I bet it’s nice to be right every now and then. Good for the self-esteem, at any rate. However I’m not sure where you stand when publicly falsifying your own previous positions. There is a certain degree of comfort in knowing that if the new me wasn’t right, then sure enough the old one was.
This is where British environmentalist George Monbiot now finds himself. Despite previously proclaiming that the ‘only’ ethical stance in the face of coming food and climate crises was veganism, he has recently published an article dramatically titled ‘I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly’.The article is broadly in support of a new book by British farmer/activist Simon Fairlie called ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’, which considers the debate on the environmental impact of livestock. While the book is not yet available in New Zealand, the essential argument is that while the industrial model of meat production carries with it significant environmental impacts, most of these stem from its industrial nature. He makes the case that integrating animals into sustainable farming systems can ameliorate many of the excesses of industrial production. It’s not the game, it’s the player. Or rather, it’s a certain kind of player that happens to be bigger than all the others (industrial agriculture), and uses this power to shape the rest of game.
While, for sure, there is merit in getting the facts right, the ultimate conclusion of the article (that meat production is not as bad as we thought) seems at odds with Monbiot’s dramatic initial claim.
My reasons for veganism are broadly similar to Monbiot’s, what I would call a broad anthropocentric framework. My concern lies with the fact that I can’t see an equitable future of social reproduction amidst the ecological impacts of industrial agriculture of which meat production is a central concern. However, in the article Monbiot appears to move beyond anthropocentricity to pure meat-centricity, valorising pigs as merely efficient converters:
Pigs, in the meantime, have been forbidden in many parts of the rich world from doing what they do best: converting waste into meat … we now dump or incinerate millions of tonnes of possible pig food and replace it with soya whose production trashes the Amazon.
He builds this proposition into an argument in favour of feeding pigs waste and unusable biomass:
If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, 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 seems alarming that the ratio could be so far incorrect, but let’s be clear about what is being said here. Vegetarian plant food is still, by Fairlie’s figures, twice as efficient as meat. While economics generally baffles me, I’m pretty sure that if the company economist walks into the manager’s office and says, ‘Hey boss, I think I’ve got an idea that could double productivity’, he’d have another storey on his house by the time he finished the sentence. On the facts presented, it remains completely uncontroversial that a plant-based diet is more productive.
Further, while waste and biomass could be used to feed pigs, this is only one of these potential uses, and it is by no means the ideal use. A far more sustainable and efficient use of that same biomass would be in addressing the growing soil crisis caused by industrial agriculture. For much of the world’s grain production (80% of the world’s food), the living soil has become a sponge for petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides. Each year, we’re losing 38,000 square miles of usable land to soil depletion, such that over the past 40 years 30% of the world’s cropland has become totally unproductive (for more information see and here and here). An article from the journal Bioscience puts this in perspective:
It takes approximately 500 years to replace 25 millimeters (1 inch) of topsoil lost to erosion. The minimal soil depth for agricultural production is 150 millimeters. From this perspective, productive fertile soil is a nonrenewable, endangered ecosystem.
A far better use for stovers and food scraps is investing them into local compost production to encourage the localisation and democratisation of food systems and the maintenance of soil. A global strategy towards food security must take into account maintenance of the soil and so must an ethical stance of global sustainability. The gains in productivity from industrial agriculture now appear to be dipping, and its energy and water inputs are becoming more and more expensive. As rising oil and gas prices bring up the cost of agricultural inputs, more and more of the world’s hungry will find themselves priced out of the food system. Over a billion already are.
The global food economy has been stretched to its limits of productivity, and its ‘externalities’ (environmental and social costs) are showing everywhere. The task of food production will increasingly fall to communities and the costs of the transition to local food economies will be determined by peoples’ ability to use the resources around them. Soil is absolutely key to this goal, and without it that cost will be calculated in human suffering. So, rather than agreeing to feed our futures to our pigs, lets agree to feed our soils for our futures.