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Meat and the Biofuels Debate
Craig Neilson, 6 Apr 08
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Biofuels have been getting a bad name recently with the food vs. fuel farming debate.

We've covered several aspects of the debate already, but there's something we haven't brought up. Meat.

Meat is the elephant in the room. Farmed animals in the USA are eating 70 percent of its grain production. It's estimated that the grain fed to food animals in the USA could instead feed 800 million humans.

The Avaaz campaign for bio-fuel standards opened with a similar number:

Each day, 820 million people in the developing world do not have enough food to eat. Food prices around the world are shooting up, sparking food riots from Mexico to Morocco. And the World Food Program warned last week that rapidly rising costs are endangering emergency food supplies for the world’s worst-off.

How are the wealthiest countries responding? They’re burning food.

The detail of the Avaaz campaign is good. It tells leaders to do the maths on total efficiency, choosing, for example, Brazillian sugar cane over North American corn ethanol fuels. The equation has good spirit - that production efficiency and product quality in food and energy farming is the way forward.

But beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1, and Avaaz isn't making noise about that. The fact is, animals destined to be eaten are eating food that humans could be eating.

Agriculture is central to the food vs. fuel debate. The controversial leaked 13th chapter of the New Zealand Environment Report slammed the government for its failure to take action regulating the agricultural sector. David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, found more than a decade ago that the USA produced enough animal protein through pasture-raised stock alone to meet the population's recommended daily allowance of meat and dairy protein. From an energy perspective, grazing animals on marginal land can be viewed as a reasonable use of resources.

And from an energy perspective, factory farming is just waste. If we're going to debate the ethics of "burning food" for transport and energy, we should front up about the energy efficiency of the typical diet.

The bio-fuels strategy relies on improvements in producing and using second generation biofuels, but the technology on these is moving nearly as fast as we need it to.

Bio-fuels or not, we have a disgraceful record of allocating food around the globe. People are starving, but it's not because there's not enough food. One 2004 study found that half of all edible food in the USA is wasted.

Are people starving because of biofuel production? No way. It's a mis-interpretation of the problem. The earth can provide for a lot of us. There's more than enough food to feed an extra 800 million people. Let's help that happen and go easy on the meat.

Image credit: Cheers Groovehouse!

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Very interesting article, although if you are somehow going to guilt trip Americans that going veggie is the way to be, they would sooner shut down every bio fuel production plant, than see their main source of protein vanish in the name of a larger grain supply.

Translation: Biofuels would probably be better off using non-edible plants like seaweed (something that the Israeli's are doing) than using grain, corn, etc.

~Darnell (the American)

Posted by: Darnell Clayton on 7 Apr 08

while I am a vegan, the fallacy of the meat is using all the grain argument is that the population will just increase to use the freed up grain.

Posted by: Tom Street on 7 Apr 08

Hi Tom - that sounds great!

I'd welcome our new, vegetarian friends. A bigger population means better genetic diversity, economies of scale, and better parties (among other things).

But I would challenge your assumption that population is determined by available food. Check out Alex's article on Peak Population when you get a chance.

Posted by: Craig Neilson on 7 Apr 08

More of an unresearched curiosity here:

What is the effect on small business owners/farmers in largely rural/agrarian communities if we were to make this switch?

I know in Northern New England some land can only produce corn that is low-quality enough to be used as feed for animals. What should they switch to?

If all of our grain/corn went to human food production -- under current farming practices -- what would the likely increase in pesticides & herbicides be? And the resultant effect?

I'm not meaning to be harsh, but the argument in this article is a pleasant thought, but one that fails the small town American farmers & the communities that they're part of. Yes, there are some factory farms which are monstrously destructive, but there are also smaller ones that are the work of one family getting by and making a living.

I agree with Darnell (above) and want to extend his argument -- not only should we be looking at alternative non-edible plants, but also we should tread carefully when we talk about destroying American agrarian traditions.

Posted by: C McMurray on 8 Apr 08

Good Article. Beef "factories" are a huge waste of resource. Farms with mixed AG work best and they support localization. We need to balance our fuel-food production and unfortunately it may need to be regulated.

Another bio-fuel issue I see as being ignored, is the diesel vs ethanol issue. Ethanol is getting favored politically, when diesel has greater potential. Diesel carries a greater calorie to volume ratio, which equals more power for less fuel.

Non-food crops is a good point made above. Hemp can produce fiber for paper/clothes and at the same time oil for bio-fuels, grows where other crops won't and takes very little resource. Not legal to grow in the US for some mysterious reason.

Posted by: Steven on 8 Apr 08

I have only one question. At what point did humans suddenly become able to synthesize their own protein? I'm assuming the author would use the fields to produce other crops, like beans or vegetables that have far more nutrition than corn, and more protein. The issue is that meat is still the most reliable source for protein. Yes factory farming is bad, but animal husbandry is not when it is done in sustainable terms. In fact raising livestock and crops together is the best possible way to attain a sustainable farming practice.

Posted by: Joel on 8 Apr 08

Interesting post! It's certainly true that vast amounts of grain go to feed animals--both in the United States and, increasingly, in China and India. And we'd all be better off if world meat consumption went down, rather than continuing to soar. But I do think it makes sense to campaign on biofuels specifically: mandating the use of bad biofuels is just a dumb, dumb policy, in the European Union (where the largest fraction of Avaaz members live) and around the world.


Posted by: Ben Wikler on 8 Apr 08

Please consider how grass fed, properly raised meat keeps our fields green, is part of the circle of permaculture production and is part of traditional diets for our species.

It is gross over consumption, and immoral, inhumane, unnatural farming practices that are the problem.

I was raised vegatarian, but after reading Nourishing traditions and the work of the Weston Price Foundation, along with the Omnivores Delemia, i very consciously added grass fed beef, local trout, and poultry to my families diet.

By buying local, grass fed beef i keep my local farmers in business and support farmland preservation. I also keep from buying protein sources shipped from far away.

By starting my own backyard poultry pen, i use all the compost from my local cafe, keep the fly population from the neighbors cows at bay, and feed my family fresh eggs and chicken.

There is something drastically wrong with mass meat farming in its current form, but that doesn't mean giving up our peoples traditional (and healthy) diets is the only solution.

Locally, consciously, and humanly raised animal products are part of our history and health. Being vegan is a awesome choice for some whose bodies can handle it, but it isn't the only way to support a sustainable future.

Posted by: rosetta star on 9 Apr 08

Amen Rosetta.

The trouble is there seems to be little grey area or middle ground. Sustainable and localized AG working in harmony with bio-fuel production is the only way to ensure a viable future. But there are far too many lobbyists in Washington (and elsewhere I'm sure) with with other ideals and profit margins in mind.

Poultry and all other farm animals are banned within city limits in almost every urban city in America, even if you have the land to support it, yet it anyone's God-given right to have an obnoxious barking dog. I can see the logic in not wanting 20 head of cattle or sheep in the 1/4 acre nextdoor, but what about one or two? To disallow it altogether is pretty short sighted.

Posted by: Steven on 10 Apr 08

Great article - most people are completely ignorant of this! Also, wanted to point out that the protein is not some magical substance found only in "meat" (read: dead animals). Protein is found in grains, in beans, in vegetables, in nearly everything you eat, in varying proportions. Like carbohydrates and fats, protein is just another form of stored energy that our bodies can use. If people would educate themselves more about nutritional requirements and biochemical pathways, there might be less opposition to the "radical" concept of not eating meat, just as the countless tens of thousands of species known as herbivores do.

Posted by: Justin Higinbotham on 14 Apr 08

in response to Justin Higinbotham: we're not herbivores. we're omnivores. we need meat. it's a nice idea to think that we don't -- and that protiens are just another form of stored energy. but that's just not true.
first off, there are some protiens we just cannot make ourselves. they are those essential protiens needed for DNA production and that sort of thing. sure, you can get them from beans and rice and corn, but it's just so much easier to get them from meat.
and now, think about the form a vegetarian diet's energy comes in. mostly glucose. and think about what that does to the human body -- a body that evolved to feed on organ meat and flesh.

now, once you understand how much easier it is to get protien fro meat than from grains -- and how unhealthy it is to eat grains -- think about the monocultures necessary for large scale vegetarian diets.

i say, enlightened omnivorous diets are the way of the future.

Posted by: justin hahn on 21 Apr 08



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