Meat: Murder or Benign Extravagance? Show us the data

Interesting article caught my eye today which takes to task the widely accepted view that eating meat is bad for the environment.

Eat meat and save the planet (Sunday Times, P18) looks at the argument put forward by author Simon Fairlie in his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance.

And it’s such a compelling argument it already prompted a high-profile revision of his viewpoint by environment writer George Monbiot who earlier this month published the CommentisFree post, “I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly”.

This attack on the ‘meat is bad’ mantra doesn’t just fly in face of campaigning vegetarians, but also esteemed scientists such as Rajendra Pachauri, who chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and who called on people to eat less meat in order to help in the fight against global warming a couple of years ago.

At that point, UN figures were used to suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.

In his book, Fairlie’s central point is to take apart some of the commonly bandied statistics in respect of the damage caused by meat production and test their validity.

For example, he claims that the widely quoted statistic around the volume of water used by cattle (drinking and pasture) of 100,000 litres of water for 1kg of beef is bunkum.

And he draws on his experience of raising a steer which produced more than 125kg of meat.

“That means he would have had to have consumed 12,500 tons of water in his 16 month life, or 25,000 litres on each day of his life.”

An interesting debate which people will have strong views on either side certainly, but it left me wondering why it’s so hard to get reliable data on these issues. Why are we left lurching between claims and counter claims about how exactly our food is produced?


4 thoughts on “Meat: Murder or Benign Extravagance? Show us the data

  1. I think the difference is that the author is drawing upon his own experience which sounds as though it is that of raising a steer sustainably. There is a big difference between that and factory farming where they are working to shrink the time to market and increase weight in that shorter time frame. Good discussion.


    1. It is difficult to get accurate data, and on the whole, I think Fairlie’s case about the impact of livestock is unproven. For example, there has been some debate in the scientific community whether in fact the UN 18% figure is far too low, because the premise upon which the figure was reached ignored respiration as a contributory factor.

      Fairlie is also guilty of selectively highlighting aspects of the industry to support his own agenda while ignoring other areas that would be detrimental to his cause – human health effects of meat and dairy consumption for instance. But he is/was after all a livestock farmer.

      As for Monbiot, he decries sceptics and deniers, and yet, by accepting Fairlie’s case at face value, he has unwittingly become one himself.


  2. The water consumption figures quoted are based upon cattle raised in feedlots, and takes into account the water used in raising the grain used to feed them – no need to remind you that feeding grain to ruminant herbivores is absurd from all but an industrial farming perspective, not only deeply cruel to the animal but massively wasteful.

    I haven’t read Mr Leslie’s book – try ing to get hold of it – but if he doesn’t make this distinction then I’d have to hand it a fail.

    Many assumptions are made about eating meat which are usually wrong-headedf in that they always assume we are going to put meat at the centre of the plate and eat only industrially farmed animals.

    What I’ increasingly interested in is accurately quantifying the environmental cost of the world turning vegetarian. I have yet to see the figures.


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