Meat Production and Utopian Fantasies

Meat production is perhaps the big ethical issue in the realm of food. Not that long ago, vegetarianism and veganism were the domain of hippies and university undergraduates, but not any longer. Now that the ecological impact of meat production is becoming clearer, meat is being critiqued by mainstream authors and editorialists and thinkers of all political stripes. James McWilliams, author of Just Food, calls meat “the new caviar.” And food guru Michael Pollan advises us, famously, to “Eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables.”

But not everyone is so sure. Author George Monbiot says he’s recently been convinced to change his mind about meat, after reading Simon Fairlie’s book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance [which I myself have not yet read].

Here’s Monbiot’s essay about it, in The Guardian: I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly

In the Guardian in 2002 I discussed the sharp rise in the number of the world’s livestock, and the connection between their consumption of grain and human malnutrition. After reviewing the figures, I concluded that veganism “is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue”. I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I’m about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat….

Monbiot and Fairlie think that meat consumption can be ethical, under certain circumstances. How? Simple. Change just about everything about how meat is produced. First, stop raising so many cows (which need to be fed grain in large quantities, and are inefficient at converting grain into meat) and switch almost entirely to pigs. Then change how pigs are raised and fed:

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….

Clearly, there are a lot of “ifs” in this scenario, a lot of changes to make to some very entrenched practices.

But the key weakness is this: In his conclusion, Manbriot says we (each, individually) could with a clear conscience eat meat “if we were to adopt” (and presumably that’s “we”, collectively) the kind of system he & Fairlie advocate. But notice that there simply is no “we” of the second kind, in the absence of a planned economy. “We” (via government) can push & nudge the food system in various directions, but “we” cannot “adopt” a food system, as a working whole.

Thanks to SB for showing me this story.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in consumerism, ecosystems, environment, farmers, meat, public policy, vegan, vegetarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Meat Production and Utopian Fantasies

  1. I agree with changing the way our meat is produced,but believe that it needs to start with the factory farms.Cattle should not be fed corn..they should be fed a diet of hay and grasses and pigs do best when they are left to free range.If you havent seen Food Inc.,you should.Ive learned a lot about how our meat is produced and what steps need to be taken to have a healthier,more beneficial meat supply.Thanks for posting such an interesting article.

  2. Anastasia says:

    I think Monbiot’s epiphany is ridiculous. Sure meat can be ethical*, when the animals are fed certain foods, only raised on marginal land, etc – but how much meat can actually be raised this way? Even if we could change the whole industrial meat production system from its current state to an ideal state (unlikely, as you say), could we meet the 170lbs per capita eaten in the US and aspired to by people in India and China?

    Instead of blanket statements like “eating meat is ethical” that will be taken as permission to chow down, Monbiot should be advocating that meat be considered more of a luxury, not an everyday (or every meal!) food. Even foodies that buy high quality meats seem to think that they can eat as much of it as they want. Even grass finished beef has environmental consequences greater than that of vegetable protein.

    The way I see it, we need to start with demand, then the system will change. If every omnivore switched from 10+ meals per week with cheap meat to 3 or so meals per week with high quality lower environmental impact meats (grass finished beef, pastured pork, etc), the market would respond by reducing the supply of cheap meat.

    It seems that activists always want to dream of an end point yet have no solution to get there. I say let the market get us there, if only we can change demand. We have a lot more chance of changing demand than of changing the entire system.

    *Assuming that we take killing animals for our own pleasure to be ethical.

  3. Anastasia:

    I agree. I think people often trip over the issue of scale. I’m curious to read Farilie’s book, now, because I’m always interested in books that debunk commonly-made arguments. But (based just on Monbiot’s account) it’s hard to see how the ‘new’ conclusion could possibly be reached.


  4. Pingback: Meat: A Benign Extravagance « The EthicsWeb Bookstore

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