The True Cost of Cheap Meat
By Barry Kent MacKay
Director, Animal Alliance of Canada
Senior Program Associate, Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Because it was a friend who asked me to review this book, written by Philip Lymbery, “with Isabel Oakeshott” and published this year by Bloomsbury, I agreed. Philip Lymbery is the CEO of Compassion for World Farming, which funded the enormous effort that went into this book, and a companion film. He is also a fellow birder, and I love the little avifaunal asides to his descriptions of his travels.
My concern was that I’d be enduring yet another polemic filled with ghastly descriptions of abused factory farm animals along with self-righteous indignation against the 99 plus percent of the population who are not vegan. Although I happen to be vegan, I quite understand that campaigns to stop meat and dairy consumption is a lengthy battle for the hearts and minds of often good and decent people who do not yet understand the negative impacts on health, the environment and on the animals, themselves, that derives from meat and dairy consumption. And no matter how compelling the arguments or how much it may in some ultimate way be in their immediate or long-term self-interest not everyone has access to viable alternatives. I, too, was once a meat and dairy consuming omnivore, and that is what we all evolved to be over millions of years of natural selection.
Lymbery does not challenge moderate meat and dairy eating of products from animals free-ranged on smaller family, organic and mixed-products farms, but takes on factory farming with its overdependence on chemicals and antibiotics, its horrid treatment of animals, its gross inefficiencies in turning plant nutriment into meat and dairy products, its production of vast amounts of effluent and subsequent negative effects on the environment and wildlife, its destruction of employment opportunities and family farming, its degradation of food quality, its potential to spread disease among consumers and wildlife, its destruction of natural living resources in order to fuel its own needs and the misrepresentation it promotes in order to convince “traditional” producers to invest in it, too often to their a ruination that ends in poverty and suicides.
Factory farming is an ugly business that is here documented by a series of “case histories” as Limbery takes us with him on visits to a wide range of places around the globe. He looks at a variety of issues beyond which even most dedicated animal protection activists are likely to consider. I found his description of a Peruvian fishery that draws a huge biomass from the sea to be shipped to distant fish-farms riveting and educational, fascinating, and totally the practice described destructively shameful.
Factory farming is a heavy topic softened in this large volume by Limbery’s anecdotal writing-style. He likes people, and he is mostly focused at the production part of the world’s factory farming industry, understanding that many have no choice. He is non-judgemental, preferring to allow both facts and his observations to speak for themselves. These features combine to make compelling what would otherwise be the depressingly heavy reading I feared I would be enduring when I received my review copy. His non-judgemental style will help readers who consume meat, or produce it, to learn about the powerfully negative aspects of factory farming without feeling persecuted. Many will, I am sure, thereby allow themselves to consider more rational, logical choices in their own self-interests, and in the interest of the planet’s ability to sustain our species.
Additional to farming practice reforms and better distribution leading to less waste, the author advocates simply eating less meat. I know, of course, that whatever reception it receives among the general public and influential people who are its most intended readership, within the animal protection movement this book is likely to receive criticism for not taking the obvious next step and promoting at least vegetarian, if not outright vegan, consumption, where possible. There is a nod toward cultured meat, a product devoid of any animal suffering. But that is effectively still in the future and likely to of limited supply for a long time to come. I don’t think the words “vegan” or “vegetarian” or their derivatives are mentioned anywhere, nor are they in the index. And so from the perspective of those of us who are vegan it seems he wants to make things somewhat better as opposed to quite a lot better, giving up without a struggle to the statistical enormity of the challenge.
I am not sure that all Lymbery’s proposed solutions, including his heavy emphasis on eliminating appalling food wastage, are any more realistic than a world that is mostly vegan, although some are, and he is rightly proud of playing a lead role in getting at least in some jurisdictions to eliminate some of the most egregious abuses of farmed animals, such as veal crates and pig gestation stalls.
But even if we could feed twice the number of people on the planet by implementing all Lymberly’s plans, the number of humans will still grow. So long as it does grow we face the dilemma inherent to the physical reality that a finite amount of required resource cannot forever supply an infinitely growing demand. At some point there will be a reckoning and even the best of effort can only delay that day.
All that said, this is still a book to be highly recommended, and in fact, the most dedicated vegan activist will find within its pages a great deal of hard information and facts and examples of great value in any campaign to protect meat and dairy-producing animals, whether via reform or abolition. It is also a book to be read by that vast majority who cannot conceive of forgoing their cooked carrion, and by the media, politicians and other influential individuals who are now asleep on the Titanic as the iceberg comes ever closer.