As a meat-eater, I’ve long found it convenient to categorise veganism as a response to animal suffering or a health fad. But, faced with these figures, it now seems plain that it’s the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue.
-George Monbiot, “Why vegans were right all along,” Dec. 2002

Guardian columnist and well-known environmentalist George Monbiot ate the above words yesterday — with a dash of salted crow, one imagines. In a column titled “I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat — but farm it properly,” he tells how a book released in England this week has persuaded him that meat eating per se isn’t environmentally irresponsible, it’s the current industrial farming model that is.

Cows on grassMonbiot himself is not vegan. In 2008 he wrote that he gave up all animal products “for about 18 months, lost two stone, went as white as bone and felt that I was losing my mind. I know a few healthy-looking vegans, and I admire them immensely.”

We all do. Vegans have long been the ornery saints squatting cross-legged at the intersection of the food and environmental movements; only recently have things like vegan cupcakes crossed over to widespread, Food Network-validated success.

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But now those who have been arguing for a more moderate, catholic approach, one that sees pasture-based livestock raising as an equally green choice to eschewing meat altogether, have new ammunition. 

Monbiot just read Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Hyden House September 2010; not yet available in the United States), which takes a close look at both sides of the carnivorous divide, particularly the meat-eating figures that are often batted about. Monbiot quotes one, that it takes “100,000 liters of water to produce every kilogram of beef,” which Fairlie argues “arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.” And the ever-popular U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization claim that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, even guiltier than vehicles, turns out to be quite a bullshit figure, predicated on several factual errors.

The real villain here is not dodgy statistics, however, but the current U.S. industrial farming model, which depends on feeding artificially cheap grains to cattle, hogs, and chickens.

“Cattle are excellent converters of grass but terrible converters of concentrated feed. The feed would have been much better used to make pork,” Monbiot says. And pigs should only be eating grain when there’s a surplus — the rest of the time they should be eating from the endless human food-waste stream:

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If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands — food for which humans don’t compete — meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.

It’s the second half — the stuffing of animals with grain to boost meat and milk consumption, mostly in the rich world — which reduces the total food supply. Cut this portion out and you would create an increase in available food which could support 1.3 billion people.

In the end, Fairlie — and Monbiot — are arguing for a third way, neither American-style meat-guzzling nor monastic denial: that of responsible meat-eating according to “low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale … if we were to adopt it, we could eat meat, milk, and eggs (albeit much less) with a clean conscience.”

Vegans will, of course, argue, that there can be no clean conscience when it comes to killing another living creature unnecessarily for food. But natural-born carnivores who’ve been martyring themselves for the good of the planet just might want to check out Monbiot’s column — and then head to the farmers market for some grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, or heritage bacon.