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On Christmas Eve in 2002, George Monbiot declared in The Guardian that the only ethical way forward in food consumption was veganism. Visiting a turkey broilerhouse makes one "entertain grave doubts about European civilisation," he wrote, not to mention the immense ecological challenges of rearing livestock. Nor does ordinary vegetarianism cut it: "The conversion efficiency of dairy and egg production is generally better than meat rearing, but even if everyone who now eats beef were to eat cheese instead, this would merely delay the global famine." He called it an "urgent social justice issue" involving simultaneous issues of animal suffering, environmental damage, and impending famine and scarcity.

Nearly eight years later, Monbiot is revising that statement: "this will not be an easy column to write," he admits, but "I was wrong." What changed his mind? A book by Simon Fairlie called Meat: A Benign Extravagance. It has "opened my eyes to some fascinating complexities," writes Monbiot. Quite simply, it may be the model of meat farming that is the problem, not meat farming itself. Under the current model, for example, "pigs ... have been forbidden ... from doing what they do best: converting waste into meat." Returning to the old model and "giving sterilised scraps to pigs solves two problems at once: waste disposal and the diversion of grain."

Simon Fairlie apparently also debunks the "sacred" claim that it takes "100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef." In addition, he shows how livestock could be fed some grain, "allow[ing] us to consume a bit more than half the world's current volume of animal products, which means a good deal less than in the average western diet." Monbiot's conclusion? It's time to head back to meat-eating, so long as it is in moderation and "farmed properly":

By keeping out of the debate over how livestock should be kept, those of us who have advocated veganism have allowed the champions of cruel, destructive, famine-inducing meat farming to prevail. It's time we got stuck in.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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