The Knight With a Drooping Lance
"Never place people on pedestals", says Tony Wardle, "for the taller you build them, the greater the height your hero’s have to defecate on you"
A latter-day Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of imaginary environmental and political horrors, astride his trusty steed Rocinante (aka the Guardian). That’s how the Right perceive George Monbiot. Truth is, he’s been a voice of sanity on political and environmental issues for years and has an enviable track record of book writing, journalism and action.
But - and it’s a big but – he never mentioned the devastating impact on the planet of livestock production for meat and dairy.
I once asked his ex-girlfriend (now there’s a conversation stopper) why? Her answer was instant: “George loves his meat too much – you’ll never get him to give that up!” Always one for a challenge, I started feeding information to him and then, in 2002, it seemed I’d struck gold as George’s column said: “Veganism is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue.”
That article has been circulated around the animal movement ever since like some holy grail. Then, on September 6, 2010, George quietly urinated on this burning admiration: “I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly.” By properly he means stop feeding animals grain and give them food we don’t eat.
He starts with pigs - the perfect waste-disposal systems, turning dross into meat. There is enough food waste and crop residues to produce 800,000 tons of pork annually, he says, clearly working on the claim that we waste something like one-third of the food we buy.
Think of the state of the stuff you throw away as being inedible. Now imagine it sitting in a bin for perhaps a week or more before being collected and mixed with other people’s putrefying, maggot-ridden meat and fish scraps. Imagine the logistics and fuel use of collecting these separate little parcels of putrefaction, boiling them up and redistributing them to individual farms as heavy, liquid feed - swill.
The reason swill isn’t used any more is an over-reaction to BSE and foot and mouth scares, he says. Truth is, there was very little swill in use even before this for the simple reason that pigs don’t thrive on this unbalanced, unnatural filth.
He claims that a pig’s natural diet includes a fair bit of meat, which is again untrue. Pigs are predominantly vegetarian rooters with a few invertebrates, worms and amphibians thrown in - a tiny proportion of the total.
The claim is made to justify the insane recommendation that pigs should be fed meat and bone meal “so long as it is properly rendered.” How do you render meat and bone, George, to ensure that prions are destroyed? You can’t because they can withstand virtual incineration. These organisms, at the very frontiers of science, have infected not just cattle with BSE but 28 other species, including humans.
Their discoverer, Nobel Prize winner Professor Stanley Prusiner, is currently researching whether they may be behind the current explosion of Alzheimer’s disease in meat-eating countries across the world.
George then turns to cattle and for them recommends: “straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands.” Stovers (dry corn leaves) and straw are nutritionally almost valueless and unpalatable, which is why horses don’t eat the straw bedding in their stables. Even on mixed animal/arable farms you can see growing mountains of straw bales for which farmers have no use and animals won’t eat.
Grass fallow land? Now there’s a blast from the past – it’s a distant agricultural memory. You won’t find enough fallow land to feed a hutch of hungry rabbits. And rangelands? All over the world - from the US to the Far East, South America to Africa and Australia – rangelands are seriously degraded from overgrazing, causing species extinction and soil erosion. Some 72 per cent of all arid and semi-arid rangelands are on the way to becoming desert – and they make up one-third of the planet’s land surface.
He then uses these grossly inaccurate claims to rewrite the well-researched science on conversion rates – how many kgs of vegetable protein it takes to produce one kg of meat protein. It magically transforms from the 17:1 in the case of beef, established by Loma Linda and Amsterdam universities, into 2:1.
It follows that all George’s other assumptions built on this false premise are equally nonsensical.
Next comes water, with the claim that we have stupidly included all the rain that falls on any given pasture in arriving at the proposition that it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. You might have, George, but I haven’t.
My figures vary but are taken from peer-reviewed research and are based on all the water used in meat production; grazing, fodder growing, slaughter and preparation. They also include the 60 per cent of all the world’s agricultural land that is irrigated (it’s only California that uses irrigation, according to George).
Take a little aeroplane ride across the Western States, George, and you’ll see that every field you traverse is perfectly circular. Why? Because they are boom irrigated by pumping up water from the Ogallala aquifer and further South by extracting it from Lake Mead and other huge reservoirs – all of which are drying up. The bulk of these fields grow water-greedy fodder and is why 36 US States face severe water shortages within five years, a problem repeated all over the world.
Next under attack is the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation for its “daft” claim that livestock produce 18 per cent of greenhouse gases. A 400 page report with 666 references - daft it isn’t! In fact it is supported by Cranfield University which has done its own research (How Low Can We Go?) and comes to almost exactly the same figure. They’re both wrong, according to George, for stupidly blaming deforestation on cattle ranching when logging is the true cause.
Timber taken by loggers isn’t destroyed but sawn up and used in products which can last for decades. The CO2 emissions come from torching the vegetation that remains - shrubs and low-level plants, ferns and saplings, palms, mid-level and non target trees, vines and epiphytes. Loggers have no need to do this; it’s done to make the land ready for cattle ranching. The soil eventually turns to near desert through the usual mechanisms of over grazing and agro chemicals.
So in fact, the true figure is higher than 18 per cent because the vital carbon sinks provided by new forest growth and healthy soil are both destroyed, reducing the planet’s ability to absorb future CO2.
And so it goes on, scientifically bereft claims which George’s grabs from a single book and stuffs himself with them greedily in a monstrous act of self justification so he can continue to eat meat. The book is Meat: A Benign Extravagance, by ex-beef farmer Simon Fairlie.
The most depressing aspect of Monbiot’s article is that he turns on its head the advice he has been proffering for years – demand, resist, act, take control, call to account. With a stroke of his pen, consumers are turned into supine, powerless bystanders waiting for global changes which are entirely out of their hands and require such extraordinary international co-operation that they could never happen. And even if they did, would not work.
Meantime, environmental catastrophes gather like huge, black clouds on the horizon, threatening the lives of billions. No matter how arcane George’s claims, the answer is extremely simple and puts you in control – distance yourself immediately from these disasters and refuse to consume animal products and proselytise your decision. And that includes you, George!
The last word has to go that Bedfordshire-based shrine of capitalist learning, Cranfield. On global warming it says that the Government has no hope of reaching its essential targets for CO2 reduction unless we adopt a vegetarian diet!
So George, dust off your armour, get back on your white charger, straighten out your lance, avoid the windmills and ride into battle against the real baddies before we all become victims of your friendly fire.