Transforming a Factory Farms and our Meat Obsessed Culture

There are many issues of ethics and sustainability that surround our meat-based diet. Mark Boyle – UK’s ‘Moneyless Man’ and founder of Freeconomy believes that meat-eating is a symptom of humanity’s obsession with itself. Mark’s article  Have Simon Fairlie & George Monbiot got it wrong about meat eating? is well worth reading. It is a thoughtful and  frank discussion of the difficult questions that surround meat eating.

Boyle’s article questions conditioned anthropomorphic mindsets and shed light on our common tendency to simultaneously hold inconsistent and contradictory views. By becoming aware of these contradictory views is moving ourselves on a path of true self-enquiry and it only the authentic and open embrace of our real position that an ever lead to real change.  As Boyle points out, such contradictory beliefs exist within almost every person, vegans and omnivores alike. On the one hand, many vegans fuel their cars by handing over their cash to oil companies that are responsible for more deaths than all the world’s wars combined and on the other hand, many omnivores claim to ‘love’ animals while simultaneously going out and, at best, buying organic ‘local’ meat for their dinner.  Many environmentalists, irrespective of diet, want a nice clean planet but also their iphones, iPADs and youtubes as well.

Nowhere does our bizarre inconsistencies, self-righteousness and self-deception manifest more heatedly than in the subject of meat-eating. Boyle dissects and unpacks these contradictions with great insight as he writes about Speciesism:

If we were consistent with our logic and philosophies, and were as serious about protecting the natural environment as we pay lip-service to, humans would be the first animals to be culled. Or at the very least we’d stop keeping ourselves artificially alive through an industrialised healthcare system resulting in a small island having a population of 61 million humans who then need to kill everything else that competes for ‘its food’. No animal on the planet destroys its natural habitat on anything close to the scale we do.

‘Of course you can’t kill humans to protect the environment!’ I gladly hear you exclaim. I agree, what a completely abhorrent scenario to even contemplate.

So why is it so disgusting when we kill some animals – such as humans and others we’ve chosen to like such as dogs and cats – yet simultaneously so positive when we kill others such as pigs, lambs and cows? The real answer: because we like the taste of them. To do so, we create a delusional culture that eases the levels of cognitive dissonance we have to endure.

The history of meat eating

OK, you may argue that we’ve eaten meat for much of our history (though not it all), and that it is therefore ‘traditional’. Just because something is ‘traditional’ doesn’t necessarily make it wholesome, or justify it for that matter; it may just mean we’ve been doing it for far too long already. War is traditional. Rape was traditional. Few, thankfully, are suggesting we don’t evolve beyond those two patriarchal social symptoms as soon as we can. Many people argue that humans eat animals simply because humans can, because they’re more powerful. By their reasoning, surely rape is also justified, given that men are more physically powerful, in general, to women. Just another case of those in the strong position in the power relationship abusing the weak. I’m obviously not suggesting that I believe rape is acceptable under any circumstances, I’m merely highlighting the discrepancy in philosophies that most people simultaneously hold.

It’s only our anthropocentric mindset that can see human life as somehow worth more than that of a cow, dog, bird or any other sentient being. It was for that purpose that we abstracted God from Nature and depicted him as a male human. Two hundred and fifty years ago we still believed that white lives were worth more than black lives. Now we call that racism. One hundred years ago we still viewed women as being worth less than men (and in terms of salaries and recognition we still do today). Today we at least recognise that as sexism.

All I am suggesting is that in another hundred years – if humanity evolves quickly enough to survive that long – some generation may view our attitudes to the way we enslave and then kill non-human animals to be as brutal and incompassionate as we now view the human slavery of the 18th Century; what world renowned philosopher Peter Singer terms ‘speciesism’.

Humanity: obsessed with itself

Speciesism, briefly, consists of putting the minor needs of one’s own species over the major needs of another. If you’re going to starve to death in the wild unless you kill another animal, that’s a different story and quite instinctual to anyone whose name isn’t Gandhi or Sakyamuni. Taking sentient life when survival is genuinely at stake isn’t speciesist. A wild life, where human civilisation isn’t maintained at the expense of all, isn’t speciesist. But a kebab on the way home after a swift six pints is hardly a major need, though it probably feels it at the time.

You may argue that animals kill other animals, therefore we should to. Animals do kill other animals. But humans also kill other humans. On that reasoning, we could justify killing other humans because other humans do. Which is ridiculous. Yet we enact similar contradictory philosophies every day. You may add that killing a human isn’t justified as it would be cannibalistic to eat one; fair point, but does that mean I can kill Simon Cowell and feed him to my more attractive canine friend, Boycie?

If you believe that the discrimination against animals is justifiable because we’re more intelligent than them, then why do you not argue in favour of killing one year old babies with Downs syndrome? I despise the mentality that even labels a beautiful child as such, but I’m not the one arguing in favour of illogical discrimination here.

Why is it that we discriminate and hold contradictory ethics simultaneously? Is it because our facial features and organs are displayed a bit differently? Or because we still subconsciously believe that animals – and the rest of Nature – is but a Cartesian machine for us to control and own? On what basis is the discrimination?

Slavery, and the subjugation of women, were once socially acceptable. If humanity is to have any hope of evolving to a more compassionate and ecological worldview, it’s going to involve us all questioning our own conditioned mindsets. Not just for the benefit of what Daniel Quinn calls the ‘rest of the community of life’, but for ourselves. For as Leo Tolstoy once said, ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses, there’ll be battlefields.’ It won’t matter much if they’re mobile ones. – Mark Boyle, Founder of Freeconomy and “The Moneyless Man”

Significant Reduction of Meat Consumption can be the Key to Feeding 9 Billion People

More and more, science is recognizing the significant role that a meat-based diet contributes to global unsustainability. Severe droughts in Russia in 2010 affected the grain market, setting in motion the Arab Spring. With the severe US drought that affected over 80% of all states and weak Asian monsoons, prices for staples such as corn and wheat have risen nearly 50% on international markets since June 2012. The stage is set for an even larger food crisis in a few years. Oxfam has already forecasted that the price spike will have a devastating impact in developing countries that rely heavily on food imports such as North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Food shortages in 2008 led to civil unrest in 28 countries and such violence is bound to recur in the next, even more round of severe food shortages.

Once again, climate change continues to perpetuate the inequities of the world. The majority of the world’s poor depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and already suffer from water scarcity. They are the ones most vulnerable and find themselves at the mercy of our fragile global food system. Food crisis always play out in the same inequitable way. When there is a food shortage, developed countries have capital to purchase food on the open market while poor countries do not. This results in paradoxical situations where governments of poor countries are forced to sell their food harvests to feed the wealthly at the expense of their own citizenry. While food is only 10% of the income of citizens of wealthy countries, in developing countries, food accounts for 50% of the household budget.

The logical argument for reducing meat intake is simple but, as we all know, deeply engrained habits such as meat eating are almost impossible to change. The research was done by a group of leading water scientists from the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)  argues that a switch to an almost completely vegetarian diet over the next 40 years may be necessary to avoid catastrophic shortages of water and food.

Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by leading water scientists. Malik Falkenmark of SIWI  says that there will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations.

“There will be just enough water if the proportion of animal-based foods is limited to 5% of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a … reliable system of food trade.” says Falkenmark.

Added to the increased demand for a meat-based diet are future constraints from water scarcity such as climate change and waste.

“We will need a new recipe to feed the world in the future,” said the report’s editor, Anders Jägerskog.

Within this backdrop, adopting a vegetarian diet is seen as one logical option to increase the amount of water available.  Animal protein-rich food in the current factory farmed model consumes significant amounts of resources; five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world’s arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.

Ethical Animal Farming

Many vegetarians and vegans wince at the concept of ethical animal farming. It’s seen as an oxymoron. Yet, author Simone Fairlie argues that it is a practical alternative to resource-sucking, waste manufacturing factory farming and an achievable low hanging fruit. Perhaps the phrase often used by cradle-to-cradle founder William McDonough is most appropriate to describe this situation: Less bad is not the same as good. Less bad, however may still make a meaningful and transitional impact.

The book is, in fact so well written that it convinced environmentalist George Monbiot, a staunch supporter of veganism as “the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue” to change his tune. As a result of reading Fairlie’s book, Monbiot wrote a column entitled: I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly 

What Fairlie has accomplished is to sort out the facts from the chaff in a very heated area. In a field where data is king, Farlie has exposed huge oversights and the many wrong assumptions commonly cited figures depend on. His book reveals the many distortions coming from even reputable institutions as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization – facts that have now become accepted by environmentalists as real. without proper examination of the source of information. Fairlie’s greatest contribution is to establish the facts so that real solutions may be pursued.

Fairlie demonstrates that we’ve been using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, Fairlie argues that we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. If we do this, the results are far different than those often cited by sustainability experts.

Significant efficiency gains can be made by applying cradle-to-cradle methodology – quite literally. Food = waste. Identify “waste” bio-streams that are outputs from other agricultural (or non-agricultural) sources and substitute grains fors food which humans do not compete with – feed pigs residues and waste, and feed cattle straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands and suddenly, meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. The book has a stunning revelation: 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. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.

The developed country practice of feeding animals with grain to boost meat and milk consumption is the real culprit that significantly reduces the total food supply. Fairlie argues that eliminating this portion would create an increase in available food which could support an additional 1.3 billion people.  Fairlie also argues for efficiency gains from applying a time-sensitive approach to animal slaughter. This will allow us to still use a small amount of grain for feeding livestock, allowing animals to mop up grain surpluses in good years and slaughtering them in lean ones. This strategy would reduce consumption of animal products by half, which means a good deal less than in the average western diet.

By applying a scientific approach, Farlie decimates the much cited claim that it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef. He demonstrates the questionable assumptions behind this figure and that a realistic figure is actually lower by about three orders of magnitude. This claim arose from an unrealistic assumption – that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge. This is the exception rather than the rule.

Another often cited “fact” is the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s famous claim that livestock are responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a higher proportion than transport. Again, through a methodical investigation, Fairlie shows that that this claim is based on a number of invalid assumptions:

  1. all deforestation in the Amazon is due to providing land for cattle grazing when the reality is that it is mostly driven by land speculation and logging
  2. confusion of one-off emissions from deforestation with ongoing pollution
  3. confusion of gross and net production of nitrous oxide and methane
  4. large underestimates of fossil fuel consumption by intensive farming

Overall, Fairlie estimates that farmed animals produce about 10% of the world’s emissions rather than 18%. This is still too much, but is almost half the figure normally cited and far less than transport. Another startling finding is that many vegetable oils have a bigger footprint than animal fats. It must be noted that Fairlie is not biased towards any side. He just wants to separate fiction from fact. As proof of this, he also refutes the claims made by some livestock farmers about the soil carbon they can lock away.

By dispelling the myths surrounding sustainable agriculture, Fairlie  provides us with a truly sustainable alternative which differs dramatically from the current big-agri approach. His insights allow policy makers to consider a less extreme and therefore far more pragmatic approach to reducing the large carbon footprint of  meat production.  The meat-producing system Fairlie advocates is low carbon footprint, low energy, low waste, low water usage and is more just, diverse and small-scale.  When meat production farms are faced with an extreme solution such as doing away with meat production and a meat based diet altogether, it may end up doing more harm than good.  Far more significant reduction can be achieved by taking a more gradual approach that is based on sound science.