I heard about Simon Fairlie thanks to George Monbiot’s column in The Guardian on Monday, “I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly.” Fairlie is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, a book that caused vegan advocate (but non-vegan) Monbiot to withdraw his support for the no-animal-products-for-anyone-ever vegan model in favor of a system that includes some sustainably raised animal foods. Meat is currently out in the UK and Chelsea Green Publishing will release it in the US sometime in January 2011. Here is their description for it:

Meat is an exploration of the difficult environmental, ethical and health issues surrounding the human consumption of animal flesh. It lays out in detail the reasons why we must decrease the amount of meat we eat, both for the planet and for ourselves, and explores how different forms of agriculture shape our landscape and culture. At the heart of this book, Fairlie argues that society needs to reorient itself back to the land, both physically and spiritually, and explains why an agriculture that can most readily achieve this is one that includes a measure of livestock farming. Meat, animals and dairy have been in the firing line for so long that in some circles, the assumption is taken for granted that there is no case, ever, anywhere, to be made for the role of animals in farming, land care or diet. This book is a wonderful and challenging correction.

Fairlie was formerly an agricultural worker, stonemason and co-editor of The Ecologist Magazine, and is now director of Chapter 7 (“a UK organization which campaigns to provide access to land for all households through environmentally sound planning”) and co-editor of The Land magazine. He also sells scythes through The Scythe Shop.

simon fairlie

Did the George Monbiot column do a good job of summarizing your points in Meat: A Benign Extravagance? Did he get anything wrong?

I think he did a good job of summarizing it. But a lot of my conclusions are more nuanced than can be brought out in 1200 words (that is why it is a book). Judging from readers’ comments on the Guardian site, some people have got the wrong end of the stick about one or two things.

For example, George writes “the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1.” It is not entirely clear what this means and several people on the website say “I don’t believe it,” probably because they think it means that the average food conversion ratio is 2:1. In fact the FAO figure is about 1.4 to 1. What it means is that if you divide the total amount of human edible food fed to animals by the total amount of food we get from animals, the figure is 1.4. This is because a lot of animals are not fed on human edible food, and they almost make up for the 10:1, 5:1 or 3:1 conversion ratios involved in feeding grain to animals.

If you stopped feeding grain to animals (apart from the grain surplus in good years, which is a necessary buffer against crop failure in poor years), you would get less meat, but all this meat would constitute a net addition to human food supplies while releasing enough grain to feed hungry people.

Some vegans predict that Meat: A Benign Extravagance will make meat eaters feel justified in continuing their normal meat eating ways, even if they eat mostly factory farmed meat. Do you think that’s a danger in any defense of meat eating, even when you make a point of criticizing factory farming?  

I think this is a fair comment. On the other hand, if all the vegetarians and vegans in the UK instead demanded high-quality, sustainable, humane meat, that would create a lot more pressure on the meat industry to shape up. I did write a chapter on these issues which was probably more critical of gung-ho meat eaters than it was of vegans, but that got cut because the book was getting too long.

Are there any merits to factory farming?

No. The only excuse is that it provides cheap protein for poor urban people, but these are people who have been dispossessed of their land by the very agricultural system that has developed factory farming.

Is the animal suffering due to factory farming a problem, or is it mainly the environmental aspect that bothers you?

I don’t like the animal suffering either. I don’t like seeing animals caged or cramped for long periods of time, especially to the point where it causes psychological or health problems. This seems worse to me than killing them swiftly.

Steven Davis argued that eating certain kinds of animal products could potentially lead to the deaths of fewer animals than an agricultural-based veganism. Scientists found flaws in his research, but do you see any scenario where eating animal products might kill fewer animals than veganism?

I’m afraid I don’t have a big problem with killing animals for food providing the species as a whole is not at risk. I suspect felling tropical forests for palm oil kills more animals than rearing pigs on waste for lard, and puts more species at risk.

Vegans might say the argument that killing animals is okay if the species survives wouldn’t go over very well if applied to humans. Would you classify yourself as a speciesist?

I make some references to Peter Singer’s use of the term in the book. I also went into more detail on this in the section that was cut from the book, viz:

"I have no problem with people who refuse to eat meat because they do not want to be responsible for killing animals; as a former vegetarian, and a bit of a wimp, I can very easily understand how they came to that conclusion. I do have a problem with people who think that no one should eat meat, or rather they have a problem with me. I particularly take issue with the ‘Meat is Murder’ brigade, because the useful function of the word ‘murder’ is to make a distinction between the deliberate killing of a human being and the deliberate killing of any other living creature. If you obliterate that distinction, you undermine a foundation of human society: cannibal becomes synonymous with carnivore, and the culling of humans and rats can be carried out with equal impunity. If that is speciesism, then so be it, I am a speciesist."

A common vegan argument is that the only reason people eat meat instead of going vegan is for “taste, tradition and convenience.” Do you think that’s true? And if so, are those reasons enough to justify killing animals for food?

No, many people eat meat and dairy because they find it more nourishing.

Taste and convenience are not particularly strong reasons (unless you are a gourmet or an impecunious workaholic), but “tradition” is. Tradition derives from culture and culture derives from the land and how we manage it: agriculture is the root of all cultures except hunting and pastoral ones. Most people eat meat because of traditional land management systems that have evolved over centuries, and insofar as these systems remain viable and sustainable, as a society we should continue to maintain them.

What are some of the problems (if any) with this year’s U.N. report advocating a global shift toward a vegan diet?

I would agree with the main thrust of the report that collectively we should eat less animal protein. What we do eat needs to be distributed more equitably.

Recently a Swedish study was published suggesting that nutritional density has been overlooked in the comparison between the environmental costs of various foods. Would taking nutritional density into account help exonerate animal products from their reputation as environmental villains? 

To an extent. A widely accepted figure seems to be that animal protein is 1.4 times as valuable as vegetable protein. However, people who are getting enough calories are often getting enough protein anyway. My own experience is that when I am on a vegetarian diet I eat a lot more in volume, especially for manual work.

How often do you eat a vegetarian diet?

I was vegetarian for six years in my youth — keeping goats for milk and having to deal with the male kids changed my mind. I now live and mostly eat in a community where the kitchen is strictly vegetarian, but meat can be eaten in people’s private quarters.

Have you ever been vegan for a notable length of time? 

I once did a week of Euro-veganism (ie, no tropical products) at “The Mudguard of the Revolution Summer Camp.” I felt pretty short of energy, but that might have been because there was no sugar either.

In “Can Britain Feed Itself?,” you wrote that with non-organic veganism, “One hectare of arable land feeds 20 people.” Second place was non-organic with livestock, with one hectare of arable land feeding 14 people. Some people took that as an endorsement of veganism for environmental reasons, but in your conclusion you seemed skeptical of a vegan solution. If non-organic veganism could feed more people with the least amount of land, where does it go wrong?

The difference between organic livestock and organic vegan is much more slight (7.5 people compared with 8) so this is really a question for supporters of non-organic farming.

Environmental arguments in favour of chemical vegan farming are pushing us towards a highly intensive and industrialized agrochemical industry where people are divorced from the land, herded into cities and fed on processed junk food made from spun vegetable protein. Something of the kind is described in James’ Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. Personally I find this scenario highly unatttractive and if it is deemed necessary because there are so many of us, I would rather see more rigorous population control and more sympathetic farming methods.

Also in that report you posed a challenge to vegans:

"I have so far failed to find any vegan land-use vision that maps out in detail what might be done with the large areas of UK land that would be liberated or abandoned, depending on your viewpoint, if we all turned vegan. So, vegan permaculturists, we know you are out there, here is your chance. Fill in the blank area on Table G — all 9 million hectares of it — with whatever land uses you think are most appropriate, and we’ll publish your ‘Vegan Vision for Rural Britain’ in a future issue of The Land."

Did you receive any satisfying suggestions?

In the following issue of The Land (No 5), Jenny Hall wrote an article on stockless Britain. In my view it didn’t analyze in detail what the texture of our countryside would look like, beyond “more trees, more wildlife” etc. I don’t know of any vegan analysis which looks at how we could farm and manage the countryside without benefiting from domestic animals as nutrient recyclers and without culling wild animals and combatting pests, or explains what it would look like under such a regime.

One of the obstacles for vegan permaculture is the lack of animal manure. Would wild animals contribute a viable amount of that? 

It is not manure which matters but nutrient accumulation, which can be achieved without passing the nutrients through an animal’s gut, for example by green manures. However animals are by far the best means we have for capturing the nutrients that find their way onto land that is not being cultivated, and particularly for recuperating phosphates. A fully sustainable organic system of agriculture requires animals herded on outlying land to to be folded on arable land or in the stockyard at night. Hunting wild animals would not achieve this.

Could vegan permaculture feed the entire world sustainably?

I think it would have problems recycling phosphates and other nutrients (unless animals were kept for that purpose without eating them, which would be expensive), and problems with pests. Some areas without arable resources would become unable to support their populations. 

What are some of the most environmentally friendly animals to raise for food?

Pigs, or indeed any animals fed on waste; dairy cows on grassland that we want to keep as grass—or that is the fertility building part of an arable rotation, or that will not grow trees.

Would there be less waste if more people developed a taste for offal?

Yes, and even more so if they regained a taste for animal fat, and used animal fat soap.

What else can people do (along with changing their consumption habits) to work toward a more sustainable food system?

Produce sustainable local food. There is a large movement in the UK, and I gather in the US, to increase food production in cities, though I also believe more people should be producing local food in the countryside. They could also be lobbying for legislative changes (e.g., rescinding the ban on giving waste food to pigs, and changing the rules so that chemical farmers are the ones who require licensing and labeling, rather than organic farmers.)

If someone is unable or unwilling to make the effort to get their animal products from small local farms, yet they care about the environment, should they go vegan?

Not really, because they will probably be unwilling or unable to ensure that these vegan products are environmentally sound.

What are some of the worst and some of the best vegan foods from an environmental perspective?

The best are ones that grow locally as part of a sustainable arable rotation, notably pulses. The worst are imported goods from poor countries where there are pressures on land and biomass.

When vegans see reasoned critiques of the health or environmental arguments for veganism, their fallback position is that veganism is only about ethics. Would you say that ethics are the only argument for veganism? Do you have any problems with the ethical vegan argument? 

I think there are some environmental arguments for veganism, particularly if you accept chemical agriculture: it does spare land for other uses.

I don’t have any problem with individuals espousing a vegan ethic, in fact that is a good thing, but I don’t think it would be wise for an entire culture, tribe or nation to become vegan. I don’t know of any entirely vegan culture, but there are cultures — notably the Hindus — where a section of the population is vegan or vegetarian, and since meat is in short supply, this is helpful, especially when it is the people who do physical labour who get the meat.

There is always a certain amount of meat and dairy produce that comes as an environmentally free byproduct of the agricultural system employed, even when that system is designed to produce vegetable crops. A large proportion of livestock in the world, especially the developing world, is fed on waste and crop residues. It is stupid for a society to reject this, but it is fine for individuals to refuse it, since it provides more food for others who may need it more.