II.5: LIVESTOCK

For a whole variety of reasons, many people – perhaps an increasing number – argue, sometimes fiercely, that we, humanity, should stop keeping livestock and stop eating meat. Some say that livestock production is simply too profligate – it soaks up about a third of the cereal and nearly all the soya which could be feeding billions more people; and vast areas of what could be wilderness, including more and more of Brazil’s Cerrado, is destroyed to make way for it; and aquifers are drained and rivers diverted to keep it all watered. Livestock is also too damaging, many say: in particular, methane from the exhalations of cattle and other ruminants is a potent greenhouse gas, and goats in poor countries the world over denude the local vegetation and create desert, and (as George Monbiot in Britain argues) sheep on the Welsh hills produce far too little to be worthwhile and have replaced what should be upland forest, bursting with life. Meat just isn’t necessary, many say. In particular, we can get all the protein we need from plants, and in particular from cereals and pulses (and nuts may be excellent too). Vegans who eat no meat at all can be very healthy – including some traditional peoples, especially in Japan and India, who have little or no access to animal fare and/or shun meat on religious grounds. Contrariwise, say the detractors, the meat-rich western diet is positively life-shortening. Finally, they say, livestock farming is often cruel and is certainly presumptuous. We have no right to raise other animals for food. Livestock farming should not be allowed in civilized societies. Aboriginal hunting is perhaps permissible but only if there really is no alternative, as in dry lands or in high latitudes where there are too few plants.

All these charges are true to some extent – but all except the last can be adequately answered. The last charge – that livestock farming can be cruel and is presumptuous – can be answered, but not quite adequately. In the end we can justify livestock farming only by employing the same argument that is used to justify hunting – that it can be the best of the unsatisfactory alternatives. But it’s incumbent upon us always to treat other animals as well as can be managed, and not to keep or to kill more than we really need.

As always in farming, or indeed in most aspects of life, the really bad features of livestock farming all result from bad practice, which in turn result mainly from bad strategy: crude economics and insouciant governance. We cannot produce all the meat that’s needed to support the burger and fried-chicken culture that has emerged in the west and is spreading like some epidemic to the rest of the world. But in the end, the burger/fried chicken culture is little more than a commercial scam and as discussed in Part III, the world can certainly produce all the meat, eggs, and milk that are needed to support the world’s greatest cuisines. All we really need is to relearn how to cook. What more do we want?

So in a nutshell, we need to ask:

Is livestock farming too profligate?

Is livestock farming too damaging?

Is meat bad for us?

Do we really need to keep livestock?

Animal welfare and animal rights: is livestock farming cruel? Do we have a right to keep animals at all?

What of “demand”? Can we eat tolerably without lots of meat?

All these issues are complex, and the range of opinion and the corresponding literature are correspondingly vast. But all will be addressed in the following pages.

Then, assuming we conclude that livestock farming is indeed justified, at least in some forms and with suitable caveats, we can get on and ask how it should be done.