Guardian George Monbiot
© The Guardian
Feel the awesome power of meat guilt
If you were to believe the headlines (something not generally recommended) gracing newspapers and interwebs this week, you'd be assured that if you don't go vegan, you're going to kill the planet. Peer-reviewed research published in the prestigious journal Science late last month is based on a database of a bunch of different food products, which the study's authors analyzed from production to retailing to determine their environmental impact. From Science Daily:
Researchers at Oxford University and the Swiss agricultural research institute, Agroscope, have created the most comprehensive database yet on the environmental impacts of nearly 40,000 farms, and 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers. This allows them to assess how different production practices and geographies lead to different environmental impacts for 40 major foods.
So how did they assess the environmental impact of our daily foodstuffs? Pollutants like heavy metals or toxic chemicals being released? Destruction of fragile ecosystems? The number of endangered species affected? Invasive genetically modified technologies and their consequences? Nope. Those things don't matter in the grand scheme of things, apparently. All that matters now is carbon dioxide, the innocuous gas that feeds plants. In the current media landscape, all the horrific things we do to the environment get a pass. The only thing that gets attention is CO2.

So it's no surprise that the studies that bolster this propaganda get the most traction in the media, dutifully tweeted out by the PC brigade, who are secure in their belief that they're 'doing something' to 'help save the planet'.

One article about this that stood out was George Monbiot's column at the Guardian, which ran with the headline: 'The best way to save the planet? Drop meat and dairy'... Right away, we know we're in for a wild ride. This is actually the second Guardian article in the last week about this study, and it attempts to guilt their readers into going vegan. It would appear their readers' diets is a particularly important issue for them.

The Monbiot piece opens:
Whether human beings survive this century and the next, whether other lifeforms can live alongside us: more than anything, this depends on the way we eat. We can cut our consumption of everything else almost to zero and still we will drive living systems to collapse, unless we change our diets.
The "more than anything" part is debatable, but as long as we're talking in generalizations, this is likely true. Monocrop farming, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), genetic modification, glyphosate, toxic chemical agriculture - these things are all absolutely brutal on a planetary scale and it's probably true that we're going to reach a tipping point, if we haven't already, and start seeing absolutely devastating consequences and loss of life (human and otherwise). But that's not what Monbiot is talking about, as we see in the next paragraph.
All the evidence now points in one direction: the crucial shift is from an animal- to a plant-based diet.
Well, at least the introduction was good. Now that the author has revealed his agenda, we can pretty much guarantee that everything that follows is nonsense, building on all the previous carefully-crafted environmental propaganda we've been thoroughly indoctrinated with for years. The article, and the study it reports on, relies on three main assumptions:
  1. Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for climate change, and any discussion of environmental impact of a given human activity should only take greenhouse gas emissions into account.
  2. Protein in particular, but food in general, is equal to its constituent nutrients, no matter where it comes from.
  3. Human land use is detrimental regardless of how the land is being used, and different uses of land should not be taken into account.
None of these assumptions are valid, of course. But as long as we hold these assumptions we have a convenient method of quantification that removes all nuance from the discussion. We can boil everything down to meaningless ratios like land use to protein, or carbon to protein, or land use to calories. When the details of a problem make it so that you can't prove your point via logical reasoning, try reducing everything to simplistic math that ignores inconvenient variables. The old reducto mathmaticum ad absurdum fallacy, if you will.

Let's follow along as Monbiot takes us on a journey through the assumptions that inform his worldview:
A paper published last week in Science reveals that while some kinds of meat and dairy production are more damaging than others, all are more harmful to the living world than growing plant protein. It shows that animal farming takes up 83% of the world's agricultural land, but delivers only 18% of our calories. A plant-based diet cuts the use of land by 76% and halves the greenhouse gases and other pollution that are caused by food production.
'I'll take assumption number 2 to start, please Alex!'

Even if it were true that growing plant protein is less harmful to the living world than growing animal protein (and it's not true), it is a false equivalence. I'll get into the land use argument below, but this comparison relies on the assumption that consuming plant protein is the same thing as consuming animal protein. If they're the same thing, we might as well replace all our animal protein with plant protein (notice it also whittles down all human nutrition to the single component of 'protein'). This is what the vegans have been trying to convince us of for years. But it ain't true.

I've written about this extensively in the past (particularly in this article, while taking apart 'arguments' by vegan quack Dr. Milton Mills). The long and the short of it is that animal protein is complete, comes alongside other nutrients in nutritionally superior forms than those found in plants (fats, in particular), and is tastier; plant protein is incomplete, more often than not it comes with an unhealthy dose of anti-nutrients, and contains fiber in varying degrees. These prevent the human digestive system, which is capable of only minimal fermentation, from extracting much of the nutrition, and is much, much, less tasty.

Monbiot then goes on to talk about how inefficient it is to feed livestock on grain and soy. No argument here. In one of my previous articles, which incidentally managed to bring out the ire of vegans in the comments like nothing else I've ever written, I mentioned that:
The problem is that those making the case that meat-eating hurts the environment consistently conflate meat consumption with factory farming (CAFOs). They are not the same thing, as Joel Salatin has repeatedly shown. As has Lierre Keith in her must-read The Vegetarian Myth. Yes, factory farming is not good for the environment, but to say that all meat eating supports and depends on this type of farming is incorrect. Farming that mimics how grazing animals naturally interact with the environment is good for the environment - in so many ways that humans will likely never be able to engineer from scratch. The same is true for monoculture farming versus polycultures - the former exploits the environment, the latter builds and protects it (and it's not without irony that the vegan diet essentially depends on monocrop farming).
Despite writing this in the article, the comments were still filled with vegans conflating all meat eating with factory farming.

Well it seems that the pro-vegan scientists, and George Monbiot, are reading my articles. In what's possibly the most gag-inducing paragraph of Monbiot's piece, he takes aim at those who have the gall to suggest one can eat meat and actually provide benefit to the environment:
More damaging still is free-range meat: the environmental impacts of converting grass into flesh, the paper remarks, "are immense under any production method practised today". This is because so much land is required to produce every grass-fed steak or chop. Though roughly twice as much land is used for grazing worldwide as for crop production, it provides just 1.2% of the protein we eat. While much of this pastureland cannot be used to grow crops, it can be used for rewilding: allowing the many rich ecosystems destroyed by livestock farming to recover, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, protecting watersheds and halting the sixth great extinction in its tracks. The land that should be devoted to the preservation of human life and the rest of the living world is at the moment used to produce a tiny amount of meat.
Jesus H. Christ, George! Grass-fed beef is responsible for bringing on the sixth great extinction? Hyperbole much? George really should have read the interview with Joel Salatin - in the Guardian.

This whole paragraph is nothing but the extreme end of propaganda. It reads as if constructed specifically to counter the findings of pasture-raised meat enthusiasts: "no, grass-fed beef-eater, you're actually hurting the environment more with your food choices. Factory farming is better for the environment than a farming method which mimics how ruminants have lived in the wild for millions of years." It's only by reducing select variables to abstract numbers that he can come up with something so ludicrous.

The argument requires that one use this protein-to-land-use ratio the Science study relies on, which, again, assumes that all protein is nutritionally equivalent (again, it's not). That pasture for livestock uses twice as much land as growing crops is completely irrelevant if the land in question is being used in a way that actually helps to build the soil, lets smaller wild animals live, and maintains harmony with the ecosystem. Pastured livestock, if done correctly, is regenerative for the land. What does Monbiot imagine it would look like; rows and rows of cows like stalks in an endless cornfield? The livestock obviously take up only a tiny amount of that land at any given time!

I'll give credit to Monbiot for at least admitting pastureland cannot be converted to land for growing crops, but his whole argument about "rewilding" is bunk. Because the study is based on the faulty assumption (number 1, above) that human-produced carbon dioxide is responsible for climate change, the entire argument against pasture farming falls apart when you consider this fact: grassland sequesters carbon. An acre of pasture can sequester more carbon than an acre of forest.

Ruminants eat grass, but they don't eat it down to its roots. They trim off the tops, keeping it in its rapid growth phase. They then ferment it and deposit it as manure on the same land. This regenerates the soil and keeps the grassland thriving. Here I'll paraphrase Joel Salatin, the owner-operator of Polyface Farm, an organic grass-fed farm serving thousands of clients, this time from the documentary The Magic Pill, for a little perspective:
When grass is allowed to be as productive as it's supposed to be, it is actually far more efficient at converting solar energy into biomass than even trees. That's why all the rich deep soils of the planet are under prairies with herbivores.

If every farm in the world would do this, we would sequester all the carbon that's been emitted since the beginning of the industrial age in fewer than ten years (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Trade and Environment Review 2013).

This is the mystical awesome cycle of life, and to be this close to it has a humility to it, a perspective that is actually quite profound and yet quite historically normal.
Look, I don't know what farms these researchers were investigating for their study, but it's likely they weren't employing Salatin's methods, which are all about harmonizing with the land and mimicking how animals interact with the planet. This is the solution to the environmental impact of agriculture, not eschewing animals entirely from the picture, which, if the researchers were paying attention, is in no way sustainable.

Pasture-raising animals cannot be as destructive to the environment as monocrop farming. Industrial agriculture clears the land of every living thing, down to the bacteria, enslaves it into growing one crop by force, and wages a never-ending war on the other vegetation and animals which would naturally live there, and are constantly trying to come back. And it poisons the entire ecosystem with fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides. Oh, and it destroys the soil. And we're not even getting into the horror-show that is genetically modified crops. So, again, how exactly is turning our backs on sustainable meat farming and embracing industrial agriculture going to save the planet?

After complaining that he gets a barrage of abuse every time he mentions yield-per-hectare (as he should; see assumption number 3), and assuring us that "meat and dairy are an extravagance we can no longer afford," Monbiot goes on to make a string of super-weak arguments about why pasturing animals cannot be good.
There is no way out of this. Those who claim that "regenerative" or "holistic" ranching mimics nature deceive themselves. It relies on fencing, while in nature wild herbivores roam freely, often across vast distances.
Oh, yeah - fencing. That's the problem. Clearly farming can't be regenerative or holistic if it employs fencing. Its much better to decimate the land with monocrops than employ some fencing. Soy farms obviously don't have any fencing. Fencing is the ecological equivalent of 'Novichok'. Fencing causes global warming. To think I've been deceiving myself for so long. I just didn't think of the fences.
It excludes or eradicates predators, which are crucial to the healthy functioning of all living systems.
No it doesn't. In this farming system, we take the role of predator. The herd is culled by us, because the livestock we're raising will end up on our dinner plates.
It tends to eliminate tree seedlings, ensuring that the complex mosaics of woody vegetation found in many natural systems - essential to support a wide range of wildlife - are absent.
Georgey, you're seriously reaching here. No one is saying we should eliminate all land for use as pastureland. The trees will still be able to grow in other places. And considering the fact that grazing land comprises more than half the total land surface of the Earth, maybe we can just stick the cows there, instead of where trees are trying to grow. Grasslands have their own vibrant ecosystems that are served by ruminants. When 60 to 100 million bison were roaming North America before Europeans showed up, the planet didn't seem to be suffering from an epidemic of baby tree death.

Monbiot then goes on to offer some solutions. And they're as problematic as his framing of the problem. The problem: that there aren't enough of us eating a vegan diet (not actually a problem). The solution: make the vegan diet better! Vegan cooking can be expensive and boring, he admits. So we therefore "need better and cheaper vegan ready meals and quick and easy meat substitutes." So apparently the garbage processed vegetarian TV dinners aren't cheap or exciting enough. Sounds like an invitation to add a bunch of chemical flavouring agents! Those are exciting! The quest for the ever-better veggie burger continues. He then goes on to extol the virtues of burgeoning cultured meat technology:
The big shift will come with the mass production of cultured meat. There are three main objections. The first is that the idea of artificial meat is disgusting. If you feel this way, I invite you to look at how your sausages, burgers and chicken nuggets are currently raised, slaughtered and processed. Having worked on an intensive pig farm, I'm more aware than most of what disgusting looks like.
Disgusting is rather subjective, but maybe if George wasn't working on an "intensive" pig farm and worked somewhere more akin to Salatin's farm he'd have more appreciation for the "mystical, awesome cycle of life" and not equate all meat farming with concentration camp meat factories. I've taken part in pig slaughter and butchering and I was filled more with a sense of reverence than disgust. Keep in mind that this is how humans have eaten since we could be identified as humans. None of our ancestors seemed to have any particular issue with it. It's a part of life, after all.
The second objection is that cultured meat undermines local food production. Perhaps those who make this claim are unaware of where animal feed comes from.
Blah blah blah. If the animal is fed on grass, this isn't an issue. Having sloppily dispensed with holistic farming methods, Monbiot seems to think he's in the clear for equating all meat farming with industrial meat production. Nice try, Georgey.
The third objection has greater merit: cultured meat lends itself to corporate concentration. Again, the animal feed industry (and, increasingly, livestock production) has been captured by giant conglomerates. But we should fight to ensure that cultured meat does not go the same way: in this sector as in all others, we need strong anti-trust laws.
Fine. Do what you like with the laboratory meat industry. Regulate the hell out of it. Just don't expect me to eat it. Considering that the driving force behind this stuff is based on a misguided solution to a problem they don't really grasp, it's unlikely the whole Frankencow thing is going to be much of a success anyway. It really only provides a pseudo-solution for those who recognize, even at a subconscious level, that they need to eat meat but have been sufficiently indoctrinated by the propaganda to believe that they have to stop eating it. Staring down at a plate of "shmeat" may do wonders for waking people up to the terror of the situation rather quickly.

George finishes up with a call to arms:
Understandably, the livestock industry will resist all this, using the bucolic images and pastoral fantasies that have beguiled us for so long. But it can't force us to eat meat. The shift is ours to make. It becomes easier every year.
The choice to become vegan might be easy (for a gullible person), but the decision to stay vegan requires a level of ideological possession that subverts the self-preservation instinct. Monbiot announced his (re)committment to veganism in August 2016. In May this year, he announced he has prostate cancer. He assures his readers that he's "happy" and recommits to his misguided principles by - it would appear - attempting to convert others to his path.

I in no way mean to suggest that Monbiot 'deserves' his illness. And he may of course have developed cancer if he was a meat-eater. He has struggled with this issue off and on, having once apparently understood the dietary-planetary predicament rather clearly ('I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat - but farm it properly' - The Guardian, 2010).

It amazes me how far a little fib like 'human greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change' - albeit one repeated a trillion times over several decades - can take us away from the objective truth of our situation, and how many 'great ideas' emerge, but which are actually siren calls leading us to our downfall. That a rather vocal contingent in the population is actually driving people to embrace the most destructive elements of human civilization, in the name of 'saving the planet', is astonishing.

Then again, given the widespread ignorance currently gracing our world, it's actually pretty amazing that we've come this far. We're so far out-of-sync with the natural cycles of the planet at this point, the fact that the whole thing hasn't fallen apart yet is testament to the resilience of the planet.

There is obviously plenty of scope for improvement in the food industry: CAFOs are an abomination for the cattle, our health AND the environment - and don't get me started on the plastic waste from packaging sectors. But literally starving ourselves into illness while imagining that everything is awesome in our guts and in the endless horizon of soy fields isn't going to make us healthy and happy, and it isn't a scientific solution to our problems.