The case against “sustainable” meat

No matter how you slice it, the day is coming when meat will need to go

Evolution gave us a perfect system, a closed cycle summed up neatly by King Mufasa, speaking to his son Simba in The Lion King: Yes, we eat the antelope but, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelopes eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.” Humans, clearly, have broken that circle. We take far more than we give back – and what we give back is increasingly toxic. It doesn’t have to be this way, but change will require some significant evolution. Farmaggedon author Philip Lymberly has been quoted in articles on this site previously, but his work deserves another look. Currently, the farming industry looks at “tonnes per unit of land” as an efficiency measurement gauge, whereas Lymberly argues a better and more realistic way to measure such stats would be how many individual people are actually “nourished per hectare.” If the goal is to maximize “nutrition per hectare,” this of course raises the question of what should be grown. –And as you may have already concluded, raising food to feed animals that then become food for humans is not an effective “nourishment per hectare” scheme. Studies have found that “36% of the crops grown on an industrial scale are used for animal feed.” However, “Only 12% end up contributing to human diets in the form of animal products.”

Our current system of producing animal protein is terribly inefficient, demonstrably unsustainable over the long – or even medium-term – and is almost impossible to reconcile with the principles of a closed-loop system having mutually beneficial synergies. Some argue ‘permaculture animal farming’ is possible, including the raising of livestock and other animal products that produce dairy and eggs. But these claims will strike many experts as utopian, naïve – and for animal rights activists – unethical, especially if the desire for animal protein is based, not on nutritional needs, but rather on the tastes and textures we evolved to enjoy. There are now high-tech plant based meat substitutes available unlike anything previously created. Start-ups with tens of millions in VC capital are producing ‘alt-meat,’ including plant-based steak and vegan kabobs that even barbecue experts can’t tell apart from ‘real’ meat. These developments only further diminish the need for animal protein. Still, however, some insist that eco-farming animals for food is possible. Dissenters, however, call ideas such as “sustainable meat” myths… and they have some compelling evidence on their side. Taking a look at the economics of so-called ‘alternative animal systems’ one finds a series of problems. Even if meat and dairy became decentralized and its production was only conducted by free-range operations, economics and common sense dictate such practices wouldn’t survive long without incredible price hikes that consumers would be unwilling to absorb.

Some tout holistic farming or rotational grazing as a solution – as without animal fertilizer to cycle nutrients through the soil, crops would require synthetic fertilizer. Therefore, the claim goes, raising animals is both sustainable and needed. But these claims are rather easily debunked. James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly cites the case of Joel Salatin… the so-called guru of ‘nutrient cycling.’ Salatin uses chickens to fertilize the grazing lands of his cows with nutrients, impressing some with this seemingly “eco-perfect” plan. But as McWilliams pointed out in a New York Times opinion piece, Salatin’s plan breaks down when you discover his chickens are fed thousands of pounds a year of imported soy and corn. In McWilliams’s words, “…if a farmer isn’t growing his own feed, the nutrients going into the soil have been purloined from another, most likely industrial, farm, thereby undermining the benefits of nutrient cycling. “Finally,” McWilliams summarizes, “there is no avoiding the fact that the nutrient cycle is interrupted every time a farmer steps in and slaughters a perfectly healthy manure-generating animal, something that is done before animals live a quarter of their natural lives.”

When looked at within the parameters of permaculture (with intellectual honesty), the case against raising animals for meat is strong, and as the global population soaring, is only getting stronger by the day. Yes, it is possible to sustainably raise certain animals on a very small scale… and perhaps this can and will continue to be done throughout the 21st century and beyond. But the growing consensus is that switching to a plant-based diet is the only solution that is in lockstep with the concept of permaculture. Producing a kilo of animal protein is estimated to require an area almost 100 times as large as what’s needed to produce a kilo of vegetable protein. Anthropogenic climate change is a reality, and despite deniers, isn’t going to cure itself. But, as Oxford University researchers found, going vegan is the single biggest thing an individual can do to lessen their carbon footprint – reducing it by as much as 75%. Animal protein was once an important part of the circle of life for the human race, but it has outlived its usefulness and is now a leading cause of irreversible planet-wide upheavals brought on by all the calamities even a few degrees of climate change are spurring. The case against even “sustainable” meat is strong. Anyone concerned about the future should consider radically reducing their animal protein intake – with a goal of moving to a 100% plant-based diet.