With the possible exception of one chapter, Meat: A Benign Extravagance is not a scorching anti-veganism polemic. In looking at the environmental consequences of what we eat and how we produce it, author Simon Fairlie tallies up plenty of points in veganism’s favor. The man is so hard to pin down that many vegans thought his 2008 article “Can Britain Feed Itself?” – a version of which became Chapter 9 of this book – was an endorsement of a vegan society. This is because Fairlie showed that every incarnation of vegan agriculture freed up more land than any system that included livestock. It is more nutritionally efficient to eat grains than to eat animals, Fairlie grants, and that usually includes animals raised on pasture.

Nevertheless, Fairlie endorses a world with livestock, and his reasoning is more complex than “Cows turn inedible grass into meat.” After all, you could always grow nut trees instead of grass. The most significant problems he has with veganism are more aesthetic than environmental. The sterile, industrialized vegan dream with its wide expanses of checkered vegetable patches gaped at by humans in tractors fails to inspire him. “[I]f the human race can only be saved from global warming by living on a diet of turkey-less twizzlers,” he writes, “one wonders if it is really worth saving.” (187)

A “Primal Strip” fake-jerky-fueled humanity is enough to sour Fairlie on the vegan project, but he’s not a fan of simplistic and misleading environmental arguments either. Grains are more efficient than meat, he concedes, and he says this makes meat a luxury. But it is a more nutritionally efficient one than plenty of other extravagances that vegans allow, such as coffee, wine, baby corn, chocolate, tea, strawberries and asparagus. “There is a suspicion here that some who single out meat for environmental stricture on this account do so to add weight to previously held moral objections to killing animals,” Fairlie says. (12) 

Until veganism demands that we drink only water, eat only potatoes, grains and beans, and give up pets, cars and airplanes—requiring a subsistence diet and lifestyle of its followers—there is no force behind the gloating vegan catchphrase, “You can’t be an environmentalist if you eat meat.”

As untenable as the environmental case for veganism appears under Fairlie’s scrutiny, he doesn’t offer meat eaters a gift basket of talking points to flick at vegans during online shouting matches. His defenses of animal agriculture and permaculture are rife with caveats and nuances that make them tricky to summarize. This book is not a collection of every bad thing Fairlie could think to say about shunning animal products. That may disappoint those looking for an anti-veganism blood match, but it makes him all the more credible. Meat: A Benign Extravagance may only bruise veganism, but it’s a bruise that will not soon heal.

His fair treatment of veganism has more to do with intellectual honesty than admiration; it would be wrong to say that Fairlie regards the vegan ethic as positive, harmless or irrelevant. If he thought that, he wouldn’t have engaged it so much. In fact, he could have written a book like this without mentioning vegans at all. Factory farming could have been the sole counterpoint to his sustainable farming ideal—he has nothing but contempt for intensive, industrialized farming—yet he feels the vegan minority is a force to reckon with. Even if we manage to get back to a farming Fairlie could approve of, he knows that wouldn’t be the end of the fight—there are still those who say we should never use animals at all. And Fairlie thinks we should be wary of them:

Those of us who value the natural world, and more especially our relations with members of the animal kingdom, both wild and domestic, would do well to keep an eye on the vegan agenda, for it may not turn out to be quite as meek, disinterested and innocuous as it might seem. (231)

Fairlie agrees with vegans that our relationship to nature, animals and agriculture is dysfunctional. But in a way he sees vegans advocating a world that is even more dysfunctional than what we have now, not less.

In the entry “We Mostly Agree” on Vegan SoapboxElaine Vigneault says that vegans shouldn’t waste time proselytizing to anti-factory-farming omnivores like Fairlie because his goals and veganism are basically aligned. Fairlie begs to differ. In Chapter 15 (excerpted here), he vividly imagines a vegan world as an overdeveloped, walled-off dystopia that he disparagingly calls “soybean civilization,” its swelling populace packed into cities, fed on lab-cultured meat and vegetable protein isolate: the inevitable progression of a desk-bound, industrialized, fossil-fueled society of consumers running (well, driving) scared from bloody and cruel nature.

According to vegan philosopher Alex Melonas, “There isn’t anything inherently ‘good’ about ‘nature’; ‘nature’ is merely, and I mean merely, the ‘is’ in the is/ought fallacy.” So maybe vegans won’t find Fairlie’s vision all that alarming… at least the ones who realize nature is nothing more than the lesser half of a notorious logical fallacy. 

Before he arrives at his aesthetic objections to a life of turkey-less twizzlers, Fairlie challenges vegans on their data. One prized vegan talking point is that raising livestock requires an obscene amount of water. An oft-cited statistic is that every kilo of beef requires 100,000 liters of water. Based on his own experience raising cattle, Fairlie suspects this figure is overblown, and he turns out to be right. Researchers devised it by including rainfall in their calculations, since all that water gets into the grass that cows eat. Mismanaged irrigation can potentially be a problem, Fairlie points out, but there’s nothing wrong with a cow consuming water from the sky. It’s not as if that water is destroyed foreverafter a few twists and turns it passes right on through and reunites with the environment.

In 2006, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which attributed 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to livestock. Many vegan and vegetarian advocates still cite this as a damning condemnation of meat.

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer wrote:

More recent and authoritative studies by the United Nations and the Pew Commission show conclusively that globally, farmed animals contribute more to climate change than transport. According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector—cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships—combined. …

In other words, if one cares about the environment, and if one accepts the scientific results of such sources as the UN (or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or the Pew Commission, or the Union of Concerned Scientists, or the World Watch Institute…), one must care about eating animals. (58-59)

In the notes, Foer adds that the 18 percent figure “is actually known to be low, as the UN did not include the greenhouse gases associated with live transport.”

Foer expects reasonable people to trust research from reputable authorities such as the UN, and as a reasonable person, this is exactly what Foer did. Fairlie is less reasonable, it seems. And rather than find the 18 percent figure low, as Foer says it is “known to be,” he found it rather reminiscent of the supposed water requirements of cattle. 

He wrote a short rebuttal to the report in 2008, and in Meat he elaborates.

It turns out that a good chunk of these greenhouse emissions, perhaps as much as half, are due to Amazonian deforestation. That’s misleading for a number of reasons. One is that not all meat is Brazilian rain forest beef (the rain forest cattle represent 5 percent of the world’s beef supply and 1.5 percent of the world’s animal products), yet the study uses greenhouse gas emissions from this extreme case to raise the emissions of animal agriculture on the whole. Stop deforestation in the Amazon and suddenly the emissions from livestock arbitrarily plummets to something closer to 9 or 10 percent.

And Fairlie isn’t convinced that livestock farmers are entirely to blame for the deforestation. Rising soybean prices, not beef demand, seems to be the main culprit. And while it’s true that much of that soy becomes cattle feed, and meat demand drove earlier deforestation, it’s arguably biofuel demand elsewhere now raising the cost of soy and pressuring the soybean farmers and ranchers further into the Amazon. Plus, cows don’t eat the whole unprocessed soybean — like vegans often do, they eat the isolated protein. The environmental cost of soy oil, which represents half the value of the soybean, has to be placed elsewhere, but the report fails to do this.  

In any case, the deforestation hasn’t kept up with the FAO’s predictions. This in itself makes their percentage too high, since their figures assumed that deforestation would remain steady. This trend may or may not hold, but one interesting thing about it is that meat eating has increased as deforestation (and thus emissions) decreases. This is because deforestation helps the expansion of beef and soy farming, but doesn’t directly correlate to current levels of meat eating. Deforestation of any given area is a one-time event, and once the land is cleared, you can farm there for some time; whether more land is cleared or not doesn’t affect that. 

Fairlie also charges that the FAO report ignores opportunity costs. Wiping out domesticated animals wouldn’t simply delete all the emissions tangled up with them. Some of this ecological pressure would tumble elsewhere. To make up for the lack of animal fat and protein, there would be an increase in vegetable oil and vegetable protein production, both of which have a larger ecological footprint than grains. Another change would be an increase in the wild ruminent population, which would also eat into the methane savings of abolishing domesticated brutes.

Not that the FAO report suggests abolishing food animals. Vegans like to see the report as an indictment of all meat, but in Fairlie’s view, the goal of “Livestock’s Long Shadow” is to help rebrand the villain in the global warming debate, downplaying the role of fossil fuels and shifting the blame to methane, encouraging an even greater move from a more subsistence, pasture-based farming toward concentrated feedlots, which are heavily dependent on fossil fuels but more efficient on methane.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but its duration is shorter than CO2’s. Reducing methane emissions, Fairlie says, is good an in emergency, but when it comes to long-term climate change, we should worry most about the emissions from burning fossil fuels. Methane is a natural result of ruminents roaming the Earth (something that has been going on for some time now without it causing major issues). Global warming, on the other hand, became a threat after we started dabbling in fossil fuels. 

Fairlie writes:

The exaggerated emphasis on the alleged four or five per cent of GHGs emitted by cattle, and the mendacious rhetoric about cows causing more global warming than cars, look suspiciously like an attempt to shift some of the blame for global warming from below ground to above ground, from fossil fuels to the natural biosphere, from the town to the country and from the rich nations to the poor. (184)

But Fairlie doesn’t only tear down vegan arguments. Much of his book explains what he sees as good about an agricultural system that includes animals. 

One reason to keep animals around, Fairlie says, is to provide manure for fertilizing crops. Some assume that manure is not just a plus—it’s a necessity—but vegan permaculture advocates say green manure (plants grown in rotation with crops to sequester nitrogen from the atmosphere) proves this isn’t so, and Fairlie agrees. Nutrients do not need to pass through an animal to nourish the earth.

However, there are nice things about manure that a livestock-free system would lose. Veganic agriculture, while requiring less land overall than one with livestock, requires more arable land in order to accomodate the green manure. And processing vegetable compost is labor intensive and tends to rely on fossil fuels. Animals don’t create fertility, but they do a good job of transporting and processing it by eating grass on land that could not be so easily cultivated, and conveniently dropping these retrieved nutrients on arable land. Another advantage is that this manure contains phosphorus, which green manure can’t extract from the environment, leaving veganic farmers fewer options for replenishing it.

But meat is inefficient. Most vegans will tell you this, and Fairlie would too. The common figure for vegetable input to animal product output is 10:1, and while Fairlie shows that the reality is variable and may even approach 1:1 when animals are fed on materials humans can’t or won’t eat and all the animal parts get used, he doesn’t deny that plants are generally a more efficient source of nutrition than animals. (Where he differs with vegans is the conclusion he draws from this.)

And like Jonathan Safran Foer, Fairlie stresses the ecological importance of eating less meat. But while Foer believes meat consumption can never be reduced enough, Fairlie pinpoints the bare minimum where reducing meat consumption any further leads to massively diminished returns because doing so means refusing free meat. Fairlie calls this point a default livestock system, which he defines as “one that provides meat, dairy and other animal products which arise as the integral co-product of an agricultural system dedicated to the provision of sustainable vegetable nourishment.” (42)  

Under default livestock, animals are not raised for food and food alone. Their meat, eggs and milk are a welcome byproduct of their conscripted aid in the farming of vegetables. The animals provide labor, they bring otherwise inaccessible nutrients into the food chain through manure and they serve as a food bank. No dedicated crops are grown for them—their diets are mainly waste or grass—but if there is a surplus, it goes to the animals. And then when they need to, humans kill the animals and make their withdrawal.

Putting food into animals that humans could eat directly is not the most efficient way to produce calories and proteins, Fairlie says, but that’s okay because the inefficiency works in our favor. This is because it serves as a deterrent to overpopulation. With so many extra mouths to feed in the form of livestock, there isn’t as much cheap food immediately available for humans, and we have fewer children.

Vegans might protest that when people are starving, it is irresponsible not to provide nutrition as efficiently as we can. Fairlie concurs but sees this as a point in favor of livestock, because in a crisis we have the flexibility to kill the least efficient animals, providing meat as well as redirecting the feed the animals would have eaten. More risky is a vegan policy of full-blown nutritional efficiency all the time, because this gives no wiggle room if crops fail. Livestock owners in a fix can kill cattle to temporarily improve efficiency, but if a crisis hits the vegan world, there is nothing to kill but each other.

Greater human population expansion, fewer outlets for waste, irretrievable nutrients on non-arable land, over-efficiency and a tendency to rely more on fossil fuels are probably the greatest ecological flaws Fairlie sees in a vegan world. Since regulations could cap population growth in a future where food efficiency has peaked, centralized storage of grain surpluses could reduce the risk of famine and renewable energy could finish off fossil fuels, this is not a damning indictment of a vegan future, much less anyone’s choice to be vegan now, which Fairlie does say can decrease your ecological footprint.

This might not give much solace to vegans who need to believe their lifestyle is superior in every way. Vegans who know that they can’t make much of an impact by changing their personal consumption habits at least had the consolation that they were representing the best of all worlds. By convincingly describing a system with animals that is at least as ecologically friendly as veganism, if not more so, environmental veganism on an individual level — already meaningless in a practical sense — becomes meaningless in a symbolic sense too.

What could prove even more dispiriting for vegans, perhaps, is Fairlie’s grim fantasy of a world filled with animal product abstainers too terrified to touch nature for fear that it (or they) might break. The vegan world he imagines is no haven for animal lovers, and that makes sense. Liberating animals isn’t the same as liberating humans. Animals cannot join us as equal members of our society; they either can’t or don’t interact with us on that level. Instead, the final result of veganism is human/animal separatism:

Nature is cruel. By rejecting cruelty, by choosing not to eat nor to kill fauna, the vegan forces the greater part of the animal kingdom into exile from the human world, on the other side of the fence. Not only the prey must go, but also the bulk of the pests must somehow be persuaded to stay there. Within the vegan reconstruction of nature there is space only for pets, ‘companion animals’ who are compliant with the vegan norm. (221 – 222)

And for some vegans, there isn’t even room for those. Funny that an ideology built on compassion for animals leads to an absolute rejection of them, in contrast to one that allows animal use (or as vegans say, animal slavery):

A mixed farming system provides more natural landscape than pure arable farming, is less mechanized, and gives humans greater contact with nature. Why should this be so? The answer is that mixed farming, like nature, is complex, whereas pure arable farming (whether it be for animals in feedlots or for vegans in cities) removes an entire order of creation from the system. Moreover it is the order which is closest to humanity, which gallops and gives birth and suckles, which feels pain and anger and joy. Famers talk to their animals and give names to them, perhaps not to all of them but almost always to some of them. What vegetable farmer ever gave a name to a cabbage? (221) 

There is room for vegans in the default livestock system that Fairlie advocates, and in most ways vegans might prefer it to what we have now. There would be no factory farming and far fewer animals being killed and eaten. Fairley even imagines vegan farms operating next to default livestock operations. But I have to wonder whether there even would be vegans anymore. They would have lost their most powerful recruiting tool, the excessive cruelty of factory farms. And meat production would already be so minimal that vegans couldn’t decrease it more by abstaining. The effective result of consuming only plants would be to free a portion of the limited meat supply for other people to enjoy. It wouldn’t be easy for vegans to fool themselves into thinking there was a point.  

What many will object to, vegans and omnivores alike, is that Fairlie would have us undo a good chunk of industrial and technological progress, which he sees as largely overrated and poisonous. He enjoys being outside and mowing grass with a scythe, and he’s happy to teach us how.

This is a contrast to the more civilization friendly solution offered by Brooklyn scribe Jonathan Safran Foer, who would like to seat us around a Thanksgiving table and serve Chana Masala and African peanut soup as we talk about how ethical we are and what it all means. Foer even tells his readers exactly what they must do – stop eating animals. Those who find Fairlie’s vision more compelling aren’t going to usher it in just by shopping for lard at the farmers market (though that wouldn’t hurt). Fairlie implies that the best thing we can do is to venture out of our cities to the land and work. Failing that, we could always invent a solar-powered flux capacitor.   

Meat: A Benign Extravagance is the second book positioning itself against vegan claims in recent years, with Lierre Keith’s influential The Vegetarian Myth being the first. Keith’s take is more passionate, disputing the health, environmental and ethical arguments of veganism with the still sizzling resentment of someone who found her health severely compromised after 20 years of veganism. Fairlie’s writing is drier and more factual but with flashes of acerbic wit, sticking mostly to the environment and letting ethical opinions leak through. Yet Fairlie and Keith have something in common – they both see veganism as a logical (and unfortunate) conclusion of the march of civilization. 

It’s true that human veganism could not exist without civilization, at least not for very long, if only because vegans need science and industry to provide B12 supplements. The isolated vegetable proteins and fats that make veganism reasonably palatable to a species that evolved as omnivores are important too. The question is, has civilization finally made it possible to satisfy the innate urge for veganism that a minority of humans have always had, or is this urge something that civilization creates?

Vegetarianism has existed for a long time, but there was no notable vegan movement until the Vegan Society formed in early 1940s Britain. It can’t have been the fear of b-12 deprivation stemming the compassion tide before then, since b-12 wasn’t discovered until the late 1940s. A long-frustrated human desire to give up all animal products can’t explain why veganism has been catching on only in the last 70 years.

Neither can I, but Fairlie’s overlap with Keith makes it fun to theorize.  

By encouraging urbanization and limiting farming jobs and other outdoor work, technological progress creates an invisible barrier between our world and nature, a wall that Fairlie envisions becoming physical in a vegan world. Companion pets, nature shows and anthropomorphized cartoons are our main exposure to animal life. Hunting is for hicks and gun nuts, and even meat eaters don’t like hunters. We eat meat, but organ meats, insects, gristle and even chunks of fat disgust us. We’re sheltered from death and these cuts are “too real.” Factory farming provides perpetual mountains of anonymous animal flesh, allowing us to gather the safe parts we like and throw out the rest, sparing ourselves the sight of the full dead animal, with no clue where this detached muscle meat came from or who killed it. For all we know, these detached hunks may as well have come from a plant (“Oh my God, an animal died for this,” is the revelation preceding many vegetarian conversions), and the switch to soy meat is hardly radical at all. If life is becoming more sanitized and fake, it’s only natural that we choose the diet to match.

Fairlie writes:

The scientists working on lab-grown meat can recognize an expanding market when they see one and the vegan/vegetarian market is tailored for their needs. Artificial meat, made, not from animal tissue, but from spun soya protein, has been around for several decades, and this in turn is a descendent of the ‘nut cutlets’ which gave vegetarians in the middle years of the 20th century the opportunity to sink their teeth into something at least analogous to flesh. Leafu (a paste extracted from inedible grasses or other plants), soya milk and soft margarine are all to a greater or lesser degree part of the same tendency. … At a time when the organic sector of the green movement is campaigning for slow food, real meat and fresh local produce, the vegan/vegetarian camp has been nudging the industry in the very opposite direction: towards factory farming and factory food. Cultured muscle tissue is the dream product that lies at the end of this road. (228) …

We are what we eat, and by eating animals we help to ensure that we ourselves remain animals, participants in the food chain that momentarily we head before we too become flesh for worms. As we detach ourselves from the natural world, it fades to a spectral image, glimpsed through the windscreen of a car or the screen of a computer, a world we can no longer be part of because we are too squeamish to partake of it. … [F]or those of us who lament this tragedy, there is at least one consolation: that for some time to come there will be poachers lurking in the woods, for the vegans and the wildlife managers will never catch them all. (231)