This is big. George Monbiot has been one of the most vocal advocates of veganism for environmental reasons. And he just changed his tune. In a recent article for the Guardian, Monbiot now accepts a role for eating meat as part of a healthy food system and environment. He admits that new calculations show the environmental impact of raising livestock is less than had been claimed, and that properly raising farm animals (not via our factory farm system) is not only benign, but worthwhile.
There's a temptation to gloat -- let's not do that. Instead, let's take a moment to respect Monbiot's open-mindedness and the evidence-based way he changed his thinking. It's not easy to write a column saying that you've been espousing wrong ideas for the past decade in pursuit of noble goals.
"This will not be an easy column to write. I am about to put down 1,200 words in support of a book that starts by attacking me and often returns to this sport. But it has persuaded me that I was wrong. More to the point, it has opened my eyes to some fascinating complexities in what seemed to be a black and white case."
Vegans have been the driving force in bringing awareness to the failings of our factory farm system -- both from an ethical and health perspective. Respect that. So they overshot a bit.
On to the guts of the article:
- One of the key insights to efficient feeding of livestock is understanding the animals' natural diet. Sounds a lot like paleo for animals to me.
"Cattle are excellent converters of grass but terrible converters of concentrated feed. The feed would have been much better used to make pork. Pigs, in the meantime, have been forbidden in many parts of the rich world from doing what they do best: converting waste into meat.
Feeding meat and bone meal to cows was insane. Feeding it to pigs, whose natural diet incorporates a fair bit of meat, makes sense, as long as it is rendered properly."
- Frequently cited environmental stats on raising livestock are *way* off.
"Like many greens I have thoughtlessly repeated the claim that it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef. Fairlie shows that this figure is wrong by around three orders of magnitude."
"Similarly daft assumptions underlie 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. Fairlie shows that it made a number of basic mistakes."
- Vegan farming isn't a solution
"[Fairlie] also shows that many vegetable oils have a bigger footprint than animal fats, and reminds us that even vegan farming necessitates the large-scale killing or ecological exclusion of animals: in this case pests. On the other hand, he slaughters the claims made by some livestock farmers about the soil carbon they can lock away."
- By not eating ethically and properly raised meat, vegans aren't influencing the debate...or the market.
"By keeping out of the debate over how livestock should be kept, those of us who have advocated veganism have allowed the champions of cruel, destructive, famine-inducing meat farming to prevail. It's time we got stuck in."
Wow. Sounds a lot like what former vegan Lierre Kieth passionately advocated in The Vegetarian Myth. Read the whole article.
And here is the book that changed Monbiot's mind. Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie.
(Thanks to Lauri for the pointer.)