At Monkton Wyld Court, a commune in Dorset, Simon Fairlie was eating a vegetarian lunch of soup with bread and butter – just like everybody else. Well, not everybody ate the bread, because that contained wheat. And the butter was not acceptable to vegans. But the point to emphasise is that nobody was eating meat when the Sunday Times paid a visit.
And that’s fine by Fairlie. But he did come to live among the eco-warriors and alternative-lifestylers at Monkton Wyld Court, a few months ago, to look after the livestock. And now he’s published a book that threatens to blow apart the green consensus that raising animals to eat them is a bad thing.
Mealtimes at the commune could be about to turn rather awkward.
But this doesn’t only affect beardie-wierdies. Fairlie’s book forensically dismantles a number of views that have entered the mainstream about the wastefulness and emissions associated with animal husbandry.
Only last October, the economist Lord Stern declared that, to save the planet, we must stop eating meat.
But Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, in London, says: “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, landcare or diet. Simon Fairlie offers a wonderful and challenging corrective.”
The environmentalist George Monbiot, has argued forcefully for a switch to vegan diets. He’s attacked more than once in Fairlie’s book. Despite this, the book persuaded Monbiot to rethink: “I was wrong about veganism,” he wrote recently. “Let them eat meat – but farm it properly.”
For changing his mind, Monbiot was at once attacked by former allies: “He clearly feels that it is ethically acceptable to kill some animals for food, even when his own life is not at risk,” sniffed the Vegan Society.
The director of the animal rights campaign group, Peta, said Monbiot had been “taken in” by “the latest attempt to justify meat-eating”. There are countless reasons why we should all go vegan, said Poorva Joshipura, Peta’s director, and not a single plausible one why we shouldn’t.
But what exactly is Fairlie saying? He’s certainly no fan of factory farms. Nor does he think we can carry on eating as much meat as we do. But he doesn’t think we should give it up.
Fairlie, 59, has an unfashionably gruff manner, dresses in old tweedy jacket with ragged cuffs, and appears to waste no more time than absolutely necessary on grooming. He describes himself as an “enthusiastic carnivore”, but doesn’t eat meat all the time. “That would take away the excitement of frying up the liver from the pig you have just slaughtered,” he says.
He has spent years writing about this subject – as an editor of The Ecologist and more recently in trenchant stories, heroically well researched, for the magazine he edits, The Land. He inherited robust prose from his father, the legendary political journalist Henry Fairlie (who coined the phrase, ‘the establishment’). And he knows a thing or two about livestock because he’s worked with animals since joining his first commune, after dropping out of Cambridge University.
For six years, he was a vegetarian. “But I was faced with its inconsistency when I started keeping goats. What was to be done with the male kids?” They wouldn’t produce milk or offspring, so Fairlie ate them and became a born-again carnivore (“the worst kind”).
Animals are often described as a “wasteful” way to eat: you could feed more people out of a field full of soya than a field with livestock. But the wastefulness derives from our unwillingness to use the whole beast. In The Goldrush, Charlie Chaplin boiled up his boots to eat them with knife and fork. Things haven’t got that bad in Nigeria yet, says Fairlie, but leather producers there are worried by the growing popularity of a delicacy made with boiled cow hides.
In the UK we are too dainty for such fare, and have even gone off soaps made with animal fat; as a result, rainforest is sacrificed for the production of palm oil.
Animals put on fat to keep warm, whereas plants contain oil to stop seeds drying out – thus animal fats are abundant in northern Europe and vegetable oils elsewhere. While others rush to embrace local food, British vegans – and vegetarians who won’t use lard or dripping – are heavily reliant on fats and protein from far away.
For about ten years, Fairlie lived in another commune that he chooses to call Happy Valley. It aspired towards self-sufficiency but spent about £200 a fortnight importing olive oil, sunflower oil, margarine, peanut butter, tahini, soya milk and yoghurt, nuts, chick peas, beans, lentils, molasses, dried fruit, rice, quinoa and more.
Meanwhile the grass and dairy operation on site – for which Fairlie was responsible – produced perhaps 350 kilos of meat, dripping and lard a year. “We were producing, from grass, a substantial proportion of the protein and fat that we required for our nutrition, but this was shunned. Instead we imported it from countries where people go hungry.”
To research the book, Fairlie did not splodge around farms or trek across savannah. “The work consisted of a trawl through what academics pompously call ‘the literature’. The only time I get my hands dirty is when I try to sift out the bullshit.”
He’s contemptuous about statistics underpinning the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, which suggested that farm animals generate 18 per cent of human-generated global warming gases – more than transport. Fairlie suspects the FAO bumped up the figure to win more publicity.
He demolishes a statistic banded about by Monbiot, Jonathan Porritt and others – to the effect that producing a kilo of beef requires 100,000 litres of water.
“Let’s apply this to Bramley, a steer I had the pleasure of rearing,” says Fairlie. “When he was slaughtered he provided over 125 kilos of meat. That means he consumed 12,500 tonnes of water in his 16-months life, or 25,000 litres on each day of his life. How he managed to achieve this feat I am at a loss to explain. Anyway, it’s not as though he locked all this water up in his little body so that nobody else could use it.”
Turning to the plight of the pig in the nanny state, Fairlie argues that pigs could become an asset in the fight against climate change, instead of a burden.
After the emergence of BSE, many people were revolted to discover that government allowed cows and sheep – which are herbivores – to be fed rendered meat and bone meal. Whereupon the government overreacted, Fairlie argues, by banning the practice and also forbidding farmers to feed animal waste to pigs. But pigs are omnivores: why shouldn’t they eat slaughterhouse waste?
In 2001 the foot and mouth outbreak was traced to a farm that had illegally fed pigs uncooked swill. Instead of cracking down to ensure swill was properly cooked, the government banned feeding swill to pigs altogether. Then the EU followed suit. Thus a 9,000-year-old recycling industry was regulated out of existence. Today, rainforest is felled to grow soya instead.
Keepers are forbidden to feed pigs even kitchen scraps – though this was encouraged during WW2 and generated vast amounts of extra food. If we fed waste food to pigs instead of burning or burying it, Britain could produce an additional 800,000 tonnes of pork each year – about a sixth of today’s entire annual meat consumption.
Animal rights groups say these problems can be avoided by shunning meat. Fairlie disagrees. “A vegan diet, laudable though it may be for the individual, is neither sensible nor attainable for society as a whole.”
Every agricultural system, he explains, produces surplus, waste and otherwise hard-to-use biomass that is best kept in the food chain by feeding to livestock. Meat or dairy produced in this fashion has little or no additional environmental impact. Fairlie calls this “default livestock”, and calculates that it could provide about a third of the animal protein currently enjoyed in “overdeveloped” countries.
Animals kept on small farms produce benefits – fertilising soil and managing predators and pests. Only with factory farming does muck cease to be an essential component of the farming cycle and become a waste-disposal problem.
But surely a move towards a more vegan diet in the UK would release grassland currently dedicated to sheep and cows for other uses – tree planting, biofuel production or wildlife?
“Yes, but the roles that animals play in a fossil-fuel free environment go beyond the mere provision of meat and milk. They are the best means we have of keeping wide areas clear and open to solar energy and wind energy. They harness biomass and recycle waste that would otherwise be a disposal problem. And they’re the main means we have of ensuring that the phosphate which leaks out from our land is brought back into the food chain.”
If we all turned vegan, how would we deal with wild boar digging up gardens, deer destroying trees, squirrels crawling over nut plantations, badgers rolling wheat fields, pigeons, slugs and carrot fly attacking vegetables? “Most vegans are currently protected from the ravages of pests through the discreet measures being taken by the rest of society. If animals are culled, why not eat them? Culling is either hunting, or else it is a waste of good food.”
The only alternative would be to cut off humans from the animal kingdom altogether, using impenetrable fences.
Fairlie’s dismissal of other people’s ideas is impressive. What does he propose instead?
His ideal would be for the entire country to be farmed organically, on small farms. He insists this could feed us perfectly well – we’d have to cut meat consumption by half, but dairy would remain about the same.
But it will never happen. “Not by outlawing chemical farming,” he agrees, “but simply reversing priorities – making organic farming the standard procedure and chemical farming the certifiable exception. At the moment organic farmers have to prove they are organic, at great expense, while chemical farmers can just get on the phone and order a drum of weedkiller.
“Penalizing good practice is a bizarre way to encourage it. We don’t make bicyclists and pedestrians prove that they don’t drive, and then award them a certificate – we make motorists buy a licence. If farmers had to apply for a licence to use chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and food in supermarkets was assumed to be organic unless it had a label saying it wasn’t, the tables would be turned.
“Without in any way restricting the public’s right to choose, organically produced food would become the norm again, and farmers would be keener to manage manure and nutrients efficiently – and achieve a balance between livestock and arable on their farms.”
Fairlie dismantles four myths
Livestock create more emissions than transport
The UN calculation that livestock generate 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire transport infrastructure – contains basic mistakes, says Fairlie. It attributes all deforestation that culminates in cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle; muddles up one-off emissions from deforestation with ongoing pollution; and confuses gross and net production of nitrous oxide and methane.
Producing a kilo of beef costs 100,000 litres of water
Many greens thoughtlessly repeat this statistic. It’s nonsense, says Fairlie – it implies a daily intake of around 25,000 litres per cow. “There is no doubt some virtue in calculating the amount of rain that falls on a the land a beef cow occupies, but if the cow wasn’t there the grass would still grow, and rabbits or deer would graze it and consume the same theoretical amounts.”
Pigs should not be allowed to eat food waste
Governments that don’t understand animal husbandry have forbidden feeding kitchen or slaughterhouse waste to omnivorous pigs. As a result, European pigs are mostly fed GM soya from North America or non-GM soya from the Amazon. If the law was changed, and we fed all our food waste to pigs, Britain could enjoy another 800,000 tonnes of pork each year.
Meat production is inefficient
It’s widely believed that the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is 5 to 1 or as high as 10 to 1. If you feed animals only food that humans could eat, that may be true. But animals also eat food we can’t eat, such as grass. “If you stopped feeding grain to animals (apart from surplus in good 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.” The real conversion figure, Fairlie believes, is 1.4 to 1.