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Should We Eat Meat? Book Review

Vaclav Smil’s Should We Eat Meat? should have had a different title. This is a question that is scarcely seriously addressed, and certainly never clearly answered by its author.

Smil’s strength is meticulously collecting and communicating statistics and figures. The first, and longer, part of the book (at least it felt longer; the tactile feel of where in a book you are is lost when reading on an eReader) presents in a dry and straightforward manner the raw numbers of animal agriculture’s impact on the environment. Numbers include land usage, greenhouse gas emissions, relative nutritional output per unit feed input, and numbers you didn’t even know you needed. As well as raw numbers of animals killed, and how much meat-as-food this translates into. It paints an image of factory farms with an emphasis on the factory, presented so indifferently and objectively as to almost make it more shocking.

The second, and concluding, section of the book is prescriptive, attempting to rearrange the system we have now to make it more sustainable (as the system described in the first section — the system we operate within today — clearly is unsustainable). Smil sets out to make the fewest and smallest possible changes to make the most dramatic reductions to greenhouse gasses and other environmental consequences possible. His system is expressed as numerically preferable to our current system, but is never compared against the potential gains of a dramatic reduction / gradual elimination of meat from a Western diet. It’s a less-realistic scenario, to be sure, but if we’re answering the question of what we should do, then it ought to at least be discussed, to honestly assess whether it leads to a preferable outcome.

Smil acknowledges the inherent harm and cruelty of animal agriculture, but never reconciles this acknowledgement with his ultimate “solution”, since his prescribed system depends on increased “efficiency” (ie. tighter spaces per animal). Every reference to the prospect of abstaining from meat is a glib write-off: suggesting that vegan organizations “deny the reality of our inherent omnivory” (fallacy from nature), and dismissing plant-based meat products on the subjective lack of appeal of their names. For a book so otherwise well-cited, there is no source other than his own gut (and prejudice) for his claim that people simply can’t be compelled to adopt more plant-focused diets. The most serious consideration given to the “We shouldn’t eat meat” stance is a brief reference to Peter Singer’s seminal Animal Liberation, which itself is dismissed on “slippery-slope” grounds: If we have to give consideration to “pest” animals, then we can’t feed ourselves, and so would starve, Smil suggests. This is not an honest presentation of Singer’s argument. Ultimately, the counter-stance to the necessity of eating meat is given a paltry few sentences in a near-300-page text.

The title is Should We Eat Meat?. There’s a lot to deconstruct there:

Who is We? (It’s arguable that certain societies in today’s world would indeed experience great health consequences by eliminating meat, having no other abundant source of certain nutrients. But there’s many of us who would likely see dramatic health improvement by eschewing it!)

What is Meat? (Smil describes “meat” as a collection of its component nutrients; by this measure, doesn’t plant-based meat count? Such a thing is never really discussed.)

But ultimately, the word that stands out to me, Should, is the one that is woefully unaddressed. Perhaps a more accurate title would be akin to: How Can We Change the Animal Agriculture System in the Smallest Possible Way So As to Make It Not Quite So Bad As It Is Today? (And It Is Very Bad!). This title would actually match the content of Smil’s work.

You can’t earnestly ask “Should I do X?” without giving serious consideration to the possibility of not doing X. This book doesn’t give serious consideration to not eating (animal) meat, and so never earnestly asks its titular question.

A very dry read; Know this if you choose to read it. But a fantastic source of facts and figures related to animal agriculture, if nothing else.

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