Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2023
Some animals eat plants, and some animals eat other animals, which eat plants. We can eat animals or plants; we have the choice. Our teeth and our digestive system suggest we have eaten both over the past million years.
As our population reaches 8 billion, up from just 2.5 billion in 1950, it is fair to ask how many people our planet can support. Remember that Haber bought us a couple of centuries, by developing a nitrogen fixation process that creates ammonia, and then fertilizer for our crops. Without this process, society would have collapsed around 1970. We dodged that bullet, but that only postpones the inevitable. The earth can only support a finite population; no one can argue with that. Limiting factors include energy, arable land, and fresh water. It's time to reign in our expanding population! Is it also time to eat more efficiently?
Meat is inescapably inefficient; the reasoning is crystal clear. From birth to death, a cow keeps itself warm, because it is warm blooded. All that heat, all that energy, which ultimately comes from plants, goes into the air and not into your stomach. He also walks around, and moos, and even releases methane, which has its own wasted energy. So eat the plants, and cut out the middle-animal.
As a source of nutrition, plants are approximately ten times as efficient as animals. Seen another way, you can feed ten times as many people with plants as with animals. Here is an illustration: in terms of energy, eating one hamburger is equivalent to taking a 7 hour shower.
Does the same inefficiency hold for a chicken? It is warm blooded, like a cow, and it walks around, and squawks. So why is chicken more eco-friendly than beef? Why does it have a smaller carbon footprint?
You might say the chicken is smaller, and it is, but the cow feeds more people, so pound for pound that should not matter. Why is chicken easier on the environment, per meal served?
A cow takes 30 months to reach market - a chicken can be ready to eat in three months, sometimes two if they are bred for that purpose. A cow spends ten times as long generating heat, walking around, mooing, etc. Therefore, chicken is more efficient. Maybe that spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy's is equivalent to a one hour shower - but a burger sure tastes good now and then!
Fish is even more efficient. Why? Because they are cold blooded. They don't keep themselves warm. They lazily swim about in their cold water, and sometimes just lie on the bottom.
What is the most efficient meat of all? I'm defining meat as plant material turned into animal material for consumption. The answer might be crickets. These are raised on farms in Thailand, and in other countries as well. They are cold blooded, so let's start there, and they don't fly or expend a lot of energy, they just chirp. After a couple weeks they are ready to eat. The farmers fry them and sell them like snacks. I wasn't there but my friend was, and I told him he had to eat some, for the total experience. He did, and reported, “They weren't too bad, but on the whole I'd rather have a bag of potato chips for the same price.”
I'm not going to stand on a soapbox and say everyone should be a vegetarian, for a couple of reasons. First, it would be hypocritical. I eat meat almost every day and I like it! I try to cut back, and conserve, but I just have to have some meat on my plate. And no, the plant-based meats don't cut it, at least not for me, although I have friends who eat soy meat and enjoy it.
There are other considerations too. I spent a summer in Botswana, in the Kalahari Desert. They coax some vegetables out of the ground for variety, but not enough to feed their people. Most of the sand is left to nature, which provides an array of shrubs, cacti, and the amazing acacia tree. I touched one, ever so gently, and came away with tiny nettles in my hand, that had to be removed one by one. Meantime, a goat came up and munched on the tree with his rubbery lips like it was candy. Animals can eat the flora of the Kalahari, and we cannot. It's that simple. In this setting, it makes sense to eat the animals - there really is no alternative. Fortunately the population of Botswana, and other desert nations, is not large.
In the United States, where I live, one can certainly survive on fruits and vegetables. I know many people who do. I'm sure I will always eat meat, but I could eat less - an appropriate portion is the size of a deck of cards - and I could eat more chicken and fish, and less beef and pork.
Remember your macronutrients: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables don't have a lot of protein, so if you do become a vegetarian, you must balance your vegetables carefully. It is not a trivial task. Legumes (beans and peas) are essential in this effort, as they contain more protein. Do your research, and if unsure, consult with a doctor or dietician.