The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Is meat an inefficient use of land?

Feed conversion ratioI've written previously about the argument that eating meat is bad for the environment because it's an inefficient use of land.  The figure most people bring up is that it takes 10 times as much land area to produce meat as to produce grain.  My gut feeling is that the figure seemed too simplistic, so I was very glad to see someone willing to put more time into crunching the numbers and thinking the issue through.

Simon Fairlie began with the basics --- feed conversion ratio for a few types of factory-farmed livestock.  Next, he went a step further and considered the protein conversion ratio, factoring in the figure (agreed on by both pro- and anti-livestock folks) that animal protein is 40% more valuable nutritionally than plant protein.  The results are Homegrown chickenshown in the graph at the top of this post, with beef being very inefficient (14.3:1 energetically and 8.9:1 in terms of protein) and poultry being relatively efficient, especially when it comes to protein (2.3:1).  Personally, I feel that the protein conversion rate is the most important since that's usually the sticking point when trying to feed yourself from a small tract of land.

As I'll explain later posts, there are other mitigating factors that change the feed conversion ratios mentioned above, but this is a good starting point for an unbiased consideration of the value of meat, especially if you just buy your food from the grocery store.  The conclusion Fairlie comes too is that meat is a luxury product...but so are most fruits, vegetables, and oils.  For example, soybean oil actually requires more arable land to produce than pastured dairy, and pigs can often make fats more efficiently than soybeans as well.  If you belive that it's unethical to use more land producing your food than is absolutely necessary, you should probably follow the lead of the Grow Biointensive method and get nearly all of your food from grains.

Trailersteading profiles half a dozen families who dumpster-dove their housing, allowing them to quit their jobs, go off the grid, and more.

This post is part of our Meat lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I think people look at this all the wrong way. Grains are inefficient, so is throwing your animals on a piece of unimproved land.

Forgoing the ease of grain feeding or straight pasture, with slightly more input, utilizing sturdy forage crops would minimize so many of the problems we see on both sides.

( Kenef, Willow, sweetpotato vine, cattail, etc) That's just a small list of what my chickens, goats, other animals subsist on. High protein and easy digestibility, not to mention extreme yield, with just those few crops leave no need for me to feed grains to improve growth or weight.

For quality standards, turnover, and price, on larger scales(not industrial), they would likely be minimally affected if not greatly improved.

These are just my observations based on the animals I raise, which are now caged/penned, and the crops that I work with.

Giving up meat is something too drastic if you ask me, the only thing that needs to change, and is doable and cost effective, is the way we raise animals. Or more likely, the way we think we need to raise animals.

Comment by Anonymous Tue Feb 12 14:09:08 2013

Anna, this is off the topic of the post, but I just flipped through Weekend Homesteader, and you recommend taking your soil sample for testing in January. I certainly intend to test my soil this year, as I haven't before and I think it's important, but right now the soil is frozen solid (I live in Michigan; it's about 7F outside right now). Should I chip away at the ground to get a soil sample, or wait until my soil thaws in spring? I had planned to wait until thaw, but I'm worried that I won't get my results back in time to make soil additions before the bulk of the plants go into the ground.

Thanks, as always.

Comment by Bess Tue Feb 12 14:18:37 2013
This sounds like a great book :) It's such a complex topic given the vast array of farm systems and meat production methods. I'd be really interested to see how a diverse agroforestry system like mark shephard's in viola, WI would play into this. Also mob grazing. It's so difficult to get a clear picture!
Comment by Michael Tue Feb 12 14:28:12 2013

Interesting to see everyone's outside-the-box solutions! I agree that we need to think in that type of direction.

Bess --- I think I would wait until my soil was thawed before testing. It fit into the book in January because that's often a low time in the homesteading year, but I would test any time between November and March or April. Actually, you can test any time of the year, you'd just have to be more careful of making amendments close to planting time. (Thanks for reading my book! :-) )

Comment by anna Tue Feb 12 15:46:59 2013

As I recently commented, it takes ~3200cal worth of rice, beans & corn to provide 60gm of complete amino acids. Unless you;re a lumber jack swinging an axe all day, that's way too many calories to remain healthy.(out right deadly for a diabetic).

Meat animals can be raised on pure pasture, if you're not worried about maximum economic return. Pasture is as close to a natural ecosystem as you can get, so short of being a pure hunter/gatherer, the best in terms of environmental impact.

One acre of decent pasture will maintain one cow, which will provide about 400 lb of beef- providing that daily 60 gm of protein for about 800 days. The beef will aso provide more vit & minerals than the r,b & c diet, not to mention essential fats & B12, available only from animal sources. (I did the calculations several yrs ago. As I recall, 1/3d acre each of r, b & c would provide that protein for ~1200 days.)

It's a real "no brainer" unless you want to complicate the argument by bringing up grain feeding.

Comment by doc Tue Feb 12 21:33:21 2013
Thanks for your response, Anna! I have soil testing down on the calendar for mid-to-late March; I'm hoping the soil will be thawed by then so I can get the results back and start amending before the bulk of the plants go into the ground in late April.
Comment by Bess Wed Feb 13 13:24:20 2013
What about fish farming?
Comment by Arthur T Wed Feb 13 19:11:08 2013

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