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Meat: A Benign Extravagance

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Meat: A Benign Extravagance: front cover shot.

Meat: A Benign Extravagance
By Simon Fairlie
Permanent Publications
ISBN 978 1 85623 055 1

There can be no better time to review Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance than during Meat Free Week.

Launched in the UK in 2015, Meat Free Week has successfully made people stop and think about where their meat comes from, how much meat they eat, and how it is produced. Simon’s book is just the ticket for anyone interested to understand the facts (and fiction) written about the environmental impact of livestock farming.

Meat started as a personal enquiry and grew into a full blown research project. Written as a series of essays, the book is concerned with the environmental ethics of eating meat. It provides answers to questions that are more often the stuff of pub talk, heated debate and speculation because of the lack of accessible and relevant information. 

Simon is no ordinary researcher. His ability to shine a light into dark corners is grounded in a diverse career that spans many years of small scale farming and journalism. He worked on The Ecologist in the 1990s, and has been for many years editor of The Land. He helped set up Tinkers Bubble, a community farm in Somerset that operates entirely without fossil fuels, and he rather modestly admits to earning a living by selling scythes. (In fact he is entirely responsible for the recent scything renaissance in England.)

At the start of the book Simon comes clean about his own position (he favours the consumption of small amounts of meat as a luxury rather than as a staple - the clue is in the title). But, having said that, he makes an excellent job of analysing objectively the arguments for and against different types of livestock farming on the one hand and veganism on the other.

So, to what extent is the human appetite for meat responsible for social and environmental ills? Does rearing animals for meat deprive wild animals of habitat and the world of wilderness? And if to some extent meat production is contributing to social injustice and ecological degradation, is veganism the only ethical response? (And what would the world look like, anyway, if we were all to go vegan?) Read Simon’s book and you will be considerably better placed to have an opinion on these and other tricky questions relating to the ethics of livestock farming and meat consumption.

Denser and heftier than was originally intended (his own words), the scale of the book should not put readers off. Simon writes in a lively style, doesn’t mince his words and knows bullshit when he sees it.

Meat: A Benign Extravagance was first published in 2010 but while people continue to question the impact of intensive meat production and high levels of meat consumption, the book remains particularly relevant. In reviewing it Colin Tudge said: “No one has ever analysed the world’s food and agriculture more astutely than Simon Fairlie - an original thinker and a true scholar.”

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, also praised the book: “Meat, animals and dairy have been in the firing line for so long that in some circles, the assumption is taken for granted that there is no case, ever, anywhere, to be made for the role of animals in farming, landcare or diet. This book is a wonderful and challenging correction.” 

Christina Ballinger

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