Argument: can eating meat and dairy products be sustainable?

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Argument: can eating meat and dairy products be sustainable?

Simon Fairlie and James McWilliams discuss the question.

Simon – yes, eating meat and dairy products can be sustainable


YES - Simon Fairlie is an editor of The Land magazine and author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Permanent Publications and Chelsea Green 2010). He has dairy cows and pigs at a community in Dorset, England.

Eating too much meat is unsustainable. Industrial farming of animals is not a very good way to produce food and it has a big effect on the environment. But some of the meat and dairy products we eat are a by-product, a result of farming to produce grains and other vegetables.

This includes animals fed on the remains of crops, food-processing waste and consumer food waste. It includes cows finding food on land not good for growing crops. Their job in an organic system is to take nutrients to farmland. It includes cows feeding on grassland, animals fed on extra grains which is necessary in most years to make sure there is enough food for all in the worst year.

I think that nearly half the meat and dairy produced in the world is like this. The Canadian professor Vaclav Smil thinks it is much more than half. Where I live, we feed about 25 people a day. Our two cows feed mostly on land not good for growing food. They give us a lot of our protein, fat and calories, and manure for vegetables and potatoes. We are vegetarians but we keep pigs to eat the whey and food waste, and so we can keep rats away. The pigs give us about 250 kilos of meat every year, or 10 kilos per person. We sell it locally. The fat and protein comes not from soy and palm oil imported from the tropics, but mostly from the grass that grows around us. That’s what I call sustainable.

James – no, eating meat and dairy products cannot be sustainable


NO - James McWilliams is the author of many books about food and farming, including Just Food and The Modern Savage. He writes for New York Times, Harper’s, The New Yorker online, and The Paris Review. He writes ‘The Things We Eat’ column for Pacific Standard and teaches history at Texas State University. Owen McWilliams

The system that Simon describes is a very sustainable way to produce dairy and meat. But it is for 25 people. How can we use that system for billions of people?

To feed billions of people sustainably means people eating as few natural resources as possible to produce enough healthy food. It will mean we must stop keeping animals so we can make space for plants we can eat. Animals make this difficult. Animal farming uses 40 per cent of the earth’s farmland. It makes 40 per cent of the world’s methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon. It makes 66 per cent of the world’s nitrous oxide which is 300 times more powerful than carbon, It uses too much water - 75 per cent in the American West. And it means we must see10 billion animals a year as objects.

A big change to the more humane system that Simon describes would bring impossible problems.

Cows eating grass make 50 per cent more greenhouse gas than industrial cows eating soy and corn. Droughts like in California mean that we need to import animal food that uses more water than corn or soy. For example, alfalfa in California’s uses the most water. And too much land is needed to feed each animal – hundreds of acres for each cow in parts of the US.

To think big, we need a good system to produce plants for people to eat and not use animals for food.

Simon – yes, eating meat and dairy products can be sustainable

I don’t think we should increase the system we have with two cows to feed more people. We should use the system we have and eat perhaps 50 per cent less meat around the world. There is clearly space to do that.

I agree it will be difficult to ask people to eat less meat, But it will be easier than asking them to eat no meat at all, as you suggest.

Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, but it leaves the atmosphere quicker than carbon. This means that a small reduction in methane would keep the level of methane in the atmosphere the same. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a reduction of less than 30 per cent. Others say around 10 per cent.

It would take more than 80 percent reduction in carbon to keep the level of carbon in the atmosphere the same.

So half of the animals’ 40 percent share of methane would keep the methane in the atmosphere the same. But taking all cows from grasslands would not be a good way of reducing methane because there may be bison, wildebeest, antelopes, termites, rotting grass or bush fires in their place. All of these produce methane.

It would be better to stop the 30 per cent of methane from fossil-fuel extraction as this methane would then stay safely under the ground. As we have to stop using fossil fuels because they produce about 70 per cent of all greenhouse gas, the methane from animals is not so important. It is a smaller problem if we reduce animals by half.

James – no, eating meat and dairy products cannot be sustainable

Your ideas for reducing methane depend on people eating 50 per cent less meat, which you say is easier than eating no meat.

I don’t agree. History has many examples of societies stopping habits that in the end were the opposite of the ideals of civilized society. Examples are slavery, laws regarding married women, child labour, and bears fighting. Some habits are easier to stop completely than others. Eating meat is one of those habits.

In the United States, we’ve seen a small reduction in eating meat. But meat production has increased because of foreign markets – mostly Asian markets. We could say that non-industrial meat, which is more expensive, has resulted in people eating less meat. But that’s only true for a few consumers. Around the world, the price is the most important thing to affect how much meat people eat. And industrial meat is always cheaper.

If we do not question the idea of animal farming, cheap meat will always stop the 50 percent reduction you want.

But I want to say that I’m not against eating animals.

I’m against eating farmed animals. We have only been farming for a very short time in our history. We’ve only been keeping animals for food for a few thousand years. Why do we think we can do it really well the first time we try it? Perhaps this was a very big mistake – possibly the biggest mistake we’ve made.

These are questions that can make us really think again about farming and not just play with numbers and percentages.

Simon – yes, eating meat and dairy products can be sustainable

I agree that the best way of reducing how much meat we eat is the old way, through religious or other rules.

But there are no cultures or groups of people that we know who eat no animal products. This is because it would be stupid and a waste not to eat the meat that is a by-product of any farming system.

There are cultures where some classes of people are allowed to eat meat and others are not. This can be all or part of the time. The best example is India. There cows are there to produce oxen for ploughing and they are ‘sacred’. Upper castes are vegetarian. And the meat is reserved for outcasts, who deserve it because they do all the work.

The idea of veganism is one good way of reducing how much meat we eat. But it is not a good idea for everyone to be vegan because that would be wasteful and bad for organic farming.

I can see a time when people who live in cities and have nothing to do with the land, and do not do physical hard work, and eat processed food, could find it easy to be vegan.

I don’t see this happening in the countryside, where animals are important for growing food and farming the land. We like naturally grown meat and we honour it, because we know it is a big part of the natural environment and how much hard it is to work on the land.

James – no, eating meat and dairy products cannot be sustainable

We must think about the world as it is now and the world we want. In the world as it is now, I think that you and I generally agree that we should only eat animals on a small scale. I mean that we both seem to be against industrial animal farming and, possibly, even against smaller, non-industrial farming as it is now.

We also seem to agree that we might eat animals in some situations. You talk about avoiding waste for people living in the country. If animals were there for their manure and the work they do for the land for all of their lives and we ate them when they die, I would agree with this idea about avoiding waste. Another idea I can agree with is perhaps eating insects and animals killed on the road. This would bring a change away from animal farming as we know it. It would also avoid 100% veganism, which people might find difficult.

We could be ‘sort of vegans’.

And then there’s the world as we want it to be. I think that you prefer to look backwards and go back to what worked in the past for people living in the countryside.

I prefer to look to the future at how fast we are living more and more in cities, and think about a technological food system for people in cities. I think that a lot of discussions about food are about different personal views and not about what is right or wrong. No-one can be right or wrong about such a difficult subject.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).