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GeorgeGee's avatar

Are ecological arguments for vegetarianism just nonsense?

Asked by GeorgeGee (4925points) October 5th, 2010

Some vegetarians make statements about how it takes less energy to grow grain than to feed an animal, yet a look at most any third world country says this is nonsense. If you told Inner Mongolians to grow corn instead of eating sheep, they’d starve. Their rocky ground only supports sparse tufts of grass. However since sheep can harvest and process those tufts, Mongolians have mutton, milk and cheese, wool and leather, all of which help them survive. In Vietnam, a pig is fed on scraps not suitable for human consumption. In other countries, pigeons are housed and free to collect their own food of bugs and plant scraps in the wild.
All of these are long established and important food and animal product sources that are not being fed human-suitable grain. Midwest animal feed lots are the exception in the world, not the rule, so is there really a valid ecological argument about vegetarianism?

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40 Answers

Janka's avatar

There are areas where growing vegetables for food is not an option, but keeping animals can still feed you.

I think the argument is about areas where vegetables grow well, however, and about “mass production” of meat, not about every special case.

robmandu's avatar

Interesting article from Watt’s Up With That? supporting the querent’s premise…

I grew up on a ranch where we had both animals (cattle, pigs, chickens) and field crops (hay, alfalfa). I can assure you that anyone who thinks animals reduce available food on the farm is what in my youth we would call a “city slicker”. Farmers around the planet keep animals for meat and milk. What, are farmers all stupid around the planet and only E. O. Wilson and his fellow vegetactivists are smart? Farmers would not keep animals if it were not a net gain.

While in some industrialized countries the cattle get up to 15% of their lifetime nutrition from grain, the vast majority of animals on farms worldwide live on a variety of things that will not or cannot be eaten by humans. Pigs eat garbage, hens eat bugs and grass and kitchen scraps, goats eat leaves, and cows have four stomachs, so they can turn cellulose, which humans cannot eat, into nutritious milk and meat.

If we got rid of all of our chickens worldwide, would we have more food available for humans? Not unless you like bugs and kitchen scraps better than you like eggs. Chickens are the poor woman’s Rumplestiltskin, spinning insects and weeds and melon rinds into golden eggs and tasty meat … I’ll let E. O. Wilson tell her she’s ruining the planet, not me.

If we call the goats down off the steep hillsides where they are grazing around the world, will we be able to put vegetable farms up there? Not unless you can farm sideways without water.

Cattle in the US eat thousands and thousands of tons of cottonseed meal annually, turning it into meat and milk. Would you prefer to eat the cottonseed meal yourself? Sorry, you can’t, it’s mostly cellulose.

The presence of livestock in a mixed farming economy does not decrease the amount of food that a farm can produce. That is a city slicker’s professorial fantasy. Animals increase the amount of food the farm can produce, otherwise farmers wouldn’t have them.

iamthemob's avatar

I’m with @Janka with this one. When we’re talking about western vegetarianism, the ecological arguments are completely valid. I don’t know when the last time I had imported Mongolian lamb, but I’m pretty sure it’s never.

Of course, vegetarianism based on an ecological argument isn’t as strong as a “buy local generally” ecological argument. The damage is done from mass production and transport, rather than meat itself. Buying local and in-season is a more significant move toward sustainability.

syz's avatar

You’re comparing completely different things. Subsistence agricultural is a whole other animal than current mass production used in the western world (and also different from the quickly disappearing family farm described in @robmandu‘s link). I’m paraphrasing ( I can find sources if you’d like), but most of our beef comes from a) slash and burn techniques in what used to be rain-forest or b) feed lot cattle that are in absolutely unnatural conditions eating a completely unnatural diet (and supplemented with growth hormones and tremendous levels of antibiotics, which make their way into our groundwater).

nikipedia's avatar

Welp, let’s take apart your argument piece by piece:

1. “Some vegetarians make statements about how it takes less energy to grow grain than to feed an animal, yet a look at most any third world country says this is nonsense.”

“On average, animal protein production in the U.S. requires 28 kilocalories (kcal) for every kcal of protein produced for human consumption. Beef and lamb are the most costly, in terms of fossil fuel energy input to protein output at 54:1 and 50:1, respectively. Turkey and chicken meat production are the most efficient (13:1 and 4:1, respectively). Grain production, on average, requires 3.3 kcal of fossil fuel for every kcal of protein produced. The U.S. now imports about 54 percent of its oil; by the year 2015, that import figure is expected to rise to 100 percent.” Cornell University Science News

As you can see, the argument is not about food energy but the fossil fuel energy involved with large-scale industrial agriculture.

Further, the grains that are actually used in CAFOs generally are fit for human consumption. You could have very easily argued that these animals should be switched to consuming grains that are not useful for humans (e.g., grass).

2. “If you told Inner Mongolians to grow corn instead of eating sheep, they’d starve. Their rocky ground only supports sparse tufts of grass.”

Cool, sounds like a great solution for Inner Mongolians. How does this apply to the CAFOs that supply >99% of meat to Americans…?

3. “Midwest animal feed lots are the exception in the world, not the rule, so is there really a valid ecological argument about vegetarianism?”

Yes, if the meat you would be eating comes from “midwest animal feed lots!” Environmental concerns are a component of my choice not to eat meat, because the meat I would actually be eating is not sustainably farmed.

If you want to understand the environmental argument against eating meat, I suggest you do some reading, starting with, I dunno, the wikipedia article called ‘Environmental effects of meat eating.’ Here’s the second paragraph just to get you started:

“According to a 2006 report by the Livestock, Environment And Development Initiative, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide, and modern practices of raising animals for food contributes on a “massive scale” to air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. The initiative concluded that “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”[1] In 2006 FAO estimated that meat industry contributes 18% of all emissions of greenhouse gasses. This figure was revised in 2009 by two World Bank scientists and estimated at 51% minimum.”

GeorgeGee's avatar

Welp, @nikipedia
1) Cornell’s Pimentel is pretty well known as an Entomologist who makes loud proclamations outside of his area of expertise, in otherwords, a “crackpot.” And among the counter examples given, NO grain suitable for human consumption was eaten by these animals. That makes him 100% wrong in this domain.
2) How does this apply to Americans? Well maybe you’ve heard of “Victory gardens” that people started during World War 2. Ordinary people found out that their back yards could easily be turned into gardens that support not only tomatoes and cucumbers, but also chickens and rabbits. And without feeding them any “grain meant for human consumption” and for that matter without using any fossil fuels.
3) I have my own organic garden (see #2) and have raised and butchered my own animals on and off since the mid 1990’s, including in urban environments. Sustainable meat IS actually available in most markets, whether or not you care to raise your own.
4) I believe raising animals can degrade land but it certainly doesn’t have to. Virtually every model sustainable civilization in even the most fragile ecosystem is a meat eating one, and would be damaged, not saved, by trying to convert their land to use for growing vegetable crops instead of animals. Take the Quechua people of rural mountainous Peru for instance. They eat many guinea pigs, which again live well on random bits of plant matter not suitable for humans. But their mountainous rocky environment and lack of water would be destroyed by efforts to convert it into farmland.
Nor have all efforts to raise vegetables been kind to many of the places where these efforts have occurred. Farming VEGETABLES, not beef, led to the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930’s. And the potato famine of the mid-1800’s in Ireland. And pesticides are pretty much the rule in commercial vegetable farms; pesticide use has increased 50-fold since 1950 and 2.3 million tons of industrial pesticides are now used each year.
I have nothing against vegetables, certainly; I think both vegetables and meat can be a part of a healthy and sustainable diet and there are good and bad ways to raise both, but I think the blanket arguments against meat are based on ignorance.

nikipedia's avatar

You continue to fail to distinguish between how meat is raised and how meat could be raised. There are many ways farmers could raise meat ethically and sustainably, yet (again) more than 99% of the meat consumed in the United States comes from CAFOs. And while it is possible for people to purchase ethically-sourced meat from markets (and I hope that as long as they insist on eating meat, they do), this doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of restaurants continue to use factory-farmed meat and show almost no likelihood of changing.

iamthemob's avatar


Good points all – but none of them make, as @nikipedia clarifies, ecological arguments in favor of vegetarian lifestyle in modern western culture any less viable.

The majority of us live in cities now anyway – it’s kind of hard to plant a victory garden in your apartment. ;-)

tragiclikebowie's avatar

@GeorgeGee The potato famine was pretty much the Irish’s own fault. They chose to only plant ONE type of potato when there were hundreds to choose from (look how many different kinds the Peruvians have). So when a fungus that only affected this one type of potato (that was airborne) came over on a ship, the potatoes were gone within weeks. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

iamthemob's avatar

@tragiclikebowie central and south american crops may soon become irrevocably cross-bred with U.S. GMO seed which will wreck the genetic diversity that allows the crop to survive in a variety of environments. The Irish at the time weren’t the most privileged people, and essentially were only allowed to plant that one kind of potato…it was what the English wanted…;-)

syz's avatar

@GeorgeGee While the points you reference of lovely and wonderful (Victory gardens, organic gardening, etc), that’s a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the meat/food consumed in this country.

GeorgeGee's avatar

@iamthemob, I understand the challenges, and I agree, chickens in your studio apartment is not a solution, but even in urban environments such as Brooklyn people are starting gardens and raising chickens.
And @syz, yes I know it’s small, but it could be bigger, and there are companies such as Stonyfield Farm that have proven that commercial products can be based on sustainable family farms. And by the way, I’ve bought meat from a sustainable dairy farm that supplied milk to them.

iamthemob's avatar


There are other co-op work programs on nearby farms where you can trade labor for food, which are awesome – so it’s not impossible to be more sustainable.

But the sheer size of an urban population pretty much negates its ability to feed itself. While I agree that there are meat options that come from completely sustainable sources, it doesn’t negate the fact that there are good ecological benefits to taking the vegetarian route. You haven’t really shown that there’s a detrimental effect in the current system.

Janka's avatar

Well, ecology is not a reason to be vegetarian as such. But it is a fairly convincing reason to not eat most meat easily available in Western urban environments.

MeinTeil's avatar

Since vegetarianism is impossible (microscopic shellfish living in water) it’s moot anyway.

GeorgeGee's avatar

That’s a whole other issue, but also a good one. I suspect that if anyone did an actual “census” of living things in the food stream they’d find that every vegetarian is directly responsible for taking more lives than their meat-eating counterparts. I heard one bhv (bleeding heart vegetarian) say that she would pick bugs off her tomatoes and put them gently on the flowers before bringing them in to eat. But tomato hornworms can’t eat daisies, and killing it by depriving it of its food supply is still killing it. Let’s suppose there are 100 bugs in the organic salad that are directly or indirectly killed, versus a steak representing one 300th of one animal. Whose karma is happier?

syz's avatar

@GeorgeGee -I suspect that if anyone did an actual “census” of living things in the food stream they’d find that every vegetarian is directly responsible for taking more lives than their meat-eating counterparts

Just how did you come by this rather odd idea?

iamthemob's avatar


You still haven’t put forward any argument regarding your assertion that this is just nonsense – there are very clear reasons why vegetarianism provides an ecological benefit in many cases.

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tinyfaery's avatar

Since you already decided that the arguments are nonsense why bother to ask?

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YARNLADY's avatar

@tinyfaery I think it’s more “Try to convince me of the validity or non validity of this

I believe the statements that I read that say meat takes for more resources than a pure vegetarian diet, but I also believe that it doesn’t make any difference in the long run because there is no system in place to properly manage the production and distribution of resources anyway.

BBSDTfamily's avatar

The ecological argument is based on mass meat production vs. mass produce production. Not third world countries or family farms. You’re not evaluating the right things in coming to your conclusion.

GeorgeGee's avatar

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian, that’s actually from a veganism promoter. Here’s a quote from it:
“If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.”
So if the world only ate half as much meat as it currently does (probably a good idea), that meat could be raised without using ANY grain fit for human consumption, and there would be MORE food, not less, to go around than if people did not eat meat. This is because the meat would then be from animals fed only grass and food waste such as the leftover grain waste from making beer and the apple mash from making cider.

tragiclikebowie's avatar

But would that be a healthy diet for the animals? You can’t just feed them whatever you like. That’s part of the huge problem with feeding animals grain. It is not healthy for them at all, and it causes a ton of health problems (which is the reason, or part of the reason, that they inject them with anti-biotics). All the grain serves to do is make them gain weight faster. Theoretically though, that does sound like an excellent idea, as long as these animals are also treated with the proper respect and care.

iamthemob's avatar


The only problem I see is that the way we have the CAFO meat industry set up we have so much meat being produced destructively and cheaply, there might not be a way to offset the costs sufficiently with reduced consumption….the article, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to address how much the meat would cost (unless I missed it…)

incendiary_dan's avatar

The ecological-vegetarianism argument has some valid points, but because the argument as a whole is based on incomplete or untrue premises, it falls short. Eating vegetarian within an industrial economy will certainly reduce the resource use of an individual, but the argument takes said industrialism as a given and doesn’t look beyond or look deeper. Not only that, but vegetarianism is largely dependent on monocrop agriculture, which is damaging to the environment in any form.

Plus, the animals that we often hear statistics about for how much grain is wasted aren’t actually adapted to eat that grain. Sure, it takes 15 or so calories of grain to grow a calorie of beef, but cows aren’t supposed to eat it anyway. And it’s lower quality grain, not fed to humans anyway, and we’re not adapted to eat a lot of grain either (grains, even whole grains, are pretty low in nutrient density). Plus, that statistic views nutrition only in terms of calories, but there is a lot more to nutrition than that.

So really, these discussions are a sort of distraction from understanding deep ecological principles, in some cases purposeful distractions. What isn’t being discussed enough is whether or not food is being grown in ways sustainable to your local bioregion. This is different from place to place. We see this in looking at the huge variety of diets in traditional indigenous peoples living sustainably; some eat a lot of meat because that’s the food that makes sense in their area, and some eat mostly plants because it makes sense in their area. My area can support a fairly big range in terms of animal-to-plant food ratios.

It’s also disingenuous to say you can’t compare third world subsistence farms to western models, because they’re now intertwined and industrial farming is used as a means to exert control over and out-compete small time farmers. The industrial model is then imposed on foreign lands, which obviously destroys the environment there. The industrial model is unsustainable (and highly inefficient space-wise when compared to various polycrops), so it really shouldn’t be considered at all in terms of environmentalism and sustainability, aside from what not to do.

A good resource on the subject is Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability.

iamthemob's avatar


I’m pretty sure that sustainability, geography and seasonal concerns were discussed.

I’m with you about the third world comparison as you’ve framed it…however, the argument above was regarding whether the example of a developing and local herd-based agriculture was a fair counterexample to show that being a vegetarian in the west wasn’t based on ecological principles. The food-dumping behavior you’ve referenced is insidious as well, but a different problem.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Here yes, but I’ve rarely seen vegetarians and vegans bring up locality specifics. In fact, it seems the bulk of the people making the argument either implicitly or explicitly say that remote populations should import tofu and rice all the time, even sometimes saying that they should otherwise destroy their land to get the wealth to do so. In fact, my friend’s blog has an entry on that based on his experiences:

Even vegetarians who mention local eating and such don’t get into trying to understanding what exactly that means in terms of sustainability in the small details, i.e. understanding the complexity of the ecosystem and especially in terms the potential positive effects of meat eating (keeping animal populations stable so they don’t starve, for example, or the soil enrichment from properly grass fed beef). Most people in this culture, vegetarian or otherwise, quantify in far too many circumstances, rather than examine qualitative relationships in ecosystems and understand things relationally. But enough of my ranting. :P

iamthemob's avatar


I think your ranting is utterly appropriate (and perhaps that same frustration was the impetus for this question). It is confusing how people can just take one step and think they’re done. And when people think that step is morally justified – well…then you get the “racist vegans from dimension x.” ;-)

syz's avatar

@incendiary_dan I’ve rarely seen vegetarians and vegans bring up locality specifics. That’s odd. Most of the folks that I know in the “eat local” movement are vegetarians. They also tend to be more educated about sustainability and ecosystem degradation issues than the public at large.

And @iamthemob‘s comment is correct – my mention of subsistence and/or mixed use agriculture was a response and a rebuttal to the OP’s seeming suggestion that because some parts of the world do not use mega-agriculture, then mega-agriculture is not an issue of concern.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@syz I think it would be more accurate to say that the people who go in for the locavore thing are more likely to be vegetarians than the average joe on the street (probably because they’re both largely middle class phenomena), but my experience is still that most vegetarians don’t even go that far. I could be wrong though. Most locavores I know are dedicated omnivores, but of course I hang around with a lot of the primitive skills crowd.

Supporting the whole locavore thing isn’t the same as directly addressing the specifics of the area and how that effects the biosphere, though it’s a good starting point. For example, it might be better to eat the locally grown organic tomatoes at the food co-op as opposed to the petroleum filled ones at the supermarket, but fundamentally it’s still the same fruits and veggies making up the bulk of choices around the country, and grown using methods that are probably still destructive, just far less so. It’s still fundamentally transposing the same sort of food production in many areas, albeit with a higher variation in the numbers of heirloom varieties.

What we don’t see often enough is discussions about also incorporating wild and semi-wild, locally designed multi-layered (mostly-)perennial polycrops. Doing this to reinforce, protect, and re-establish ecosystems while incorporating both plants and animals into the food production/harvesting is something that traditional peoples have done for a long time, both sustainably and while producing more food per acre. But this is ultimately a part of a larger evaluation of how we live in general.

Another great resource, this time on perennial polycrops: Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.

Now this discussion’s got me wanting to process some acorns and make bread. Hmmm.

iamthemob's avatar


I didn’t even think about wild and semi-wild options – that’s an interesting idea…

Of course, I probably haven’t because I live in a ginormous city.

wilma's avatar

I like the idea of wild and semi-wild options. Those of us in rural areas have the advantage of foraging for some of our food. I do it and would like to do more. It won’t feed the masses in the cities, but I often have used wild foods to put fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains and meat on my table. I consider it ecologically sound as well as satisfying.
I think this has been a great discussion.

mattbrowne's avatar

No, they are not nonsense, but the issue is a bit more complicated when you eat kiwis from New Zealand.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Even in cities wild plants grow like crazy. I’ve led a couple workshops and gatherings about wild foraging in cities. Becky at does this on a regular basis in Portland. Permaculture writer Eric Toensmeier lives in Holyoke, MA, and grows an amazing amount of food on his (I think) quarter acre plot.

Some people incorporate ducks and chickens, and sometimes even goats, into setups like this. Grass-fed cows are basically doing the same thing, eating the grasses and other plants in meadows and keeping the soil healthy for those plants to grow (more than a few cattle ranchers say they just grow grass). Many places that have such grazing animals removed end up drying out and dying, such as after the near (targetted) extinction of bison in the plains (of course, that was also followed by the disruption of the rest of the ecosystem from monocropping, so there was a double whammy). At the same time, places where certain animals have no predators, like deer and elk in Yellowstone before the wolves returned, they end up over-grazing and starving, developing diseases and such, so just letting animals loose on an area without concern to population limits is just as bad as having none.

It’s always about balance and relationships. With proper balance and relationships, food is more plentiful AND sustainable.

GeorgeGee's avatar

My grandfather, who lived well into his 90’s, used to forage in major north American cities for mushrooms, berries and nuts. Even in NYC, he could go into just about any park and come out with ingredients for dinner. And no, he didn’t die of mushroom poisoning. I just wish he taught this skill to me.

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