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Do Vegan's hold the Eco-High Ground?

"A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius." -Michael Pollan

And here's a responder who claims to prove MP wrong:




( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
May. 9th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I agree with the paper presented in that article. It focuses on carbon but I think it leaves out a lot of details and I feel like it presents a somewhat skewed result.

FWIW, I'm 'flexitarian' in dietary habits. About 99% of what I consume is lacto-ovo vegetarian but if I'm in a situation like at a friend's house and there are no vegetarian options, I will eat meat instead of holding to an abstract principle.

My reasoning for being vegetarian is somewhat odd. I grew up on beef ranches and hunting and I'm not particularly bothered by animals being slaughtered for food, and I confess I am not even horrified by mass production, though it is certainly a lot uglier than my grandmother's farm.

But this article touches on stuff I've thought about a lot and I think that's why it bothered me. I noticed a few omissions. As best I could tell in a quick read, it seems to assume that all animals raised for meat are free-range or that they magically get fed with no real production costs incurred. In reality, cattle these days are often fed highly processed foods composed of corn and soy and other industrialized crops. So right away I question their results.

If I am to compare the amount of corn and soy it takes to feed me for one day vs the amount it takes to feed a cow for a year (remember that digestion is not a terribly efficient process and living for an animal the size of a cow takes considerably more energy than a body my size AND not the entire cow is eaten) Right away it seems implausible that meat could possibly be more efficient. It is possible that their stomaches could digest the material more thoroughly than mine (they can convert cellulose to sugar, I cannot) but that's ONLY for cows, sheep, and goats. Not true for pigs or chickens and I'm pretty skeptical that, when fed the feed crops they are now that they could be very much more efficient than our bodies at all.

Second, if we presume the cattle are instead free-range, then there's the issue of the space required to range those animals. This directly results in the elimination of competitive and predatory indigenous species, the spread of disease into wild animals, the destruction of wild habitats, and so on. So to minimize the environmental impact of eating meat, one would have to feed cattle industrialized crops and then we're back to the above problem.

Finally, while it does list the cost of transporting produce and rightly notes that more has to move for the same caloric intake, it fails to account for questions like spoilage and refrigeration. Most produce can be transported without refrigeration. Meat is aged in a meat locker for at least a week prior to being shipped (refrigerated) to a store where it is kept in refrigeration. That could up to an enormous energy cost that has been neglected in this document.

Similarly, there's likely a lesser but still existent additional hidden cost for meat in that most meats need to be cooked for safety reasons whereas many vegetables can safely be consumed raw.

The data presented in the article seems to be reasonable with no obvious misstatements but I do feel like there are a few too many large omissions for me to take it entirely at face value. I would like to see more data presented.
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