A meaty issue – Sustainabilty

It has been a week since the first meaty post that focused on dietary aspects of including or excluding meat. Now Blair and Kevin set their sights on the sustainability of their diets. So take a few minutes to enjoy an interesting read that covers the environment, global justice, and maybe dragons (but probably not).

Question two: Is a plant or meat based diet more or less sustainable?

Blair’s response (Pro meat/Paleo/Primal)

The big question posed to meat eaters is that if the same area of land growing crops can feed more people than if it were growing animals to feed them why should we continue to eat meat in a growing world? Added to this is the assumption that growing crops would be more sustainable and better for the environment than raising animals.

I would say that it is a mistake to say that our world does not have enough land to feed everyone with meat, in fact I would say that there are too many people to thrive on this world if they don’t have access to meat.

Note – I will be steering clear of things like fertiliser use, chemical sprays etc which are equally an issue in both crop and animal growing. We should not try to compare the best with the worst of each.

So is the growing of crops better for the environment?  Obviously many modern farming methods are terrible for the environment, but grain based agriculture is exceptionally bad; this is largely due to the mono-culture system of growing which attempts to eliminate the normal life cycle of the plants and land. Annual crops such as grains (including corn) and soy kill vast areas of land, millions of animals, native plants and insects which are vital to the life cycle of the area. The vegetarian’s soy burger may not have an animal in it, but the land and machinery used to produce that soy is greased with the blood of thousands.

There are many great examples of sustainable farming and aquaculture.  Possibly the most sustainable form of meat production I can think of is mussel farming. The most sustainable system of this involves laying down ropes in the sea, seeding them with mussels; these then grow by filter feeding and are harvested when they reach an appropriate size. This process can also be performed alongside less sustainable aquaculture to increase water quality. A similar example is the practice of growing carp and shrimp in rice paddies to improve water quality, health of the rice, and to produce meat for the farmer.

One excellent example of sustainable aquaculture is the Veta la Palma fish farm. This farm was converted from a dairy farm to produce native sea life (plants and shrimp) which then feed the sea bass they wish to produce. Along with sea bass the farm is now home to 250 different species of birds (up from 50) many of which are endangered. These birds take approximately 20% of the annual yield, yet the farmer says “But that just shows the whole system is working.” This farm does not take advantage of the environment; in fact it has improved on it.

Desertification is often blamed on over grazing, yet this is not always the case. In fact Allen Savory has created a process for reversing desertification by increasing livestock levels by 400% and managing them via holistic planned grazing. This system has been used to turn barren fields into open grasslands with rivers, water plants and fish. The process of grazing stimulated the growth of grasses, while trampling breaks up the soil and the animals leave behind fertiliser for the grasses. This system works naturally to grow lush sustainable fields for many grazing animals to supply many people with sustainable meat.

Obviously sustainably produced meat will cost more, it is cheaper (but worse for the environment) to use fish meal or corn to feed the animals, and is much more expensive to care for the health of the animals and the environment. However you can eat sustainable meat knowing that it was not produced at the expense of the environment. Meat should not be cheap, it takes a lot of hard work to produce good meat which lived a good life, consumers have to pay for this, and appreciate it.


1)      The vegetarian myth by Lierre Keith

2)      Sustainable impact of mussel farming in the Adriatic Sea (Mediterranean Sea): evidence from biochemical, microbial and meiofaunal indicators, R. Danovaro, C. Gambi, G. M. Luna and S. Mirto, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 49, Issue 4, August 2004, Pages 325-333

3)      Integrated Carp Farming in Asian Country, V. R. P. Sinha, Regional Lead Centre in India Fishwater Aquaculture Research and Training Centre of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research Dhauli, Bhubaneswar, NETWORK OF AQUACUTURE CENTRES IN ASIA, Bangkok, Thailand, September 1985

4)      Veta la Palma fish farm- http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1902751,00.html#ixzz1NiNslrtj

5)      Grassroots Restoration: Holistic Management for Villages, by Sam Bingham

Kevin’s response (the Vegan/vegetarian)

The issue of sustainability is becoming more and more concerning as the world’s population grows. The United Nations has recently reported that the world’s population, expected to be 9 billion by 2050, will keep growing, passing over 10 billion by 2100. The food systems currently in place will not be adequate to sustain such a population, nor has it shown to be adequate now.

Let’s start with simple comparisons:

Lappe (1982) compares input of edible protein against output. She states that for every sixteen pounds of grain that is fed to a cow, we get one pound of beef. The sixteen pounds of grains have twenty-one times more calories, eight times more protein, and only three times more fat.

Amato and Partridge (1989) state that it takes fifteen times as much water to produce a pound of beef protein than it does to create a pound of soy protein, Mason and Singer (2006) also note the US beef industry’s claim that to produce a one-thousand pound steer it ‘only’ takes 792,000 gallons of water (not a typo, it’s nearly three million litres).

As for fossil Fuel consumption, Lappe (1982) shows that for one calorie of protein you need two calories of fossil fuel for soybeans, three and a half for corn/wheat, and an amazing seventy-eight for feedlot beef. But interestingly enough grass fed cattle only required ten calories of fossil fuels.

So what does this mean, sure some of these figures are nearly thirty years old, but Mason and Singer (2006) state that these days it takes around thirteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Whilst there may have been ‘some’ improvement in efficiency, these figures still illustrate the absurdity that is a food system that uses far more energy than it produces. Lappe (1982) nicknamed this system ‘the great protein sink’ after its ability to consume more protein than it produces.

But why is this a problem, sure you have to spend money to make money, and if it isn’t doing harm then what’s the downside? The problem is that developed countries are now exhausting their own crop supplies as fodder and are turning to the developing world. Countries such Brazil are tearing down rainforest in order to create large soy plantations that go toward feeding cattle in the U.S.A (Mason and Singer, 2006). New Zealand isn’t above the mess either, recently Greenpeace marked out Fonterra as an environmental criminal for it’s importing of palm kernel from Indonesia, a country which according to Greenpeace has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world (Greenpeace, 2011). Fonterra claims that it only makes up 1% of the cows diet (Fonterra, 2011), but once upon a time this was 0%, and as the dairy and beef industry in New Zealand becomes more intensive it will continue to rise.

Furthermore, from a humanitarian perspective, the meat industry is taking food away from the malnourished throughout the world. When Lappe wrote her book, the U.S.A alone was producing enough edible crops per year to provide each person in the world with one cup of edible grain per day (Lappe, 1982). But it’s only one country; imagine in a world without feedlots how much food we would be able to produce, or how much rainforest we would not need to fell. Imagine a world where hunger was a problem of past generations because food is produced efficiently and distributed to everyone rather than wasted and distributed to the few.

Other concerns which hold weight but weren’t sexy enough to be included in detail are the faeces problem that intensive animal rearing creates (which isn’t treated like human waste and often pollutes the environment), ‘endocrine disruption’ in ecosystems situated around feedlots, over fishing, the even more disastrous aquaculture scheme (which in the case of salmon requires three to four times as much fishmeal to produce), the $200 hamburger, and the excessive use of antibiotics in intensive animal operations.

I’ll end with another quote by Mason and Singer (2006) who state

“no matter how efficient intensive pork, beef, chicken, egg and milk production become, in the narrow sense of producing more meat, eggs or milk for each pound of grain we feed the animals, raising animals on grain remains wasteful” (pg.210).


Amato, P.R., & Partridge, S.A. (1989). The New Vegetarians: promoting health and protecting life. New York: Plenum Press.

Greenpeace. (2011). Industrial Climate Crimes. Retrieved from http://www.greenpeace.org/new-zealand/en/campaigns/climate-change/stop-fonterra/

Fonterra. (2011). Palm Kernel Expeller. Retrieved from http://www.fonterra.com/wps/wcm/connect/fonterracom/fonterra.com/home/palm+kernel+expeller

Lappe, F.M. (1982). Diet for a small planet: tenth anniversary edition. Now York: Ballantine books.

Mason, J., Singer, P. (2006). The ethics of what we eat. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Unfortunately that is it for this week. If you take anything from this, both Blair and Kevin wish to stress that we all need to critically consider the sustainability of our diets as the issues addressed here are a small fraction of many. Next Monday (6th) they will address ethical considerations; whether there are any and what they might be.

Feel free to leave comments or troll the comments section since both Blair and Kevin will be providing answers to most (or some) criticism in the final two posts on the 13th and 20th of June.


Posted on May 30, 2011, in Dialogues between members and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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