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Reflections on Meat a Benign Extravagance, by Simon Fairlie

Reading "Meat, a Benign Extravagance" is a bit like being forced to sit with a pub bore for several hours, not being able to get a word in edgeways. Quite a lot of what is said is interesting, but the repetitions and the ranting tone make it a bit of a struggle to get through. It's worth the effort though to reach the nuggets of anti-vegan vitriol in chapter 15.

First off, I'll flag up this article, referred to in 'New Scientist' magazine, which claims:  "There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. ... Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias." 'Meat, a Benign Extravagance' is a good example of this. Simon Fairlie uses various arguments to justify eating what he starts out defining as "a luxury" (p12) but later describes as "your birthright" (p39) i.e. meat. His points about diet, efficiency and the environment could easily be challenged. I could also focus on his limited understanding of agroforestry, nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs, myccorhizal fungi, biochar and anaerobic digestion, but here I will focus on his anti-vegan agenda and the way that he tries to bring the reader into his "us" camp, where vegans = "them." It's also worth looking at his assumptions about, and opinions of, animals. Both positions are a reflection of "the prevailing bias" which he wishes to maintain.

Fairlie's assumptions about / opnion of veganism

* Vegan food is boring and unpalatable "There is value in meat and dairy produce because they add variety to what might otherwise be a boring diet." (p21) "meatstock or scraps increases palatability" (p23).

* Veganism is worthy but unrealistic "a vegan diet, laudable though it may be for' the individual, is neither sensible not attainable for society as a whole." (p42) Vegans deserve a "reward for their forebearance". (p283)

* Vegans tend to live in cities "When I have asked vegans what they think Britain would look like if it went vegan, I have several times received the reply: 'Oh! I've never really thought about that.' ... If some vegans have never really thought about this matter, it is probably because they live in the city, and have never had to think about land use at all." (p212)

* Vegans are detached from nature and their ideology derives merely from being squeamish or "uncomfortable" "Could it be that people who feel uncomfortable about eating meat don't like to take too close a look at wild animals because they don't like what they see?" (p214). "Efficient mechanized vegan farmers, supplying food for millions, would be less inclined to share land with nature." (p219) Vegans create a "rift between humanity and nature, which I suspect would arise as a result of the refusal to eat meat." (p220)

* Vegans want to kill animals but they can't "The smell of bacon may not awaken murderous feelings in the breast of vegetarian gardeners, but the sight of all their pea seedlings being ripped out by pigeons often does. And nothing causes sleepless nights for conscience-striken vegans so much as the sound of rats scuttling in the cavities of their walls. (p217)

* Vegans want to eat meat but they can't Nut cutlets gave vegetarians "the opportunity to sink their teeth into something at least analogous to flesh." He refers to the "secret longings of some vegans for Chicken Nobs" (p228) and says, "The vegan mission" is to "find a substitute for meat." (p237)

* Veganism doesn't fit in with permaculture Veganism doesn't offer anything to permaculture and is "parasitic" (p246) to it.

* Random stuff "This undiscriminating approach towards trees and tree-planting is shared by all sorts of persuasions. But it is prevalent amongst vegans and not uncommon among adherents of permaculture." (p242)

But my favourite one is from the end of chapter 15 where he attempts a bizarre switch, trying to turn meat eaters into nature lovers who care about animals, and vegans into powerful players who need watching lest they succeed in imposing their twisted will onto the masses:

"Those of us who value the natural world, and more especially our relation with members of the animal kingdom, both wild and domestic, would do well to keep an eye on the vegan agenda, for it may not turn out to be quite as meek, disinterested and innocuous as it might seem." (p231)

Given Fairlie's low opinion of vegans (as nature-hating masochists who want to take over the world, but don't even know the best kinds of tree to plant), it's surprising that he actually includes a quote from one. But it is qualified as follows: "I tumbled upon this, from Paul Appleby, which is sensible enough to be worth quoting at some length." (p213) At no other point in the book does he question whether what someone else is saying might be 'sensible' or not. And Appleby's words are only "sensible enough" - well, he is vegan!

And that interesting word, "sensible", comes up again. Next because someone agrees with him that there should be a "measured amount of meat-eating" (p216) and again when he's talking about permaculture and veganism: He claims to be surprised that vegans would be interested in permaculture since it takes natural ecosystems as the starting point: "You might think at this point that any sensible vegan would decide: 'Permaculture is not for me'" because vegans would create, "an agricultural economy which eschewed animals". (p243)

Fairlie's assumption about / opinions of animals

* Animals like working for us "Despite the fact that she is dealing with such fibrous material, the cow does this both willingly and surprisingly efficiently." (p30)

* Eating meat is natural and exciting "The relentless diet of full English beakfast and meat and two veg ... takes away much of the excitement that can be derived from ... frying up the liver from the pig you have just slaughtered." (p39)

* Animals are there for us "that is partly what what animals are for: to ensure there is always a surplus of grains." (p106) "Man" is "the supreme predator" (p216).

* Animals are just like machines working for us "Besides being heaters animals are also automobiles." (p140) "A flock of sheep or a herd of cows in a well-designed farming system is the most energy-efficient compost-making machine yet devised." (p142)

Later on, Fairlie changes his tack. At this point he doesn't need to prove that animals are functioning efficient machines, but that livestock farmers have a superior natural connection to the lives they own.

"A mixed farming system provides a more natural landscape than pure arable farming, is less mechanised, and gives humans greater contact with nature. ... [vegans] remove an entire order of creation from the system. Moreover, it is the order which is closest to humanity, which gallops and gives birth and suckles, which feels pain and anger and joy. Farmers talk to their animals and give names to them ... What vegetable farmer ever gave a name to a cabbage?" (p222)

The fact that vegetable farmers don't name their produce doesn't prove a disconnection from nature, just that livestock farmers are in some kind of denial about the true relationship they have with the animals they care for, whose babies they remove, whose eggs and milk they take and whom they kill and eat. But Fairlie's caring farmer angle doesn't last long, a few sentences later, he's back to describing animals in functional terms: cats are "companion animals whose original purpose was to eat pests and unwanted meat." (p222)

So for any vegans who are thinking about reading this book, you have been warned! I'm figuring Fairlie feels he can take this tone because vegans are a tiny minority of the population. It's also made life quite easy for him because he merely had to regurgitate the myths of the "prevailing bias" rather than challenge his thinking about our relationship with animals. And if you're an animal (a non-human one), congratulations for mastering the skill of reading - you might want to read something else.


Amanda Baker's picture

"The prevailing bias" which Fairlie wishes to maintain

Thank you for this useful summary of some of Simon Fairlie's prior assumptions.

I hope it will help many of us in challenging our thinking about our relationship with other animals.

A useful place to start to explore practical stock-free farming is The Vegan-Organic Network: Their Stock-free Organic Services scheme is expanding, certifying working stock-free organic farms: VON & SOS can also give pointers on practical vegan permaculture.

Many thanks,

Amanda, wearing my "PR Officer at The Vegan Society": hat

Ann Owen's picture

Shocked at this misrepresentation

Dear Jo,

I am simply flabbergasted, stunned and at loss for words at this shameless misrepresentation of Simon Fairlie's book. Suffice for me to add a link here to a review of "Meat, a benign extravagance" by an experienced investigative reporter, who doesn't shy away from controversy and who is prepared to consider another point of view: and to give a short quote from said revue:

"In Meat: a benign extravagance, Simon Fairlie pays handsome tribute to vegans for opening up the debate(2). He then subjects their case to the first treatment I’ve read that is both objective and forensic. His book is an abattoir for misleading claims and dodgy figures, on both sides of the argument."

Jo Homan's picture


Dr Matthew Cole has already written about the way George Monbiot "writes about animals and selects arguments in a way that support his personal choice not to follow a vegan diet, and thereby appease his conscience." The guy clearly just wanted to go back to eating meat.

Lovely phrase, "handsome tribute", but as far as I'm concerned Fairlie used the word 'vegan' negatively throughout.  He claims to be criquing veganism but clearly has lots of false assumptions about what makes people vegan and what vegans think and do. He is far from "objective and forensic." Fairlie is up front about his own bias, he "became a born-again carnivore (the worst kind)" (p3). He can't be objective and forensic when he's trying to justify his position. If you'd like to find counter evidence for the direct quotes from the book I'd be interested.

Scotlyn's picture

Building soil and sustainable ecosystems

To me it is difficult to envisage a sustainable way of living that does not replicate the ecosystems we see in nature, which involve numerous types of ongoing exchanges, including (ultimately) the fact that everything eats and everything gets eaten.

There are no sustainable natural ecosystems that do not involve animals, plants and micro-organisms, all using and being used, all eating and being eaten, by one another.  One prominent example is the system that links grazers, predators, grasslands and soil micro-organisms in a sustainable cycle of water, soil, and carbon capture, and growth - eg. American prairies, African savannahs, etc.  This is such a successful system for building soil and burying carbon that close replication of all its elements has been shown to be capable of rehabilitating desertified lands, increasing bio-diversity, rehydrating spent watercourses AND increasing herd sizes.  (see the work of 2010 Buckminster Fuller prize winner Allan Savory).

A vegan dietary choice I can comprehend.  A vegan permaculture I cannot.

mdoyle's picture

Echoing nature

Forgive me as I'm not an expert on Permaculture - I just believe what I do from the heart, and yes, my diet/lifestyle is vegan. My first point relates to your use of the word 'sustainable' - I believe that without fossil fuel inputs, we need a target which is beyond sustainable... we need to be aiming at regenerative solutions. Sustainable by it's definition, keeps the status quo (ie you take as much as you give).

My other point is in connection with your sentence about replicating ecosystems - vegan permaculture (in terms of how I might see it) does not exclude animals - they are an important part of the natural world. It does however, exclude their deliberate confinement and use. Many animal-based systems also exclude predator animals (eg shooting/killing wolves to protect lambs), but this leads to other problems such as being overrun with deer. 

An interesting YouTube video to watch on Permaculture and civilisation is this talk by Toby Hemenway - he believes that 'civilisation' and the destruction of the ecosystem started with agriculture. He goes on to talk about how damaging it has been to bring animals into that equation, and that, in his opinion, the future lies with a permaculture approach to horticulture.

I think one of the resistances to vegan anything is that it really does challenge people's beliefs - most of us have been brought up to believe that our food should be meat and two veg and that animals manures are necessary for growing etc. There are now several farms in the UK and across the world that have achieved official vegan-organic status and are providing food and employment.

Finally, I would like to thank Jo for writing this critique of Simon's book. I like a lot of Simon's writing and agree with many of his ideas and ideals, but his book does seem to have been written to fit his beliefs on this subject. The key message is that humans should be eating much less meat - I've just taken it a stage further.

Jo Homan's picture

permaculture, veganism, grazing animals and landscapes ...

Your views echo those expressed in chapter 16 of Fairlie's book, The Struggle Between Light and Shade. I found Frans Vera's theory of a mosaic landscape, as opposed to the traditional theory of succession towards dense climax woodlands, fascinating. I'd like to explore the idea of how vegan permaculture could work in more detail than is possible here and have booked myself another blogging slot for this Saturday. It won't be a fully worked up vision but will contrast with the uber-mechanised, partitioned landscape described by Fairlie. It's also what I originally wanted to write about, but felt that I couldn't ignore the anti-vegan thread running through the book. And there was only about 1000 words ...

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

accentuating the negative

Confronting denial about food is a hazadous business! Especially when it comes to the treatment of animals and birds and fish in the industrialised food system. Most people don't want to look at the killing of pigs, or at the kinds of places chickens live in. Or if the animals are "local" the fact they consume vast quantities of rainforest soya and wheat (70% of grain grown in East Anglia is for feed). Or the cruelties behind most diary farming. How exhausted cows die after only 2-3 years.

I haven't read Fairlie's book, but from the tone of these quotes recognise the fervour of the born-again. Born-again advocates (like George Monbiot and Mark Lynas with nuclear power) seem to thrive on negative and violent energy, mixed with a kind of perversity. When I gave up eating animals I was often attacked for my "diet" when I went for supper to places. People would get furious and pour down the whole antagonism of Empire down on my head. All I had to say was: I'll just have some potatoes!

The fact is whether we choose in all conscience to eat animals or not, we have to come from a place of deep connection and fellow feeling when we do if we want to live in a happier and healthier world. We have to honour the beasts, the wild and the domestic, and our relationship with them.  I have not met an animal (including a human animal), that does not respond positively to kindness and shy away from violence and hostility. I have not met any creature who has wanted to be treated and killed in the way we now do.

To me this was a reason I gave up meat 15 years ago, though I loved to eat it (and occasionally still eat roadkill or freegan fish that would otherwise be thrown away). As a Transition cook I'm glad I can bring that down shift into the kitchen (more on Thursday!) and explore a new kinder, plant-based paradigm.

Good for you Jo for bringing up a difficult subject.

lisamcloughlin's picture

another perspective

What about the Jainism monks ( ? They would view Vegans as killers of insects which are part of all living things...Where does this criticism end?

Amanda Baker's picture

Lisa, would there really be

Lisa, would there really be much difference between the Jain & vegan position?  Vegans avoid all (ab)use of all animals for any purposes, including insects.  There are Jain vegans.  Aren't the differences n details of practice, and what is seen as possible and practical, rather than in core principle?  Vegans avoid honey, shellac & cochineal due to respect for the lives of insects.  Vegans are successfully developing commercially viable vegan farming systems. 

Perhaps the key principles are (1) that individual animals have the capacity to suffer, and (2) that most people agree it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to others, of whatever species?

lisamcloughlin's picture

Yes, I understand

Yes I understand what you are saying and respect the Vegan position on things...I agree and do not feel that any species should suffer.

My point was that even as a Vegan we are killing insects who squish into our windscreens, get caught up in vegetables we harvest and wash or tread on accidently when we walk over ground. We are all killing insects quickly or slowly.


lisamcloughlin's picture

expand on...



...and a Jainism monk may feel that Vegans are not going far enough to protect all living species against unecessary suffering...

There are people that I know who are Vegan and they are not very pleasant and meat eaters who are caring and compassionate (and vice versa). Hitler was a vegetarian. I think we need to take account of the bigger picture.

It is all a matter of perspective....

Amanda Baker's picture

Vegans avoid use and abuse of

Vegans avoid use and abuse of animals as far as possible & practical.  Different perspectives are important, and what is 'possible & practical' is partly subjective.

But there are some reasonably clear lines.  It is almost certainly practical for me to demonstrate my compassion by avoiding killing animals for pleasure.  Outside of survival situations, choosing whether or not to eat meat, milk, eggs etc. is a choice which reflects my ethics, & is not a necessity.  Meat, milk & eggs all involve killing - of male calves & male chicks, in the case of milk & eggs.  So do I only continue with this killing-by-proxy because I can't give up the flavours?

If I have fair access to shopping, cooking & gardening facilities, I can take reasonable steps to minimise the harm I cause to any animal.  It may not be practical for me to make my living without travelling (hence stepping on, running over or driving into insects).  It is still worthwhile for me, as someone who has decided to live vegan, to try to live the best vegan life that I can.  And it's straightforward in that case for me to enjoy a nutritious, varied & delicious plant-based diet!

PS Being a pleasant personality isn't really related to being vegan.  That said, Hitler was an enthusiastic meat-eater, with a Nazi propaganda machine that tried to make out otherwise:


Robert Riversong's picture


I haven't read Fairlie's book, and the quotes you cherry-picked certainly indicate a bias against veganism, but all other reviews I've read of his book suggest a very different story: one of challenging both extremes of diet and agriculture and seeking a well-researched reason for finding a middle ground.

If there are parts of Fairlie's book that exhibit his bias, your review literally reeks of bias and antipathy and doesn't even pretend to objectivity or fairness.

A far more intelligent review of this book was just written by a man who has dedicated his life to "What is Sustainable": Adrian Reese.

Jo Homan's picture

Thanks for the link. I

Thanks for the link. I suspect that other reviewers didn't pick up on the anti-vegan bias because they're not vegan. I find it strange that the review you link to says, "He doesn’t take sides; he forces everyone to reconsider their beliefs." When I read the book I found it extremely biased and didn't feel forced to reconsider my beliefs. In fact, it made me so angry that I wanted to challenge his anti-vegan agenda. I feel I managed to do this fairly succintly.