The meat of the argument

At least wednesday’s debate on conservation and re-wilding at the Linnean Society, one of the questioners asked whether meat eating and conservation could be reconciled. Afterwards the same person pressed home their point – how could conservationists justify meat eating? Their argument was that as meat eating was simply unethical, it corrupted the ethicality of conservationists to support livestock production. My friend Sophie and I (mainly Sophie) tried to explain how semi-natural habitats depended on grazing, and that extensive agricultural systems did not cause the sort of suffering that industrial scale activities can cause. To no avail.

Yesterday for lunch we had a rolled and boned shoulder of Sika venison – and it was absolutely delicious. It was wild meat, free from agrochemicals, hormones and pesticides – it was incredibly lean and very healthy. It was local, produced in Purbeck where Sika deer were introduced over a hundred years ago and now have to be managed (in the absence of their predators) to reduce their impact on farmland and semi-natural habitats. Our buying it contributed to the local economy and local jobs.

It was expensive and we won’t eating it every week, but it’s probably the most ethical meat that can be eaten (apart from this).

Do we have be vegan or vegetarian in order to be conservationists?


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in agricultural pests, conservation, ethics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The meat of the argument

  1. John Kay says:

    “To no avail” … of course not. You could have saved time and breath by rejecting the premise.

  2. milesking10 says:

    Thanks John.

    I had this comment via Linkedin from Vicki Hird at Friends of the Earth and sustainable food expert:

    “I think making it a polarised choice does not help in the wider world. It’s a hugely personal issue tied up in deep values, identity etc. But I think it’s perfectly OK to talk about eating less (ultimately much less given its huge impact) and better as you describe. Eating meat that is fed on food waste or lives on land not suitable for cropping or vital for biodiversity/ecosystem function etc. If we ask people to eat no meat it’s a 100% sure fire way of stopping most people learning more and eating less, because they understand the issue etc.

    Conservationists on the other hand…..probably should already be eating less and better or no meat!

  3. Steve Hallam says:

    It seems to me that your assailant is displaying the halo effect – a quirk of how human brains work that (I think) causes us to see situations through a lens of something we feel emotional about. This person has a strong feeling about the ethics of eating meat, so they interpret related situations (such as rearing animals) through that emotional lens. It’s all explained properly in a brilliant book by Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow.
    Wrt to the question you pose, I’d suggest that the answer depends on your concept / definition of conservation. Mine is ‘activity to increase the biodiversity of ecosystems’, with an implication that this is should be towards ‘naturally occurring’ biodiversity for that location. Given that the level of biodiversity can be measured analytically, I don’t see any connection with the ethics of food production at all. To me the implementation of ‘conservation’ activity is an pragmatic exercise. Having said that, I have no problem with conservation being implemented in an ethical way, as long as this does not compromise the achievement of my perceived objective. Banning grazing, for instance, might arguably do this – at least in some situations.
    Btw, I’d be grateful if you could answer my e-mail of 12 November, as this question is troubling me!

  4. John Kay says:

    “meat that is fed on food waste”

    Tristram Stuart’s “The Pig Idea” is worth a look

  5. Rebecca Cattell says:

    The trouble is though that when most people eat meat they are not eating local venison which was being culled anyway, they are eating intensively farmed meat. Look at any average trolley in Tescos or Morrisons !

    Compassion in World Farming did an interesting survey on this, showing what people say they support (free range) and what they actually buy (intensive) are not the same. Also given the vast inefficiencies of meat production in terms of land, water and energy use, imagine how much more land could be used for conservation.

    This report was also very interesting:

    • Steve Hallam says:

      It seems to me that there are two separate, but equally valid issues emerging here. The first is that humankind’s consumption of meat leads to the conversion of large areas of land to intensive agricultural production, which means that this land is lost to conservation purposes and high biodiversity ecosystems. This seems to me to be incontestable. (It also seems to me to be more of a developing world issue at present, although this may be an oversimplification.)

      The second issue is the one that, I think, Miles’ assailant was more interested in. This is whether or not it morally acceptable to use animals that are destined for the slaughterhouse as part of ongoing conservation activity. This is arguably a more debatable issue. Certain habitats need the action of grazing animals for their maintenance or restoration. In this country the animals generally used to do are cattle and sheep, which face the same fate as those elsewhere. Of course, it could be argued that these animals could be left in peace to live out their full existence. If so, would Mile’s assailant be satisfied? And would this suit our conservation purposes just as well. Could non-agricultural grazing animals be used just as effectively? Also, again a the risk of oversimplification, I see this as more of a developed world (perhaps, even Europe centric) issue.

      • milesking10 says:

        Thanks very much Steve.

        The global issue of livestock and their impact on highly valuable ecosystems is I think a separate issue. I would not dream of buying any meat that was produced in such a way, and would go out of my way to avoid doing so.

        On the other matter, there are plenty of nature reserves which are grazed by animals that are effectively pets, yes. Others support eg Ewes or Cows that stay on reserves (or indeed private land in AE schemes) for years, while their offspring are sold on. I think it’s true to say that for semi-natural areas, commercial production of livestock is increasingly irrelevant, or is already irrelevant.

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