meat vs vegan efficiency

i always read it takes x bushels of grain to produce a pound of meat which is a lot more than it takes to produce food for vegans. is there a specific study showing this? does anybody really know what is more efficient? is soylent green really people?

In the book—no.

In the movie—yes.

This 2003 article by a couple of Cornell ecology and environmental biology scientists sez:

Note that this comparison seems to be based on assuming present-day American agricultural methods as the means of food production in both cases. There may well be agricultural systems in which plant-based diets are not necessarily more efficient than meat-based ones in terms of resource use.

thanks for leading me to Dr. Pimentel, that’s not just just the staright dope it’s good stuff!

Many of the animals we eat consume plants we can’t digest so in a sense they act as conversion units to allow us to harvest energy from sources that would exist anyway but we would otherwise not be able to avail ourselves of. Cows for instance can be thought of as organic conversion units for clover etc… We never fed our cattle anything a man could have eaten.

I am not sure how or if you would want to account for such an effect. Vegetarians are pretty much limited to having men replace naturally occurring plant life with those they can digest. Another factor is that not all land is suitable to farming but goats for instance can still harvest calories from some of it for us. In these cases the efficiency of raising crops may be zero on the same ground. Some land is good for farming and some for ranching.

I would think there isn’t really a satisfying way to account for all of these factors since there is no sense in taking an average when each plot of land or set of circumstances is different. So efficiency is probably not so useful a way of looking at things as opposed to utility. Rockets may or may not be more efficient than diesel engines but there is no doubt each is better suited to its task. Men are pretty crafty at finding what works best without having to be told… especially when it comes to things we have been doing for nearly as long as we could be called men.

True in theory, wrong in practise today. In the industralized meat production, cows - both for milk and for meat - aren’t let outside to graze the pasture and munch grass otherwise unused; they are fed soy imported from the 3rd world*, and ground-up meat**

  • 3rd world countries are forced to grow soy and export it over the real concerns and needs of their own population in order to meet the strict demands of the World Bank for paying of their debts.

** Which lead to the BSE trouble some decades back.

Conventional fish farms in Vietnam are also a drain on the oceans: they are fed with fish caught from the ocean! Yet people think that Aqua-culture sweet-water fish are better for the enviroment. Only if they are organic-grown and fed differently.

The well-known, often-used quote is that it takes 10 calories/kg/ units of plant for 1 calorie of meat. Since this is a generalisation, it obviously will vary from type of meat to another. But basically, if you feed a cow 10 units of calories, regardless of whether men could eat them or not, the cow will need most of these calories for staying alive, and only a small part will be added to the bulk meat itself.

Undoubtly true. Problem is with todays industrialized agriculture and the insane demands of modern consumers in first-world countries. Like strawberries and Roses in winter, which are grown instead of food in suitable farmland in Africa for export, the current amount of cattle to satisfy consumers with a steak daily goes way beyond the “natural grassland not suitable for anything else” area.

If we would change everything to the organic method, where each cow (unit) requires one hectare of grass owned by the same farm, then people would be able to eat meat only once a month or less (as many current enviromentalists and sensible vegetarians are advocating.)

Efficiency in todays industrialized agriculture, and with Climate change, is a very good way to look at it. Utility is a minor concern if we’re talking about raising cattle for the sole purposes of eating it - as opposed to 3rd world countries, where cattle is used instead of tractors and eaten after being useful for a lifetime.
Fact is, we don’t need to eat meat more than once a month, and since we don’t use the cows for anything else*** mainly, we could save a lot of energy, both plants and gasoline form, by reducing our meat consumption by 80%. After all, the feed given to cows has to be grown with fertiliser (uses energy in production), transported (uses gasoline), the cows fart methane (greenhous gas)…

*** we even have different breeds of cows and chicken, one for milk/egg production, and one for meat.

Um, no. Diesel engines are not up to the task of rockets, but rockets are very inefficient compared to better tech like space elevators.

Wrong on both counts. Men (do you mean humans or males?) are very often set in their ways of “we’ve always done things this way” even if the old ways are in-efficient; cling to old traditions for superstitious or emotional reasons (the macho image of steak); and the very job of scientists (I assume you refer to them “telling” people what to do?) is to sort through different processes and find the best = most efficient, less polluting one, which Joe Average has neither the time nor ressources to do.

And again, since humans were around, for a long time didn’t involve domesticated animals, just hunting wild animals (or eating carcasses, which are easier to get, as some scientists believe).
Then, for a long stretch of time, animals served as work force, not as food source. It’s only in the last centuries that meat has become a major part of the 1st world diet, it’s still not widespread because of all the incurred costs in the 3rd world.

Wikipedia (German) has a table comparing efficiency:

Source given as Gillespie, J. & Flanders, F. (2009): Modern Livestock and Poultry Production. Cengage Learning.

Also, huge quantities of corn and other grains are grown solely for animal feed. About 40% of all corn grown in the US is used as animal feed (and only 3% is directly consumed by humans).

Just what you’d expect of the sexist cattle industry.

…but now I’m curious - do they let the males outside?

And think how many other resources we could save if we all drank water instead of tea/coffee/chocolate/milk/beer etc.

In Diet for a Small Planet (1971), Frances Moore Lappé said that it took 21.4 pounds of feed-grain protein to produce one pound of beef protein, and gave ratios of 8:1 for pork, 5.5:1 for poultry, and 4.4:1 for milk.

Malthus himself wrote that it is “an acknowledged truth, that pasture land produces a smaller quantity of human subsistence than corn land of the same fertility.” He wasn’t the first, and the only argument among the writers of his generation was in the exact ratios, which of course are subject to a million assumptions and extrapolations from local figures.

This is taken from the extended discussion in Warren Belasco’s Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food.

Constanze, that was a snarky response on my part, and I’ve come back to apologize. I looked up your username and see that you’re in Germany. I’m in the US, and here the term “cow” refers only to the female of the species. It’s OK to ask a dairy farmer how many cows he has, because females are basically all he’s got. If he’s raising them for beef, however, it’s how many “cattle” or “beeves” he’s got.

having said that…

Maybe in Germany. Here in the US, where land is plentiful and cheap, every farmer I know keeps his cattle outside. Grass is basically free and grows back automatically; purchased grain isn’t and doesn’t.

?? Cows is both the collective noun for bovines and the term for the females, no?* Milk cows are always female, obviously. With meat cows, I think they raise mostly bulls, but I would have to look to be sure.

  • English is not my native language.

Actually, in past centuries, the Bavarian legislate council/ King/ Head ruler often passed a law that if during this summer, the grain harvest had been very bad, that not more than x % equal to y tonnes of grain could be used for making beer, the bulk had to be sold for making bread, at affordable prices.

Beeves? Seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me? I’ve heard cattle before, but beeves never ever. Sounds weird.

The question isn’t how plentiful land is; it’s about time and efficiency. In the Alpine regions, higher than about 700 m sea level, only grass can be grown (short growth season) so this has been cattle/ dairy country for ages. Yet whenever I’m walking outside, only the organic cows are outside. Because

  • the current high-power breed of dairy cows would actually starve on a grass-only diet. They need high-density food like grain and soy to produce their 25-35 l. of milk per day.
  • meat cattle isn’t fed cows milk, they are fed powdered substitute, because it’s cheaper to sell the milk to the consumers and feed powder. Then, when the calves are weaned, they are put on a high-density feed to increase their weight as quickly as possible. Putting them to market in 10 months instead of 14 months means a lot of money, so the agriculture feeds them grain. How much pasture is available outside isn’t relevant to this equation.

But what kind of farmers do you know (personally)? The small-time farmer who does everything himself with a few hired hands, or the typicall agriculture business with several hundreds of meat cattle in one big stable, maybe without lands at all? Because the latter is typcial for the conventional agro-industry, the former is dying out, a rare curiosity.

Sounds weird to me as well, but that’s what they call them. Kind of puts their destiny in perspective, I guess. :wink:

The errors in this fantasy have already been pointed out, but it’s worth emphasizing that modern high-efficiency intensive meat production is totally reliant on growing grain to feed cattle. Resorting to cattle fed naturally on grass growing on otherwise non-arable land would result in a Malthusian decline of the meat-eating population.

Not to mention you’re replacing naturally-occurring animal life with your cows.

In replay to the OP, another study you might find informative: the UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadow [pdf links on that page are clickable]

Can you provide some evidence for this?

Because all the feed facilities I have ever seen or heard of buy stores that were pasture fed and fatten them for a few weeks or months. The feeding process is finishing, not production.

So can you please provide some evidence for these facilities that are “totally reliant on growing grain to feed cattle”? Because I do not believe they exist.

As opposed to eating plant food, where you only eat wild berries and nuts I guess?

Any agriculture, by definition, involves replacing naturally-occurring life with your crop. The difference with grazing is that it involves minimal disruption of the natural ecosystem. Grazing lands retain by far the highest biodiversity and highest conservation value of any agricultural land.

If we could all eat a diet consisting primarily of pasture fed meat it would have massive advantages for conservation and biodiversity as well as health. And just like vegetarian or organic diets, the problem is that it is impossible with current technology for most people to actually live on such diets. But it sounds good.

I can’t speak for other countries, but in Ireland beef (and dairy) cattle are grass-fed on outdoor pasture. In winter they are given silage, which is still basically grass. It would not be cost-effective to switch from grass to grain or soy. During finishing (the last 5-8 weeks before slaughter) the cattle are mainly fed on grass, supplemented with beef nuts. Cattle are not fed meat or bone-meal. This is true of all herds whether they are organic or conventional, large or small farms.

Since 90% of our beef and 75% of our dairy production are exported, this system is obviously efficient enough to (over-)supply the needs of the population and also cost-competitive on an international basis.