Has meat been given a bum rap?

Meat has been branded a significant culprit in our greenhouse emissions, but a new study suggests its role may have been exaggerated. [7 June 2011 | Peter Boyer]

One of the mantras that’s completely lost on me is “we are what we eat”. When it comes to my personal eating habits, my brain-space is pretty well empty.

196fairlie-meatEating for me is a visceral thing, what I do to stay alive and when enjoying the company of others around a table. Apart from complimenting the chef I tend not to talk much about food, at the dinner table or anywhere.

I reckon I’m in a minority. For many people, how much they eat, what they eat and when they eat it are big questions in their lives. People who suffer from a food allergy, obesity or an eating disorder need to be alert to their diets because their physical well-being depends on it.

There are others whose strong interest in food comes from a concern not for physical health so much as for ethical and environmental matters, among whom the vegans are a significant voice.

The vegan movement takes vegetarianism to its logical extreme. In its purest form it opposes use of anything that contains animal products, including leather, fur goods and all animal-derived foods — dairy products, eggs, and of course meat.

We owe it to the vegans for their persistent reminders of our obligations to treat animals well, of the value of understanding nutrition, and of the health risks attached to high-meat diets.

Climate and veganism seem unlikely bedfellows, but they’ve been increasingly linked over the past 20 years. International studies in the wake of the 1997 Kyoto climate agreement drew attention to a possible connection between rising levels of atmospheric carbon and consumption of meat.

The debate has swirled around two issues: the contribution of livestock to greenhouse warming, and the efficiency of meat as a nutritional source compared to alternatives such as soy, nuts and grains. On both counts, meat has had a very poor press.

A 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report said that livestock were responsible for 18 per cent of all human-induced greenhouse emissions. The calculation incorporated not only methane emitted by ruminant animals like cows and sheep, but also carbon dioxide emissions from the clearing of Amazon rainforest to make way for beef farming.

It’s not hard to see where the argument goes from there. The climate threat posed by rising numbers of cattle, sheep and other meat-producing animals results from increased global demand for meat, so reducing or eliminating meat from our diets will significantly cut greenhouse emissions.

Then there’s the relative efficiency of meat and plants as nutritional sources. It’s been calculated that the ratio of vegetable input to animal product output is as high as 10 to 1; that is, that you get one nutritional unit from meat compared to 10 in the plant material used to produce it.

Such assertions underlie claims that, as a US vegan campaigner put it, “the benefits of plant-based nutrition and stockfree agriculture” are central to our effort to deal with climate and energy issues.

The cause of meat hasn’t been helped by the excesses of intensive animal farming. Keeping cattle in pens and feeding them on grain is said to be more efficient than pasture feeding, but replacing grass with food that could otherwise be consumed by humans makes it appallingly wasteful.

Until the recent appearance of a book about livestock farming by a UK organic farmer, claims about livestock’s greenhouse impact and nutritional efficiency have gone largely unchallenged. But Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance has changed all that.

Fairlie seems an unlikely candidate for overturning the assertions of well-resourced authorities like the Food and Agriculture Organisation. But his farming experience, keen intellect, aptitude for forensic analysis of complex farming processes, and a gift for writing with a wryly humorous touch make a formidable package.

Veganism’s positive values are supported by Fairlie, but he believes the movement was wrong to single out meat as a greenhouse culprit, apparently to add weight to its moral objections to killing animals.

Fairlie amasses an impressive body of evidence to show that the FAO figure for livestock’s greenhouse contribution was almost double what it should have been because forest clearing was wrongly attributed entirely to beef ranching, one-off clearing emissions were represented as continuing events, and methane and nitrous oxide emissions were exaggerated.

Similarly, he shows that the case against meat as a nutritional source fails to account for the fact that pasture-fed cattle consume plant material unavailable to humans. He calculates that if grain-feeding were abandoned, the efficiency of meat and plant food would be close to equal.

An estimate that producing a kilogram of beef requires 100,000 litres or more of water has had extensive media coverage. Fairlie’s analysis reveals that the claim is based on the exceptional case of US desert irrigation, and wrongly assumes that water consumed by a beast is never excreted.

Fairlie believes we should eat less meat and stop feeding grain to beef, but staunchly defends the place of livestock in food production, both in fertilising soil and as insurance against crop failure.

I know that some strong opponents of animal farming will not appreciate Fairlie’s arguments. But the meat-vegetable divide needs to be crossed, and his book is an important step in that direction.

• The thousands at Hobart’s climate rally on Sunday, proportionally matching big turnouts in other major centres, are a sign of a deep concern that political leaders aren’t serious enough about our relentlessly-rising carbon pollution. Soothing noises aren’t enough. We need a rousing clarion call.

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