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Giving up meat to save the planet?

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted August 10, 2009

One of the persistent, shallow global food myths is that the world could feed more people if we gave up eating meat. Ezra Klein wrote another misguided column about this—"Here's The Meat of the Problem"—in the Washington Post of July 29. Klein cites as his authority a naïve "study" by the kids at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Klein asserts, "It is more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people."

No, Mr. Klein, it isn't. Either your kids haven't done their homework, or they deliberately set out to promote vegetarian diets.

Point One:  Our biggest source of livestock feed is . . . (drum-roll) . . . grass! Humans can't get nourishment from it, but huge tracts of the earth's land are too dry, too steep or too rocky for grain. We let cows and calves harvest sparse crops of grass from massive tracts of the American Great Plains, Canadian Prairie Provinces, the Australian Outback, New Zealand, the sandy steppes of Hungary, and huge tracts of Khazakstan—to name but a few grasslands.

Point Two:  If these grassy areas aren't grazed by animals, the dry grass will ultimately be struck by lightning, ignite, and release fiery clouds of CO2!

Point Three:  Livestock happily and constructively eat lots of other stuff that humans can't or won't consume, including millions of tons of peanut hulls, citrus pulp, molasses, feather meal, wheat bran, meat and bone meal from slaughter plants, corn gluten meal, and on down a long list. Without livestock, you have no more food for humans, but a huge waste disposal problem.

Point Four:  Globally, animals thus produce one pound of nutritionally-complete protein for each 1.4 pounds of human-edible protein they consume. (Much of the vegetable and grain protein we consume is incomplete, lacking key amino acids and nutrients.) The biological value of the animal protein is 1.4 times that value in the plant foods. Thus, the higher-quality animal protein comes at virtually no cost to the ecosystem!  This gem of information is from a broad-gauge task force report by the U.S. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply, July, 1999. That report should have been basic background reading for the Carnegie-Mellon team—but it wasn't.

Point Five:  Livestock products are key sources of the amino acids lysine and tryptophan. Also such key micro-nutrients as iron, zinc, and vitamins B12 and A. These nutrients are especially important to the growth and development of children. That's why I don't get excited about Carnegie-Mellon telling me that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact on my carbon footprint than switching from a gas-guzzler to a Prius. My car already gets better fuel mileage than a Prius, and I think meat consumption is important to maintaining our health.

Point Six:  Our Center has documented a doubling in U.S. meat production per acre since 1970. Much of this is due to pesticides, veterinary chemistry, and better plant breeding—including the boost in U.S corn yields from 71 bushels per acre in 1971 to more than 150 bushels per acre recently. That means the corn-fed efficiency of livestock is rising!

If you really want to help people, stop wasting corn on ethanol and soybean oil in biodiesel. We'll need to double the world's output of food and feed in the next 40 years just to meet the food needs of 9 billion people and their pets. Biofuels are a trivial waste of good land. If you also want to save room on the planet for wildlife, invest in more yield-enhancing agricultural research.  It's called high-yield conservation. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.

 

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