Meat A Benign Extravagance

Meat: A Benign Extravagance

by Simon Fairlie
published by Chelsea Green

book review by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

Now that food issues have become cocktail party fare we are faced with the diminution of the polemics surrounding food issues. Another way of putting that is to say; now that we have fancy folk who like to talk with curled pinkies about owning the concepts of locavore and cow share, there is the New York Times race to find the lowest common denominator, but one which still has some fashionable jazz to it. Merle Haggard said “I can’t write these songs unless I’ve lived them.” Obviously Simon Fairlie has lived the song of farming as right livelihood. He knows the dirt and he’s worn the blood. He’s earned, in my view, the right to speak in depth on the ‘chichi’ issue of meat consumption. And you can add to that his significant scholarship on the subject.

I have to agree with the many reviewers who have seen this book as significant, important, well written and timely. Fairlie is right on the money on this issue. I personally can only find fault with some of the company he chooses to keep in cultivating an audience and making arguments. We risk losing ground on food justice, biological diversity and sustainability fronts when we allow the perimeters to be affected by folks who will be long gone once the ‘food movement’ has lost its luster. Just as the environmental movement has been co-opted by diva aerobics, we must be careful not to let that happen to farming.

My opinion: If you are looking for the most complete set of observations and salient arguments around a future for livestock in farming, this book belongs on your shelf. If however your mission is to fuel the argument of veganism versus meat-eating, you will likely find yourself in the wrong room. I’m not interested in why you don’t want to eat meat, or why you do. I find that small talk unless you lived the life of either. What I am interested in is the health of our biological universe and how it is that the best farming will protect that and see it improve. Inside that sphere belong all of the plant and animal species available to the process. I’m a farmer not a scientist nor a politician. I’m not interested in store-bought science nor am I interested in political correctness. As a farmer, should you be inclined to dig deeply into the subject of meat animals in my farming mix, you would want to own Simon’s excellent book. LRM

from Chelsea Green, ISBN: 9781603583244

Excerpt from Simon Fairlie’s
Meat: A Benign Extravagance

The causes of famine are many and complex; but one has to hunt high and low to find any example of a famine being caused through “inefficient” animal husbandry displacing ‘efficient’ arable agriculture. In all the above cases it is the reverse, and the Irish potato famine in particular offers a classic example of the dangers of over efficient vegetable farming. Subsistence farmers in the south and west of Ireland were forced by extractive rents to live on the most efficient form of production available, the crop which provided most nutrients from a given bit of land, namely potatoes, and very little else. They even concentrated all their efforts on the ‘lumper’, the most efficient varieties of potato. When the potato harvest collapsed, because of blight, they had little in the way of animal or alternative vegetable produce to turn to – while the grain that was grown in the east of the Ireland was exported to England. Total reliance on the most efficient form of production took several million Irish people to the brink of starvation and then pushed them over the edge.

But the distinction between livestock and agriculture is a red herring. The conflict is not between animal and vegetable, or between peasant farmer and nomad herdsman, who often, as in the example of the Deccan given above, are in ‘symbiosis’. The conflict is more often between a locally rooted and proven tradition of land-use which invariably has its animal element, and a superimposed ‘efficient’ agricultural improvement, often a monoculture, designed to extract and deliver resources for the international market. Whether the commodities so delivered are to provide consumers with meat that they don’t need, cotton tee-shirts they don’t need, or palm oil they don’t need, is almost immaterial. I say ‘almost’, because if the commodity is animal feed it can at least be used to feed humans in an emergency, given the political will.