Meat: A Benign Extravagance
Simon Fairlie’s contribution to the debate over how food choices influence the ecological and socioeconomic health of our communities, collected as sixteen chapters in Meat: A Benign Extravagance, probably will, as the foreword predicts, impact the future of sustainable agriculture. The scope of the project is grand, and Fairlie presents what appears to be both thorough research and sound reasoning regarding several interrelated issues. His readable, likeable style, and mostly objective tone, have led reviewers to interpret his findings in contradictory ways (i.e., we should cut back on meat/we should eat meat), which actually may be a testament to the book’s value.
Fairlie’s willingness to entertain the notion that meat production (if carried out properly, i.e., on small-scale, holistic, integrated farm systems) may be the best model when all variables are considered comes across as a practical, humble, yet mildly self-interested position. He admits he doesn’t have all the answers, but that, as a once economically poor “born-again carnivore,” he still likes keeping livestock and supporting “small farmers and peasants in their struggle against agribusiness.” He recognizes his bias, and explains he feels “instinctively that the world would be much the poorer without domestic livestock and (that he wants) to work out why."
I was originally drawn in to the data orientation of Meat via tables delineating the Mellanby diet (which Fairlie learned from the 1975 book by a Scottish ecologist – Can Britain Feed Itself?). Apparently it all began with highly informal sketches, what Fairlie calls "at best, a back of an A4 envelope job," which should not be seen as "anything other than a rough guide, and a useful framework for thinking about such matters." Such candor and occasional attempts at humor make it a refreshing read, not only for fellow scholars in the various fields he surveys, but also for policymakers (for whom the book seems particularly well suited) and novices (like myself). It’s not every day that an author suggests to readers who are daunted by his voluminous data that they can “cherrypick” whatever is most intriguing. Thankfully, Fairlie’s clear presentation style, and his inclusion of tables and figures whenever they are useful for illuminating his points, makes that unnecessary.
One of the benefits of Fairlie’s multidiscipline approach is that you get the sense that he is exploring the whole terrain of an issue. For example, in the chapter titled "Animal Furlongs and Vegetable Miles" (in which his central theme is the contest between animal power and biofuels, and the general "reluctance to examine animal power") there is an amazing range of perspectives surveyed, from current information about progress in biofuel technology to agricultural knowledge about houses, hectares, and cabbages, to even Ghandi's 1915 opinion on using cows to plow the land. Juxtapose this with highly data oriented chapters analyzing, for example, methane and CO2 versus their relative milk and rice production, down to the gram.
If I had one criticism it would be that Fairlie’s fun titles, like "Holistic Cowboys and Carbon Farmers," did sometimes obscure the nature and purpose of the writing. The chapter reads more like a reflective account of data collection and number comparisons (dollars, tonnes, miles, mycorrhizal fungi levels, soil carbon savings, etc.) than a narrative about contemporary cowboys and farmers. Although I appreciated when Fairlie emerged from the numbers and concluded the chapter with a shot of voice and personality, it nonetheless seemed a bit artificially framed.
While I couldn’t recount much of the data I tried to wrap my head around while reading this book, I did come away with a few conceptual nuggets. For instance, the spread of permaculture (a contraction of "permanent" and "agriculture"), was mainly the outcome of an effort to reverse the destructive widespread plowing in the twenties that led to the dustbowls. In one chapter, Fairlie explores how permaculture techniques might apply to the development of comprehensive land use strategies for vegan communities.
I also liked learning about the dialogue on forestry versus agriculture in the UK, in the chapter titled “The Struggle Between Light and Shade.” In it, Fairlie points out that forest productivity and farming productivity was not separated on such a strict binary prior to the industrial revolution. This helps us understand how a "permacultural approach...will not be one that favours trees on the grounds that they have a superior indigenous pedigree; it will be one that juggles with the dynamic between light and shade to produce landscapes that are rich, biodiverse and convivial for humans."
Fairlie presents his “rich, biodiverse and convivial” vision with clarity, and his attempt to gather data that clarifies the vision’s potential for both accuracy and success is admirable. If there is a downside to Meat, it is that some of the essays are limited in applicability to the United Kingdom or comparable environments. I’ve always been intrigued by islands, though, so this enhanced my experience of a highly interesting and relevant book.