Jerry raised an important point the other day concerning human health and the health of the planet. While it’s fashionable these days to tout meat-free diets as a cure for global warming (I think Angela Merkel was the latest to make a statement along those lines) it’s not really that simple. Some facts and figures might be of interest.
NB: I'm aware that there are lot of vegans and vegetarians here. I'd like to point out in advance that this is NOT a criticism of their choices - I'm not here to tell people what they should or shouldn't eat. However, I wanted to offer a counterpoint to the simplistic propaganda (which comes mostly from Big Ag to turn people away from naturally-raised produce) that eating less meat is good for the planet.
Vegan diets improve land-use efficiency.
This isn’t true: a vegan has the same footprint (plus or minus) as a carnivore, although this is only true for organic agriculture. Have a look at the numbers.
Here’s a representative vegan diet, offering 1800kCal/day with 67% carbs, 25% protein, and 3% fat (vegan diets are, of necessity, very high in carbs and very low in fat):
-450g root vegetables
-200g grains [as bread etc]
That’s a lot of food: 2kg (2.4kg when cooked – nobody eats raw flour or dry beans). That’s about the average for a modern American, and in reality most vegans will eat a calorie-restricted diet because the human body wasn’t designed to cope with that volume of food. Still, let’s calculate the land area required for 2kg/day, assuming conventional agriculture (using machines, ploughs, and chemicals). It’s about 1000m2, of which 750m2 is for beans and grains. So, given enough synthetic inputs, 1 hectare of farmland supports 10 people. Here’s the equivalent for a carnivore eating a low-carb, high-fat maintenance diet:
-50g root veg
-100g butter and cheese
-100g (two) eggs
This is, again, 1800kCal; 23% carbs, 25% protein, 52% fat. Note that it’s a far more manageable amount, at 1.5kg (cooked). The required land area for the vegetables is only 350m2. The meat and milk requirement amounts to having one-sixth of a cow and ten chickens on pasture at any given time, implying an extra 650m2 for forage, per person.
Isn’t that interesting? Exactly the same land area. Here’s what’s even more interesting: chickens and cows can eat things that humans can’t. They can go where tractors can’t. They can roam about on land that’s useless for cropping. And just by doing what comes naturally, they improve the soil that they stand on, year after year. That generally means that tree crops can be planted on pasture, effectively reducing the carnivore’s overall footprint below that of the vegan.
Contrast this with the farmer growing nothing but wheat and soybeans. Every year, the soil is ploughed, sprayed, and fertilized. The soil structure is destroyed; water-holding capacity is compromised. Animals, bacteria and fungi are either killed or disrupted. Soil erodes: on the average, a ploughed field loses as much topsoil each year (10 tonnes) as it produces in crop output.
It’s perfectly true that feedlot-raised animals are linked into the industrial system, wasting valuable cropland that could be used for human food and perpetuating the misuse of resources. The solution for the planet is not to go vegan, but to restore some sanity to farming; to take away the reins from the economists who came up with this ridiculous scheme, and hand them back to the farmers.
Cows are responsible for global warming
This theory only makes sense if you assume that cropland should be devoid of all animal life: dead and sterile. In reality, natural farms are teeming with animal life that just arrives, all by itself. Those animals – mostly microbes – exhale carbon dioxide and methane just like cows. And that’s just fine; the inscrutable processes that they engage in are far more important to planetary health. Remember that one-sixth-of-a-cow per person? They’re doing what all the other animals are doing: recycling biomass and solar energy into things that keep the planet ticking along nicely.
Eating vegetables rather than meat reduces fossil-fuel use
Again, this is only true in the context of feedlot beef and battery chickens, which waste enormous amounts of fuel in many different ways. In an organic system, a cow or a chicken on pasture uses no fossil fuel at all, at least up to the point where it is slaughtered and leaves the farm. Because a carnivore eats 70% less than a vegan, and only one-third of the mass of vegetables, his diet involves a lot less transport overhead.
Eating meat is cruel
I am dimly aware that, on any square meter of my farm, there is a whole lot of killing and eating going on. Under my feet. In the air. Hidden in the grass. This is right and proper; this is the way nature creates the maximum amount of life from a fixed amount of solar energy. Equally, there are wrong ways for animals to die. For example, a field mouse or a grasshopper should not die in a combine harvester, or from the ingestion of pesticides; a worm should not die in the blades of a plough or disc harrow. The industrial food machine deals mostly in wrongful death, and the vegan who buys their products has dipped his hands in the blood of animals that nobody really cares about and cry too quietly to be heard. He can rationalize this away for the same reason I can rationalize away the death of one-sixth of a cow: killing is part of who he is. It’s in the deepest core of our being, and there is no escape from it.
Here is the cruelty in meat-raising: the animal never lives before it dies. A pig is never allowed to be a pig, and a chicken is never allowed to be a chicken. Why? Because we’ve been convinced by flimflam artists that this is “efficient”. It is not. It’s the worst possible way of raising animals, on any metric you care to consider. Yet, for some reason, an entire planet has been duped into the mathematical world of the economist, where one plus one equals four and a half.
We need vegans
After all I’ve said about vegetarianism: this one is true, and I hope the reason is obvious. We need a certain number of people who like eating vegetables rather than meat, because the natural carrying capacity of the land – for cows, chickens and the like – is quite low. And they leave behind them a trail of fertility that’s best absorbed by vegetables.
In other words, we need vegans so that the rest of us can carry on eating meat.