Normally, I try not to use this space to simply go off on a rant.
I said, “try.”
However, it’s February, I’ve already spent 15 minutes this morning scraping ice off the windows of my truck, there hasn’t been more than a couple hours of sunshine around here since October and I’m not in the sunniest of moods (pun intended).
So allow me a few minutes to vent about the seemingly endless tide of studies alleging that livestock production and meat-eating has become the ruin of humanity. Obviously, much of the motivation behind such reports is the result of someone’s anti-industry, pro-veggie perspective that they’re trying to push on the public and/or policymakers.
Fine. We all have our positions on the issues. May the best agenda win.
Here’s the problem, though: Most of these studies calculate the impact of livestock production — using an incredibly comprehensive formula that, as an example, tracks the cost of beef from the energy footprint of the heating system in a lab that develops a nutritional formulation for feed rations to the associated manufacturing inputs and fuel consumption required for a garbage truck to haul food and packaging waste to some landfill.
The results are always astonishing, such as statements asserting that it takes as many as 3,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. That would mean that to bring one mature steer to market would require nearly three million gallons of water.
Those data then are used to postulate, “We cannot sustain such resource depletion. But if we all became vegetarians, we would save resources, save energy, and ultimately save the planet.”
A Question of Capacity
Personally, I get really sick of all these studies, the ones that call for the abolition of animal agriculture globally in a desperate attempt to avoid what’s always characterized as an existential crisis that could destroy humanity.
Even reports compiled by what appear to be well-meaning researchers, the ones that attempt to develop reasonable statistics on the actual carbon and energy footprints related to meat production, are fatally flawed. That’s because when proposing the whole world start living off soybeans and salad, they rarely attempt to calculate the energy and resource costs of replacing all the calories currently provided by meat and dairy.
For example: We already know that farm output has to increase exponentially, just to feed the nine billion-plus people expected to be alive by mid-century. It’s already challenging to figure out how farmers around the world are going to procure enough land, enough fertilizer, and enough energy to dramatically increase their efficiencies and harvest totals to be able to feed another two billion people.
Then, there’s the required processing capacity downstream from agriculture. We don’t just harvest crops and then drop them onto somebody’s dinner table. Whether we’re talking about grains, legumes, tree nuts or fruits and vegetables, edible crops need to be processed and packaged for either foodservice or retail sales.
And that’s especially true for many of the highly processed, formulated foods that are a mainstay of vegan diets.
So how does agriculture globally find a way to ramp up production without having to accelerate deforestation, without having to bring marginally arable land into production? Oh, that's right. The answer, to quote virtually all of these reports, is first, convert to vegetarianism, and second, embrace “cultured agriculture,” the manufacture of food ingredients in lab-like, factory-scale settings divorced from the entire cycle of planting, cultivating and harvesting crops.
Only one problem with that proposal: I seem to remember from high school physics something called the First Law of Thermodynamics, which basically means that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transferred from one form to another.
That means there’s no free lunch when it comes to the inputs required to generate calories.
Based on that, it doesn't seem plausible to believe that the vast amounts of solar energy that drive the growth of food crops and grasslands could be replaced with the energy needed to power multiple massive factories churning out faux foods like shamburgers and other alt-meat products.
How can such facilities be operated more efficiently than the process of planting a seed in the soil, and then letting it grow to maturity?
That’s a rhetorical question, but it’s one that neither activists with an agenda nor researchers with their reports seem capable of answering.
Unless and until we get a response addressing that dilemma, I’ll continue to consider these “vegetarianism is the solution” reports to be as unappealing as the dietary choices they recommend.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.