Meat comes at too high a price, author argues

Henry Mance’s new book examines ethical and environmental costs of meat production

In researching How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World, Henry Mance became a slaughterhouse worker

In researching How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World, Henry Mance became a slaughterhouse worker

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Journalist and author Henry Mance has ruined many of the things Pricewatch holds dear and isn’t even a tiny bit sorry for it.

When we came across a new book from the most entertaining chief feature writer with the Financial Times with the arresting title How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World we imagined that it would a light-hearted Bill Bryson-style jaunt through the world of animals looking at how we love them and how our they love us.

It is not that kind of book at all. And we are not pleased to report that steak, spring lamb, bacon, sausages, roast chicken, lobster, salmon, eggs, milk, ice cream, zoos, shoes, puppies and kittens have all been taken off the Pope menu as a result of it.

At least for now.

That is not to say the book is not good or important – it is both – but from the moment early on when Mance becomes a slaughterhouse worker and – with absolutely no training – is charged with skinning lambs, it is impossible to shelter from the painful reality that our relationship with animals on virtually every conceivable level is so often simply wrong.

His thesis is that unless we change how we see animals we will make the climate catastrophe even worse than it is going to be and the lives of all animals even more immeasurably bad then they are now. In short, it is a book which should be read by anyone who cares about animals or the planet.

But be warned: it may ruin surf and turf, and ice cream for you.

Motivation

When talking to Pricewatch for the In the News podcast – which can be found wherever you get your podcasts – Mance said he was motivated to write the book after the birth of his children. “Having liked animals all my life, loved animals, I suddenly found myself surrounded by animals. You’ve got the storybooks. you’ve got the teddies, you’ve got the cartoons on TV.”

His children were getting the idea that “not only do we love animals, but we’re not embarrassed about our relationship with them, that we must have found some kind of way to treat them nicely”. So, with that in mind he started asking himself a tricky question. “Animals have done so much for me, what have I done to make their lives any better? What have I done to make sure that they’re still there in 10 years or 20 years?”

And so the book was born.

In it, he expresses incredulity that 95 per cent of us eat meat and so few people actually ask where it comes from. “It’s a question of circularity. The people in the slaughterhouse do their job because they know that somebody wants to buy that meat. And farmers will produce pork or chicken or eggs or beef in a certain way because they know someone wants to buy it. And then we buy it in the supermarket because we say, well, farmers produced it. So it must be okay.”

He wonders why nobody looks at the situation and asks: “Is this system necessary? And is it sustainable?”

And is it?

“I don’t think we can keep on eating meat and animal products in the way we are. I mean, I think that the environmental cost is huge. And I also just don’t think it fits with how we really want to treat animals. Across the world we’re killing millions if not billions of animals and we’re trying to do at very low cost. I think the way we treat animals in their final moments, and also for some parts of their lives on big farms, is really not acceptable and not consistent with our values.”

Plant-based burgers are already on the menu of Burger King. And if it’s good enough for Burger King, it will be good enough for McDonalds. A once-marginal food will become mainstream. Photograph: Con Poulos/The New York Times
'We just produce our food in an incredibly inefficient way. I mean, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions but also in terms of the quantity of land needed.' Photograph: Con Poulos/New York Times

He pointed out one critical reason: “There are millions animals at risk of extinction is because we’re cutting down forests. And that’s particularly because of the expansion of agriculture and the expansion of livestock around the world. So eating less meat is, you know, right up there with the things you can do if you love animals. Habitat loss is the number one threat to animals species. and agriculture is the number one component. We just produce our food in an incredibly inefficient way. I mean, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions but also in terms of the quantity of land needed.”

But just how inefficient is it? “It’s six or seven times as resource-intensive to rely on animal products and what I hope really is that in countries like Ireland, the whole of Europe, really, where we’re very dependent on animal products, we can bring our consumption down. And that we can do that on the understanding that there’s only so much you can take from the land.

“This is not a book to try and make you feel terrible about things . . . moving in small steps is definitely what I would advocate. I mean, I gave up fish, and then I gave up meat. And then my wife told me, if you go vegan, it’s divorceable and then I went vegan, and I’m still married. So you know, that worked out. Okay. But you know, small steps is definitely the way.”

His book – and the ideas contained within it – are not likely to be welcomed in farming circles, particularly in Ireland when beef and dairy farming are so central to the lives of so many people.

Mance is understanding but unapologetic. “There are better ways of farming for animal welfare and there are better ways of farming for the environment and the two are often in contradiction. If you want to do better by animals and give them a better quality of life, then you give them space to roam. You maybe have breeds that grow slightly slower, you might keep dairy calves with their mums a bit longer but that actually increases the amount of land used.

“And so some of the most efficient forms of meat production are, for example, chicken farms, where the welfare is worse. I think if you if you care about both these things – about welfare and the environment – you’re always sacrificing one.”

So is there any way farming can co-exist with the ideology behind veganism? Or are they just completely at odds? “I know a lot of people who come from a farming tradition feel threatened by veganism and they feel that vegans don’t understand all of the work and all of the tradition and all of the nutrition that goes into food.”

But, he stressed, “The land will always be valuable and we all will always need farmers to produce food, and also to take care of that land. And so it’s not like the oil industry where, you know, oil wells will get to a point where they’re stranded assets but the land and the knowledge that goes with it will never be a lost investment.

“And there are many farmers out there that I’ve met who feel uncomfortable with the way their animals are treated but also feel uncomfortable because they can see the climate changing better than anyone, they can see the difficulties we’re in. And what we need to do is to change the incentives and the subsidies, so that there is a realistic income from a broader range of services for keeping the land in good condition, for storing carbon in forest and grassland. And farmers, I hope, will be a huge part of that.”

Free-range chickens

What about consumers who buy organic milk or free-range, corn-fed chickens in an attempt to do better by the animals that produce them? Are we doing anything for the animal welfare of the chickens or the cows? Such an approach is positive at least in the “signals” it sends, he said.

'And, you know, right now there are some really great meat-free burgers, the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger and those companies were started by vegans.'

He stressed that people should not think they are powerless to change the system or even make it a bit better. “If you think there’s nothing I can do, I’m just one individual, then I would really urge you to try going vegetarian for a week or two weeks and see the conversations it starts in a good way. People will often say: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking about that too.’ And, you know, right now there are some really great meat-free burgers, the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger and those companies were started by vegans. The fascinating thing is that their personal commitment then becomes a ripple effect that led them to create these businesses, which can now change how everybody’s eating.”

Only about 5 per cent of people in Ireland follow a vegetarian diet – the number of vegans is much lower again. “I would like to get to a position where 20 or 30 per cent of people are opting out of meat and then you can get to more interesting policy discussions. I’ve definitely had more people come up to me to say they have gone vegan or vegetarian much more often, that they’re convinced of the case. And they’re just making the changes at their own pace. And I’ve been really heartened by that.”