It is an old story that a vegetarian diet is linked to a more efficient use of resources than a meat-rich diet. One of the reasons cited for this is that meat is taken from a higher level on the food chain, and thus about one tenth of the energy that enters the system is used per culinary unit (calorie, meal, whatever) than for vegetables. However, this argument, while partly true, overlooks a lot of other factors. For instance, the meat is a more efficiently used package for some purposes than the veggies. Think about it this way: A certain percentage of the food you eat is used to build tissues, including tissues used in growth (for growing individuals), for repair of tissues, as well as for immune system products. Meat is essentially the same “stuff” as is produced in these processes, so the balance of amino acids, co-enzymes, etc. in a chunk of meat is very closely matched to the need. Most of the food we eat is used as an energy source, and both meat and veggies have such energy in them, to varying degrees. With respect to energy alone, the most efficient diet may be something like pure sugar produced from prairie grasses or something along those lines.
Another thing about the vegetarian diet that I always found annoying (not really annoyed at the diet, but rather, the actual vegetarians) is the linkage between a vegetarian diet and a “natural” approach to life in general and food in particular. The most annoying aspect of this is the promotion by some vegetarians of soy products. Soy is actually pretty inedible, and only by extensive and intensive processing can it be made useful for human consumption. Soy is probably among the least “natural” foods we can eat. Plus, I mean, give me a break … can you really eat tofu? I mean, really?
Tofu aside, consider this: Most natural habitats across the world do not produce a vegetarian diet that includes the necessary macro and micro nutrients for sustenance, especially in infants and growing children. If we add to these natural habitats plants that have been domesticated in that habitat, locally, and grown there, we get only minor improvements. Hunter-gatherers living in any of these habitats absolutely required meat as part of their diet, especially for children.
The modern vegetarian diet is possibly only because of two things: 1) All of the domesticates from across the world are available for production in any other part of the world, limited only by growing conditions. Every garden grown using traditional techniques for subsistence farming in tropical Central America includes many crops that were domesticated in Africa and Asia. The same can be said for like gardens in Africa. And Asia. And, of course, the same can be said for temperate gardens. If biogeography (even with the unnatural act of domestication considered) counts as part of “nature” (and it does!) then there are no “natural” vegetarian diets. The natural nature of vegetarianism is a post-hoc cultural construction.
Now, a recent study is out that suggests that a certain amount of meat added to an otherwise vegetarian diet decreases the environmental footprint of that diet:
This deduction stems from the findings of their new study, which concludes that if everyone in New York state followed a low-fat vegetarian diet, the state could directly support almost 50 percent more people, or about 32 percent of its population, agriculturally. With today’s high-meat, high-dairy diet, the state is able to support directly only 22 percent of its population, say the researchers.
One of the reasons for this is that many of the key elements in the vegetarian diet — fruits and grains — need to be grown on very high quality land, while meat products are generally produced on lower quality grazing land.
Beyond this, I’d like to add: If the meat included more wild game, the diet would be even more efficient, and more healthful. Wild game has many health benefits over industrially produced domestic animals, and even some health benefits over “naturally raised” domestic animals. With respect to the issue at hand … footprint size of the cuisine … wild animals living in their natural habitat often produce a more efficient product.
And finally, this. This thought occurred to me the other day while I was eating a very nice buffalo (bison) burger at a local restaurant. You know those feedlots, where a zillion cattle are crammed to feed them up before slaughter? Have you been to Nebraska? Did you notice that smell? That was the feedlots. What I was thinking is that no self respecting bison would stand for that. One way to eliminate the feedlot problem is to switch to bison and stop growing cattle here in North America where the bison are the native, natural animal anyway. The bison would be the most effective advocates against feedlot strategies, which as lot of people think, I believe reasonably, to be abusive and possibly in the long term (with respect to infectious diseases) a health risk.