Sustainability is all the rage these days. She who buys the greenest stuff wins (no I won’t comment on the practice of running out to buy the coolest most environmentally friendly widget out there when one could just reuse an old widget or go without widgets entirely). One of the places where this comes up a lot is food. Eat local. Eat organic. To a point I think those are both very good ideas and deserve attention. And then we get to meat. There are those who argue that meat is never sustainable and argue that the only sustainable course of action is for everyone to go vegan, which is a bit ridiculous given that all the physical and historical evidence suggests that humans as animals are omnivores. (In the interest of full disclosure I will note that this post was inspired by the comment section of this post).
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a great deal wrong with factory farms and how we get our meat, milk, eggs, cheese, etc. (but I think there’s a great deal wrong with how most people get their vegetable matter too). Here’s the thing, though, animals play a pretty important role in feeding people. In fact, in some climates a local diet that includes no animal products would be pretty much impossible. Animals have the power to take things that we can’t or won’t eat and turn them into things we can and will eat (as a tremendously oversimple example, cows turn grass into milk). Arguments against eating meat for environmental reasons inevitable cite the number of acres necessary to produce food for a given animal versus the number of acres necessary to produce an equivalent number of calories from beans or other high protein plant product. Those are compelling arguments, but the thing is that they only work if you assume that all the land that would be used to feed the livestock could be used for agriculture. In practice the way things are set up now that assumption is usually true. Most animal feed is grown on land that could be used to feed people. However, if you want to be “sustainable” our current system of heavily irrigated and artificially fertilized agriculture doesn’t fit the bill. And once you start trying to produce the vast majority of food locally, in most areas you’ll find bits of land that aren’t well suited to agriculture for whatever reason but can produce things that animals can eat. And I suspect that many people trying to live off small acreage would find that supplementing your soybeans with eggs (and the occasional chicken old enough to not be a good layer anymore) is a good use of space.
Of course the problem with these arguments is that sustainability is pretty much a pipe dream given our current population levels and lifestyles. Current agriculture is based heavily on cheap oil. Our day-to-day lifestyle in this country is based heavily on the availability of cheap calories. There may be technological advances in the future that allow us to continue to produce sufficient cheap calories to allow most of a population of the current size to spend most of the day not worrying about procuring and preparing food but in the meantime pretty much nothing about our lifestyle is sustainable. Meat probably isn’t even likely to be the worst of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for trying to eat lower down the food chain and paying attention to the source of your food and all that stuff that populates your life. But eating organic and local isn’t going to save us. Not even if we brow-beat others about how unsustainable eating a single chicken and a pound of ground beef per month is.