Carnivores: Maybe You’re Not As Awful For the Planet As We All Thought?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

NewsFeed is going to celebrate with a Cuban sandwich stuffed inside a Double Down.

The conventional wisdom on raising animals in order to consume their flesh is that the practice is not just a not-very-nice thing to do to those animals, but that it is also enormously harmful to the environment. E magazine provides a good example of such arguments:

The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to produce one pound of beef for human beings represents a colossal waste of resources in a world still teeming with people who suffer from profound hunger and malnutrition.

According to the British group Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn and only two producing cattle. Britain — with 56 million people — could support a population of 250 million on an all-vegetable diet. Because 90 percent of U.S. and European meat eaters’ grain consumption is indirect (first being fed to animals), westerners each consume 2,000 pounds of grain a year. Most grain in underdeveloped countries is consumed directly.

In light of such facts, the reasoning goes, the only truly ethical path for the environmentally-conscious is to renounce the consumption of animal meat and become a vegan.

NewsFeed does not really want to do that. And now a new book has come out and said that we may not have to — and at least one environmentalist has been convinced.

George Monblot, the Guardian‘s environmental columnist, has just read Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance and sounds like a changed man. Where previously Monblot was prone to saying things like “the only sustainable and socially just option is for the inhabitants of the rich world to become, like most of the earth’s people, broadly vegan,” Fairlie’s book has him singing a different tune:

[The current arguments] Fairlie shows, are not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model. He demonstrates that we’ve been using the wrong comparison to judge the efficiency of meat production. Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. The results are radically different.

If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.

So, it turns out, to save the planet NewsFeed does not have to start on an entirely kale-based diet. We only need to radically alter the methods of our gigantic factory farming system, and then we can eat all the chicken and pork we want. (As long as we ignore the the animal-cruelty issue, but we do that already.) Sounds good to us! How do we start?