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07 March 2009


Dave Dawson

The issue of grazing animals is complicated by a lack of knowledge of what used to be, back when humans were all hunter-gatherers, or even before modern man came along. There is much evidence for widespread extinctions of larger herbivores and some of their predators back when man came on the scene. Temporal correlation strongly suggests that it was modern man as a sophisticated hunter that accounted for these extinctions. These animals survived ice age temperature fluctuations and sea level changes only to succumb coincident with the arrival of Homo sapiens in each part of the globe. The key point here is that, within a few hundred years, the extinct graziers were replaced by the domestic graziers of early agricultural man. Man's sophistication then turned to deterring other predators from taking this domestic livestock. In a real sense, the grazing animals of early agricultural man and even contemporary extensive grazing systems, have substituted for the lost "megafauna". And, like the lost species, their grazing is responsible for the maintenance of "natural" grasslands. Take away the grazing and you get scrub and woodland across a wide range of places that today have grassland. In these "natural" grasslands there is no realistic agricultural alternative - grains and pulses etc do not thrive in these climates or soil conditions. Barnaby suggests that we can use such land for alternative energy crops, but these are the very places where those too will do badly - poor rates of insolation and poor soil conditions do not lead to an easy positive energy budget. So there is a good argument for keeping extensive grazing with semi-natural domestic animals. If we replace the natural predators and take a sustainable crop of these animals, whether by hunting for food or by herding them to abotoirs, then they have had a natural and stress-free life, at least until it comes to its end. This is no defence for modern intensive raising of livestock, where the animals are housed unnaturally through the year, or at least in the adverse season, and fed on grain that could feed us. So, in short, don't tar all grazing systems with the same brush. Traditional systems are quite humane, maintain "natural" habitats and provide luxury foods.

Tony Matthews

Your case is cogently argued for vegetarianism. However I'm less convinced by your dismissal of campaigns against vivisection and blood sports. These date back a very long time and by no means always involved illegality. Nor does it appear logical to oppose cruelty to animals in some areas and throw in the towel in others because of the weight of scientific opinion in favour of benefits regardless of the suffering involved.

Vivisection is more stringently regulated in the UK than most other countries. Primate research for instance is less than elsewhere. Would it not be more logical to argue for reduction or abolition of all research on primates than simply accept the argument that medical advances have helped human health and can therefore be condoned? The distinction between the great apes and man is minimal in DNA terms and it is surely questionable to assume that ANY human life is worth more than that of an endangered gorilla, chimpanzee or orang utang. More later on hunting.

Barnaby Dawson

To my father: I am doubtful as to whether, even on marginal land, grazing animals beat crops in terms of cost per calorie or per gram of protein. I would guess that the reason cattle are economic in these regions is solely due to meat's luxury value. This then would be, in energy and food terms, a false economy. I concede the point on biofuels and agree that factory farming is much worse for animals than hunting animals which have a free range in the wild. However, there are two problems with this. Firstly ethically it assumes that an animal's life has no value on its own (a principle no one would dream of applying to people). Secondly if all our meat came from such sources meat would be a very rare commodity. Certainly if one defends economic support of the meat industry in such a way then one must only eat meat that is free to roam.

To Tony: In any campaign one must be carefull to prioritise one's goals. With animal welfare the overwelmingly most important goal is to rid the world of the slaughterhouse. The first step along the way is the abolition of factory farming. Other aims should take the back seat whilst we work to achieve this.

Tony Matthews

We are likely to have a long wait. Factory farming is already less intensive in Britain than most other developed countries. Even in other European countries with better social records than ours - Denmark, Holland etc - factory farming is a much greater problem. Cruelty to animals in various ways is still worse in Spain, Italy, Malta etc. Yet should we not already be influencing them as our EU partners? Then consider our minimal influence further afield in countries like China or Russia. Issues such as protection of endangered species - particularly the higher primates - must surely take precedence in terms of urgency and maybe achievability too.


This is in response to Dave's argument about agricultural grazing on marginal lands. I agree that these areas sometimes cannot be used to grow crops and can only be used for agricultural grazers such as sheep. However, I just want really to point out that this doesn't mean that they can only be used for meat production or necessarily have to be at all. Indeed, these lands can be maintained by these animals through milk production. Rather that meat eating is not justified by maintenance of marginal areas of land; nor by seemingly making it sustainable- as a vegetarian diet can do this too.

Michael Paynter

I am surprised that this argument centres on the efficiency of meat production without stopping to consider whether this is even the correct metric. Meat is undoubtedly an inefficient means of extracting energy from our environment. Defending its efficiency in extreme corner cases does not seem to me to be a sensible way of arriving at a general rule. However, criticising meat for its poor energy conversion ratio is just knocking down a straw man.

The utility extracted from meat comes not only from the calories it contains but, of course, its flavour and texture. The factory farming and poor living conditions stem from the fact that many people don't see meat as a luxury item in this country. Perversely, or perhaps appropriately, much meat is not luxurious these days. The lower grade meat lacks the flavour and most importantly the texture that comes from a well exercised animal.

It is right that we have "dominion over the animals" to use that biblical phrase. Sentience does not exclude us from the natural act of predation just as it doesn't alleviate us from the burdens of breathing and defecating. We do have the ability, however, to acknowledge suffering and to seek to minimise it. More humane farming is definitely a goal worth pursuing, even if it does lead to lower (but better quality) yields.

The utility garnered from meat is not linear. Old recipes that have been around for centuries use it sparingly. A well cooked bolognese, for example, extracts its rich flavours from a tiny amount of meat. Hours of simmering, careful seasoning and good meat produces an amazing flavour that cannot be conjured from the vegetables alone. By comparison, a steak, even a very good steak, is ultimately disappointing because meat on its own is dull. I would compare the experience to eating a bag of sugar!

So I would accept an argument for reducing the amount of meat we consume. I could not, however, accept an argument based on efficiency for cutting out meat altogether. What are you trying to achieve? Maximising the carrying capacity of the planet? Why is that such a worthy goal? Eventually you would arrive at the point where the population grew to such a level that even vegetarianism wasn't enough to feed everyone.

Barnaby Dawson

To Michael Paynter:

This post wasn't intended to be an argument for vegetarianism but as you bring the point up:

To be natural is not the same as to be good. Consider the examples of disease and rape both of which occur regularly in the natural world (and can meaningfully therefore be described as natural).

The utility gained from eating meat is very low. Its difficult to imagine a credible argument that the loss of an animals life and suffering caused to it during its life are less significant than a marginal (or even a major) improvement to the taste and texture of your food.

Generally speaking people accept simplistic and downright silly arguments when applied to animals that they would never accept when applied to humans. Particularly people assume that an animal has no interest in living out most of its healthy lifespan. We would never accept this for humans so it requires a rock solid justification if it is to be applied to animals. I have never heard a convincing argument given for such a position.

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