and selling animal products, in competition with giant industrial agriculture, with their huge infrastructure, aerial spraying etc.

All the smallholders without high-quality arable land would probably be put out of business. You can make a living from market gardening, but your land would have to be good-quality arable, quite flat, good soil, not wet etc. All the rest of the land, especially on the western side of the country – the vast majority of it isn’t suitable for arable production. It’s suitable either for trees or for grass. And you can make a living from a much smaller area of grass than of trees.

But it would be much more difficult for an organic smallholder than an artificial farmer to survive without animals, because there would be no manure to put on their land (as well as the lower income). Most organic grain producers, for example, will have livestock as well, because that’s the most sensible option. Most artiticial grain farmers don’t – because they fling on the nitrogen, which is made from fossil fuels, and it doesn’t build the soil.

And if you have orchards on your smallholding, and you have livestock, the grass underneath your trees is your first crop – you won’t get your fruit crop until maybe September, but you’ve got a crop of grass to feed your animals in June, which will have got all the sun because there won’t have been many leaves on the trees until then. So that all adds to your profit, and helps you survive. If you don’t have livestock, what you have is a problem – grass that needs to be mown (or worse – kept down with herbicides), and with no animals to fertilise your trees.

In most of the UK, without animals, you wouldn’t be able to make a living from a smallholding. You’d have to have good arable land to do that. And even then, it’s more difficult to compete with industrial agriculture if you’re a small arable farmer than if you’re a small mixed farmer, because of the machinery and chemicals used in large-scale arable farming. Without meat, there would be far fewer smallholders (apart from market gardeners) and agriculture would become much more industrialised overall.

Another argument we hear is: if land isn’t arable, then why not plant trees, and try to make your living from fruit, timber, firewood, charcoal burning, tourism etc.

The best way is to have variety – you want a mixture of things. That’s what Permaculture is about, for example. And just trees would mean no grassland environment, and none of the quite good income that animal products bring.

I guess your book is full of these kinds of arguments. What would you say is the main conclusion you come to in your book?

I found that around 50% of meat and dairy globally is produced with a very high environmental impact, because it’s produced using grain grown and then fed to animals, which is extremely inefficient. But on the other hand, there’s a huge amount of vegetable matter – a by-product of plant-based agriculture – that doesn’t get eaten by humans. So that’s waste food, processing waste, spoilt crops, surplus crops, plant matter from non-arable areas – and it just doesn’t make sense not to feed this to animals. And animals produce manure that provides fertility to the land, and of course they provide high-quality food. It doesn’t really make sense to take animals out of the equation.

On top of that, in order to ensure enough grain in a bad year, globally, you’ve got to sow enough that you’ll have a surplus in every other year apart from the worst years. This is called the feed buffer. Livestock bring in elasticity into the food system. If there weren’t any livestock (or something else, like alcohol) where you can put the surplus grain, then people wouldn’t sow enough of it in a bad year, and this would result in an increased risk of starvation for lots of people in bad harvest years. So to avoid this risk, you have to produce a grain surplus in every year that it’s possible – and once you’ve done that, the most efficient thing to do with it is to feed it to animals. You could make gin out of it, or put it in your car, but the most efficient thing by far is to feed it to livestock – preferably dairy, but also pigs. If you don’t, it’s a waste. So you get meat with a very low environmental impact, because it’s a by-product of the farming system.

It’s possible to maintain soil fertility without animal manures though, isn’t it?

There are lots of people who say that it’s not possible to maintain soil fertility globally without animal manures – the Biodynamic people, for instance. I don’t know the answer to this, but if you’re using a green manure like clover for fertilising your arable land, and doing it in rotation, which is what organic farming is all about, then it makes more sense to feed the clover to dairy cows than to plough it in, from the point of view of farmers’ income and a balanced diet. It’s certainly very low impact, as no tractor / fuel is needed because no ploughing is needed.

You’re critical of the industrial meat system. Would you say that we eat far too much meat?

Yes. I think that in industrial countries, it needs to go down to around one-third of what we eat at the moment if we’re going to stop feeding grain to animals (apart from the surplus grain grown for bad years that I mentioned above).

We get an organic meat box delivered from a farm in Yorkshire. Rob, the farmer there, tells me that if overall meat consumption falls, the kind of people who eat less meat, or no meat at all, would be the same people who would otherwise have eaten organic meat from mixed smallholders. So this would damage smallholders, but factory farms wouldn’t be affected.

I’d agree with that. What I would say is that by going vegan, you lose your leverage on the meat industry – to create a decent industry. If you eat only sustainable meat – and I and many others have made a pledge not to eat meat from factory farms – then you’re creating a demand for decent meat, and you’re willing to pay more for decent meat, which gives an incentive to farmers to produce meat more humanely, with a lower environmental impact. If you give up meat altogether, you’re creating no demand for that at all, and as I’ve explained above, that’s not a good thing, environmentally.

I agree, but Rob is saying that the only people who will listen to that message are the people who care. The majority, who have no problem eating factory-farmed meat, won’t hear or care about that message.

I think these ideas filter through though. For example, pretty soon, there are only going to be free-range eggs in UK shops. The idea that battery chicken farming is bad has gained more and more acceptance over the years. So things change.

Yes. Another thing I’ve said to vegans is that if the world became vegan tomorrow, then we wouldn’t be able to hunt rabbits or deer (that have no natural predators in the UK), or to run animals underneath orchard trees, or in woodland, and so a lot more natural habitat would have to be turned into arable land to grow crops.

It would probably mean that a lot more of our food would have to be imported too – soya products, bananas, coconuts, rice etc.

And if we stopped eating fish – there are some countries where fish provide quite a large proportion of people’s protein – a lot more agricultural land would have to be brought into production to replace that protein with plant foods, and that would mean less natural habitat.

That’s true. There would have to be lots more arable land for producing food for humans. But at the moment, lots of arable land is used to produce feed crops for livestock. So more arable land would become available, which might reduce the need for more habitat removal. There’s no doubt that if we lived on a completely vegan diet, we’d need less land to feed ourselves. But pasture-fed livestock have a benign impact on the land. They keep a grassland-based ecology going, that has always been there, because of large herds of wild herbivores, which don’t really exist any more – not in developed countries. What we need is a decent mixture of trees, grassland and arable. If we don’t have livestock, we won’t have that mixture unless we resort to fire or fossil fuels and machinery. And there’s no need to do that. Animals do it much more efficiently – they harvest biomass and provide fertility much better than anything else.

From experience, the vegan response to those points will probably be that ecology did perfectly well on its own before humans cleared forests for fields – wasn’t that a ‘good’ ecology?

There were grazing animals before humans, and there’s always been a ‘war’ if you like, between trees and grass. Trees compete with grass by overshadowing, and grass competes with trees by covering ground so effectively that tree seeds can’t get in. The way grass achieves this is by co-operating with herbivores, because when herbivores eat grass they create a thick carpet that trees and shrubs can’t get into. If you throw an acorn onto a lawn, it’s not going to grow, because there’s no way that it can get into the soil – and then some animal will come along and eat the acorn.

Humans didn’t invent grazing animals – they only domesticated them.

What do you think of the moral argument that it’s wrong to keep animals or to kill a sentient being?

I think that’s moral squeamishness, really. Almost all animals end up getting eaten at some point – even top predators, when they get old or sick. I don’t buy the argument that animals suffer less in the wild than if they’re farmed either. Farmers provide for animals. The animals provide meat, dairy, eggs, plus soil fertility, and the farmer guarantees that they have a decent life, that they get fed during the winter, and that they get a quick death. These things can’t be guaranteed in the wild.

For example, wild pigs produce 5 or 6 young per year. If they all survived into adulthood, it wouldn’t be long before the world would be overrun with wild pigs. But they don’t all survive, by any means. 90% of wild piglets die before adulthood. That’s the way nature works – it produces a massive surplus of babies, and most of them either get eaten by predators or die of disease or starvation. What humans do is to guarantee to animals that their young will be fed until slaughter, when death will be fast and painless. They won’t be killed by predators, which often takes several minutes of horror, and they won’t be left to die painfully of disease or starvation. The fear, agony and horror suffered by wild animals is very far from the experience of farm animals. Opposing that, to me, has to be about their own moral sensibilities rather than animal welfare. This is bearing in mind that I’m only talking about smallholders keeping livestock free-range and humanely, not industrial agriculture, which I oppose.

So to conclude?

I’d say two things. First, environmentally, it would be good if humans ate less meat, but not if they ate no meat; and second, keeping animals on farms is definitely not bad for their welfare compared to the awful things that happen to virtually all animals in the wild – and usually before they’re a few months old. Wild animals don’t die in their sleep at a ripe old age. Refusing to eat meat or animal products because of a concern for animal welfare is down to an inability to understand or accept the basic fact that nature runs on different things eating each other. This might be down to the fact that veganism is more an urban than a rural phenomenon, where people live further from nature.

Simon Fairlie is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, and The Rural Planning Handbook. He runs a micro-dairy at Monkton Wyld Court Community in Dorset, and the Scythe Shop, offering Austrian scythes and beginners’ scything courses.