Meat Book Club: Meat- A Benign Extravagance Part 1


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It's interesting to compare Meat : A Benign Extravagance to the Vegetarian Myth. On the surface both challange animal rights dogma, but Meat is primarily a book about economics and is far more rigorous than the Vegetarian Myth. Unfortunately one thing they have in common is that both authors adhere to philosophies that I would deem somewhat noxious to put it lightly, though Fairlie's in a bit benign.

Behind both of their philosophies is the idea that somehow humans are bad for the planet (some even call us an "invasive species"). Our pleasures are irrelevant, we are a scourge upon the goodness of nature. I first heard about Keith from a lecture given by her good friend Derrick Jensen, a misguided character who would welcome a new Black Death and advocates violence as a way to solve environmental injustice. Her association with that movement is unfortunate. Luckily Fairlie is more an acolyte of a secular form of neo-puritanism advocating the idea that we should live very simply, perhaps similar to 15th century European peasants, spurning "luxuries" and only having a few "extravagances."

But what are luxuries and what is extravagant? One lesson I've learned from studying paleolithic cultures is that humans don't really need very much. Bushmen get along quite well without houses or possessions of any kind. This family in Chad gets by with a tent, a few animals, and meager rations of gruel. Most vegans spurning meat as an arrogant luxury go home to well-lit artificially heated apartments. Why are those OK? I don't know. The whole thing seems arbitrary.

Even a ecoconscious vegan's life in the US seems extravagant compared to this family in Chad. This is their food for an entire WEEK. Their housing and clothing are very simple too.The OED says one of the meanings of extravagant is " 7. Exceeding the bounds of economy or necessity in expenditure, mode of living, etc.; profuse, prodigal, wasteful." The word comes from "medieval Latin extrāvagāt- participial stem of extrāvagārī (or extrā vagārī) to wander, stray outside limits, < extrā outside + vagārī to wander. "

So from the outset, by calling meat extravagant, we establish Fairlie as a complex character. We won't find him at either an animal rights ralley or the local Argentine steakhouse. He's kind of like an old school hippie.

It's funny because in the end people calling things luxuries are often the most arrogant. Last week I had a conversation with a vegan on a blog about The Heifer Project, which provides families in developing countries with livestock. Vegan dude was angry because Heifer sponsored a study that seemed to show that children fed animal products in developing countries did better. According to him "let them eat tofu!" Well, if folks want to chose a bicycle tofu press over a goat, that's find by me. But I suspect they won't. But that's not the point of vegan dude's views. Vegan dude thinks he knows what's best for everyone. I don't know what's best for everyone, though I suspect that goat milk is better for children than tofu. So in the end I think it should be up to people in Sudan to make that choice for themselves. Too bad the world is full of people who want to make choices for other people.

When I was a child my little sister and I sometimes fought bitterly. One day we were fighting over some candy and my mother was so frustrated that she said "Well, if you children can't share it equally, none of you can have it at all!" Besides the obvious lesson here that children who are given candy are liable to behave badly, this reminds me of some common positions in environmental debates. Namely that (insert food or agricultural practice) is bad because it can't feed the world. Sure, feeding the world is an admirable goal, but isn't it a little silly to assume that there is one system that will feed the world perfectly?

And yet,this is taken very seriously in environmental debates. I hear again and again how terrible organic is because it can't feed the world. Or how terrible meat is because of the same. It almost becomes nauseating. Hasn't macroeconmic reductivism caused enough problems in our world?

Meat tries to answer some questions about whether or not meat is inefficient, but in the end you end up with what most of us localists already knew: different production systems are appropriate for different places. There is no one magical system that's going to work everywhere. People should be free to chose the system that works for their own land.

With that, it's still interesting to inject some numbers into the debate. Agricultural production is more complex than people would give it credit for being.

Some animal rights environmentalists would have us think that when you raise livestock you are taking food that humans could eat and wasting it on animals, who convert feed to meat/dairy/eggs inefficiently.

If you've ever had pets, you might notice that animals will eat things that we won't. In the old days of small farms animals served primarily as a way to inedible things into food. Cows can eat fibrous waste products and forage on land impossible to till. Pigs can eat well…pretty much anything (haven't you seen Snatch? *spoiler you can feed humans to pigs!*, wild boars are omnivores). Chickens can eat kitchen scraps.

Some of the waste resources animals can turn into food include
1. spoiled food
2. byproducts from milling, oil pressing, slaughterhouses
3. foods that humans spurn (bruised apples)

Animals turn these things into meat, milk, eggs, and manure. Fairlie calls this level of animal production, that which is a byproduct of plant production rather than as a primary product, "default livestock." I would personally quibble with that, as it reflects an agrocentric view of things that ignores nomadic pastoralism as a potentially ecological livelihood in certain situations.

Vegans sometimes call milk "liquid veal" since veal production is an inevitable part of milk production (though through science this might be eliminated in a future through cheap sex selection). Turns out that with that logic, most vegetable oil is liquid meat! The meal left over from vegetable oil processing is a highly profitable part of that industry because of its value as feed.

One of the things livestock provide is fertilizer from manure. Of course veganic (livestock completely without domestic animals) proponents could argue that some of the waste we are talking about could be composted and turned into fertilizer that way. Fairlie examines some current veganic farms and it turns out some of them do quite well, but others don't. As always, it seems that the ideal system varies from land to land.

The idea that land taken out of production by switching to more efficient food systems would be used as habitat never made sense to me. What are the odds that a farmer who needs less land will let the excess go feral? Odds are that it will be sold and turned into a mall or subdivision, which is what has happened with increased agricultural efficiency in most of the US.

Of course Fairlie and most animal rights folks aren't too concerned with that because they are usually advocates of governmental inventions. Which is ironic since Fairlie discusses quite extensively the havoc created by regulatory capture (when industries lobby for laws that benefit mainly them) and misguided policies. One of the most hilarious is the USDA law that hamburger can't be cut with pork fat. Pigs produce tons of excess fat, whereas grassfed cows don't. Why not make some appetizing burgers using both? The fact it's illegal has created demand for fattier feedlot cattle.

Other more insidious laws are those in response to animal and human diseases. Mismanagement of animal waste has led to several food poisoning outbreaks, such as the spinach e. coli debacle. Laws created in response have discouraged manure as fertilizer and the presence of animals on vegetable farms, which is a shame since properly managed animal manure is an asset.

Without this, one much purchase synthetic fertilizer or set aside large amounts of land to grow green fertilizer.

Some other problematic regulations were created in response to mad cow disease, which banned the feeding of slaughterhouse wastes to livestock. This is unfortunate because slaughterhouse wastes are perfectly appropriate for pigs, who are natural omnivores. Fairlie says this is a result of the "nanny state" but seems to call for regulations when they fit his ideology, which is a shame.

Because of such regulations manure and inedible animal parts have become a liability rather than an asset, though the livestock industry is still remarkably efficient

The best parts of this section are those in which he dissects numbers thrown around by various animal rights ideologues. In my opinion those numbers are nothing but veils on a philosophy that's at its core about reworking our system of morals to turn them against humans, but either way most of them are wrong. The most amusing one is the idea that one kg of beef requires 100,000 liters of water to produce. Turns out that number is a bit of accounting gymnastics that would make any product seem inefficient, because it takes into account ever scrap of precipitation that falls upon the area of land a cow might occupy. Hmmm. Guess someone didn't learn about opportunity cost. The rain that falls on grassland isn't going to be collected and sent to people suffering from droughts in Africa in the absence of cattle.

This book is enormously dense and I feel like I haven't done this section enough justice despite having written quite a bit. I'd love to take questions from other readers. Please post in the comments or at our facebook group.

Wil asks "Fairlie talks about default/sustainable production and calculates an individual's "fair share" of total world meat production. Is it unethical to eat more than this "fair share"? Can you justify eating more than your "fair share"? How does population growth play into the equation? Are we obligated to help feed the world? Are we obligated to slow/halt population growth?"

In my opinion population growth is another localized issue. The book The Coming Population Crash is one of the few that treats it rationally and not as if humans are a terrible scourge upon the Earth. The truth is that some countries have more people than is optimal and others have less at this point in our history. Barring total immigration reform, this makes population issues fairly local.

As for the areas that may have optimally high populations, we have a well-accepted model called the demographic transition that posits that during development populations growth increases, but then decreases as having lots of children is increasing dis-incentivized. Women reading this from the comfort of first world countries will understand this quite well. How many of us can afford to have five children?

It also seems odd for an advocate of local food to calculate a fair share based on global factors. Unless you are a radical communist that believes everything should be equally distributed, it makes more sense to focus on valuing externalities properly to make the price of meat reflect its true toll on the environment and then allow people to make purchasing decisions based on their own desires. Let's say Fairlie is in charge of policy and decides to give me a meat quota for the month. I still have the same income. I might make even more unsustainable purchasing decisions in that case, like using the money I used to use to purchase grassfed meat on pretty dresses.

A major problem I just mentioned is improper pricing of meat because of subsidies and other distortions caused by the fact that we assign no value to many natural systems. It shouldn't be free to dump waste in an ocean you don't own. 

Discussion questions from me:
1. What does extravagant mean? What do you think Fairlie means by it? What does it mean to you? What foods do you consider extravagant?
2. Should we use policies and regulations to reduce meat consumption to a default level? Do you agree with Fairlie's definition of default?
3. At what point are regulations part of a "nanny state?"

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