Is it More Energy Efficient to Be Vegetarian?

People decide to become vegetarian for many different reasons. A common one is the wish not to eat meat because they believe that keeping, raising and then killing animals for food is cruel and inhumane. That is very much a personal point of view that many people do not agree with, particularly if the meat is reared in an ethical way, such as on an organic farm.

Other people point to the health benefits of vegetarianism. There are undoubtedly some advantages if you have a healthy vegetarian diet as this tends to be low in saturated fats, high in fibre and low in processed foods. If someone, however, decides to cut out meat and just replaces it with processed foods, ready meals and cheese, the health benefits are likely to be minimal, and this type of diet could be more harmful than a traditional Mediterranean diet that included some meat and fish.

Energy Efficiency and Being Vegetarian

The other quite compelling argument to support the change from eating meat and fish with vegetables, fruit, grains and cereals and instead to move to eating only foods derived directly from plants is energy efficiency. It is a well accepted fact that raising animals cannot be done by feeding them only on grass. Animals that are raised to produce beef, pork and lamb all need their own diet to be supplemented by grains, which are fed to them in the form of supplements.

This animal feed has to come from somewhere and it is grown as crops that are then used to form concentrate that can give a good mix of nutrients – proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fats – that help the animal to gain weight quickly. Only by raising animals over a fairly short time can a beef or other meat farmer maintain the necessary profit levels to make a good living.

Energy from the sun is absorbed by plants and used to form stems, leaves and tubers and this energy then needs to be processed and fed to farm animals. They then need to grow over a period of time to fatten up before they can be used for food. If we humans ate the plant crops used to feed the animals, this would be far more energy efficient.

Diet for a Small Planet

These concepts were first put forward by an author called Frances Moore Lappe in her book called Diet for a Small Planet that was published during the 1970s. It became a best seller and explained why not eating meat was a great way to become more ecofriendly. This was an unusual concept at the time, which has since become central to the way we live in the 21st century.

The key messages of the book were that if people converted to a vegetarian diet, land could be used far more efficiently and effectively, and it would be possible to prevent a lot of people starving across the world.

Today’s Environmental Needs

Since then, the environmental needs generated by our recognition that human behaviour is causing climate change by releasing too many greenhouse gases has changed things quite a lot. There is not even more reason to argue for vegetarianism – by eating less intensively farmed meat, we can make use of the energy from the sun more efficiently, preventing energy expenditure in not only raising meat, but packaging, processing and transporting it, sometimes over huge distances.

Growing crops for human consumption also saves water – we may think that we are all doing our bit by having showers instead of baths and not leaving the tap running when we clean our teeth, but this is literally a drop in the ocean compared to what we would save if we all became vegetarian. For example, if you decided that you would not take another shower or bath at all for a year, the amount of water you would save would only be the equivalent of the amount of water required to produce 0.5 kilograms of beef – enough to make a lasagne for four people.

Vegetarians and Methane

Although vegetarians may produce a little excess intestinal gas due to all of the beans that they eat, this is nothing compared to the methane output of cattle. The other good argument for eating less meat is that cows produce more greenhouse gases than all of our air transport put together worldwide. If we eat vegetarian, the crops that provide our food actually contribute to the carbon sink, and prevent all of that methane warming the environment.