Many vegetarians argue that eating meat takes a big toll on environment and adds to world hunger. But Simon Fairlie, a British farmer and former vegetarian, tells anchor Lisa Mullins that meat consumption can be environmentally friendly. Download MP3
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Some of the more persuasive arguments against eating meat come from environmentalists. They’ll tell you it takes a lot of grain to produce a little beef, and the grain could provide more nutrition if people just ate it themselves. But now there’s some push back against that argument and a powerful voice in the debate is that of a British farmer, environmentalist, and former vegetarian. Simon Fairlie is the author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance. He says it’s okay if we eat meat, we just shouldn’t eat too much of it. Fairlie reached that conclusion after he researched the environmental impact of meat consumption on the sustainable community farm where he was working.
Simon Fairlie: What I found was that a lot of what I was producing which came from the grass that was growing under our feet wasn’t being eaten; and at the same time bringing a lot of fat and protein from well, all four courts of the world. And this seemed to me to rather contradict the ethos of the self-sufficiency that the community prepares to espouse.
Mullins: So that’s when you decided that you needed to find out what?
Fairlie: Well, the arguments against eating meat are quite strongly held. And I wanted to investigate them, particularly the arguments revolving around the conversion factor — how many kilos of grain or other human edible food it takes to produce a kilo of meat — 10 to 1 is actually bantered around as being a universal exchange rate. But natural fact, the whole system of how our food is fed is much more complicated than that. And in fact, a very large percentage of the world’s meet is fed on biomass that is a byproduct of the agricultural system. For example, waste food or crop residues and so forth. In addition, to that you have all the animals that are fed on grass or other fertility bringing crops that are part of the agricultural cycle. And all of this is essentially free food. It has very little toll upon the environment at all because it comes to us almost accidentally. And cattle are really useful animals because they digest fiber, which is what humans can’t digest; that’s why they’re a real benefit to the human race.
Mullins: And how about pigs. I mean in your sustainable world, what would they be eating?
Fairlie: Well, the pigs are bred pretty well to use up waste. They’re scavenger par excellence, so they eat almost anything and it counts as food waste, which is staggeringly high. And if you fed all the food waste that currently occurs in Britain to pigs, out of it you would get like 1/6 of all our meat consumption. But if you put grains into them they don’t digest it efficiently. Perhaps one ought to point out that this isn’t just sort of academic efficiency exercise; all the grain that is being fed to animals in the wealthy world is being fed inefficiently to livestock, while there’s a billion people in the world who are malnourished. And while that situation occurs it’s fundamentally unjust to be fumbling very large amounts of feed grain into cows and pigs.
Mullins: Yet there is a deeper and broader human appetite for meat. So how practical would your solution be?
Fairlie: Well, what’s not practical is to expect everybody to be able to eat meat at the level that we do in say Europe and Australia and so forth. It’s highly likely that this is not sustainable in terms of fossil fuels, in terms of water, and so on. The traditional approach to meat eating was simply to eat what came naturally out of the agricultural system. And that’s what I would advocate going back to in Europe and the USA — gearing our agriculture towards the production of grains and vegetables, and then eating meat at a level that was the natural outcome of that form of agriculture. Meat needs to be regarded as something special, as an extravagance. And that will be a better example to set to the developing nations than one of extreme consumption, which is what they’re seeing at the moment and imitating.
Mullins: Okay, thank you, very nice to talk to you, Simon.
Fairlie: Thank you.
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