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

Vegetarianism and the ecosystem

The point of my fishy anecdote yesterday is simple --- choosing to protect an individual animal may be harmful to the entire ecosystem.  Caring people are often attracted to vegetarianism because we hate the thought of killing a living thing.  But what if swearing off meat has the same effect as transplanting that minnow out of its puddle?  What if we're actually doing more harm than good with our well-intentioned actions?

While I understand the horror many people feel when they think of slitting a chicken's throat and cutting out its innards, I think a more important measure of the ethics of our dietary choices is the overall ecosystem.  How many thousands of bacteria, fungi, insects, salamanders, lizards, snakes, birds, and mammals died when the farmer plowed his thousand acre field of soybeans to make your veggie burger?  How many more will die due to global warming resulting from the gas burned to till that field, the chemical fertilizer produced to feed the field, and the transportation of the veggie burger to your table?  I believe that the sheer number of lives dependent on a native ecosystem should give that ecosystem more importance than the life of any single meat animal.

When you look at the big picture, food choices should revolve around minimizing the two worst agricultural byproducts: habitat destruction and global warming.  Tomorrow, I'll crunch the numbers on the former, so let's discuss the latter for a minute.  A very thought-provoking study by Edwards-Jones et al. showed that we have a long way to go before we can assess the effects of our current agricultural system on global warming.  He noted that while many people focus on transportation as the largest energy cost of farming, for many crops the biggest problem is actually the production of fertilizer.

Why do we have to drench our fields with fertilizer?  The answer is simple --- we've taken animals out of the equation.  Natural ecosystems are made up of mixtures of plants and animals, and productive agricultural systems are no different.  On the small family farm, manure feeds the crops, which feed the animals, which feed the people.

A recent study by
Peters et al. considered the ability of New York state's current agricultural areas to feed its people.  While the traditional American diet fared badly in their calculations, the authors noted that New York could feed more people eating a moderate amount of meat and dairy than if those people were vegetarians.  Not only would the animals be preventing global warming by providing organic fertilizer for the crops, they would also be lessening habitat loss since a smaller acreage of land would be required to feed the same number of people.  It's time to do some soul-searching and see whether we really think the life of a cow is more important than the life of thousands of animals living in a native forest.

This post is part of our Ethics of Vegetarianism 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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Some counterpoints.

Statistically I don't think it does matter much how you treat a single animal. If a fish is caught in a puddle, it's not automatically unfit in the sense of natural selection. It could just be unlucky.

And I'd say that you could keep livestock to generate organic fertilizer without killing and eating them...

Besides, the model that you advocate, a small mixed farm, is not what produces the most of the worlds food these days. So it's not really a valid comparison against vegetarianism.

Currently, a lot of food (mainly corn I believe?) is grown to feed livestock for slaughter. To the best of my knowledge this is quite wasteful compared to using the same area to grow vegetables and eating those directly. Not to mention the horrible conditions in which these animals are kept, and the huge quantities of antibiotics used to keep them from dying from living in cramped and unsanitary conditions on a diet for which they are not evolutionary suited. Personally I think it's better to be a vegetarian than to support that.

From what I know of diets in earlier times is that meat was never as abundant as it has been since the last century. A lot of people would be healthier with a lot less meat in their diet.

As to the use of fertilizer, only cheap oil has made it possible to make ammonia (the basis for synthetic fertilizer) on a huge scale from syngas using the Haber process. As the oil runs out, we'll see fertilizer prices go up which will make people think harder about using them.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Jun 29 12:54:25 2010
I don't that it is so much the fact of how the animal is euthanized, but more like how quickly the animal was euthinized and how well the animal was treated before it was put to death. I very strongly believe in the ethical treatment of animals, and the way most animals are treated on the factory farms and their living conditions is less than humane. I know that you process your own meat, but I also know that you treat that animal with the utmost respect before its death, and that is the way it should be.
Comment by zimmy Tue Jun 29 12:55:59 2010

By the way, does anyone else find these naked woman PETA ads as disturbing as I do?

Depends on how disturbing you find naked women. :^)

I imagine they're intended to be eye-catching, rather than to argue that vegetarianism makes you beautiful (or attracts beautiful women to you). And I don't think they're meant to imply that the only thing Alicia Silverstone has to say about vegetarianism is "look at my tits", but rather that no one's going to stop and look at an ad poster consisting of a black and white paragraph of text with Alicia Silverstone's very well-reasoned thoughts on vegetarianism... Whereas someone might stop to look at her tits, and then go on to think about vegetarianism.

It's somewhat disturbing that there aren't also some hot naked men, but I personally would rather correct the imbalance with more nudity rather than less. :^)

Comment by irilyth [] Tue Jun 29 13:20:36 2010

Roland (and Zimmy) ---

You definitely could keep livestock to make fertilizer without killing and eating them, but it would be extremely wasteful. In that case, you'd be better off clearing a few extra acres and growing cover crops to make fertility.

I agree that my dream of farming returning to its roots of small, homestead-like farms is currently unrealistic. But I think it's something we should strive toward and that individual people can make happen on their own scales! As gas prices rise, hopefully we'll be pushed back in that direction. I also think that if we all became more a part of our personal food chain, we'd realize that meat is a huge deal, and return to the more healthy method of eating meat in moderation.

On the other hand, I have to completely agree with you and Zimmy that factory farms are unethical.

Tomorrow's post is all about your point that it's wasteful to grow corn to feed animals rather than eating the corn. I had heard this talking point too, but when I did the research, I discovered that it's only somewhat true. Stay tuned!

Comment by anna Tue Jun 29 13:24:41 2010
Josh --- Thank you for making me laugh! :-) You're right --- more nudity is good!
Comment by anna Tue Jun 29 13:27:39 2010

more nudity is good!

Well, maybe not while beekeeping. :^)

I should point out that is an available domain...

Comment by irilyth [] Tue Jun 29 13:31:24 2010

The global warming issue is--at least in part--because we are farming with gasoline rather than animal power, not because we aren't eating meat. We ARE eating meat, just not using its waste to fertilize our cropland. Than, as someone else mentioned, it takes ten times the acreage to grow meat as vegetable protein--more fuel consumed growing corn for the cows. Finally, IF 90% of all workers were in agriculture, as was the case in 1900, the small farmer would be getting manure from milk cows and egg layers as well as from horses, mules and oxen, even if she were vegetarian. Post-finally, (I'm lazy) we in the developed world are eating way too much protein. Our diets are out of balance. We need our seven helpings of veggies and fruits each day. That, with our morning oatmeal, a little milk and eggs, and we would have a much healthier diet.

This is not meant to be a argument for vegetarianism. I admire anyone who raises and kills the meat they eat. Rather it takes issue with monocropping, factory farming, and the death of agriculture as we once knew it.

Comment by Errol Tue Jun 29 13:35:20 2010
How did you know I was just heading out to check on the bees? Got about three quarts to extract now....
Comment by anna Tue Jun 29 14:16:44 2010

In the farmsteads of old, livestock weren't fed on food raised specifically for them, like corn, but were utilized to convert otherwise wasted resources, like unplanted grassland and leftover cornstalks, into a food product. It was not a decision of whether to raise crops or animals on a piece of property; crops were grown on the fertile land and animals were raised on less fertile land and byproducts.

I was raised on a farm like this and we didn't feed the cows grain. Every part of our garden, orchard, and pasture fed back into the farmstead as a whole. But the products from our sustainable farm could not compete with grocery store prices. As I see it the two reasons for this are globalization and use of petroleum, both in cheap horsepower labor and as fertilizer used on factory farms. Both reduce prices but neither is sustainable/beneficial in the long term.

The naked vegetarians...this seems like some kind of a weird mental play on the idea of a human vs animal meat market.

Comment by Kelly Tue Jun 29 15:18:12 2010
Kelly --- that's exactly the kind of model we're trying to recreate here! At this time, I don't think anyone can really afford to sell anything from a diversified farm like that (unless they're willing to get "paid" less than minimum wage), but I do think it's a model we can all try to strive toward with our own gardens to feed ourselves.
Comment by anna Tue Jun 29 16:31:28 2010

And here I thought it was about the existence of God. I haven't read the other comments yet but there is an interesting article in the current Mother Earth News entitled "The Truth About Vegetarianism", written by an ex-vegetarian. It is a noble thought but something will be killed regardless. This was also discussed in the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I had not thought of it that way but it's true. However, large factory farming, herbicides, pesticides, etc. have certainly made a mess of our world, but it's not over yet.

What I find more disturbing is how readily embraced Global Warming is, when, in reality, there are many scientists who object to it vehemently. It was no doubt a money maker for Gore and when politicians and the media are involved it adds up to profits. (Putting a good scare into the public is always on the agenda - H1N1 a case in point. I read WHO took in profits from the vaccine as well.) I understand Gore refused offers to debate scientists against his position or just would not return calls when invited. I smell a rat, possibly because he knows he has nothing. There is a lot of research on the net regarding this possible "scam". It's similar to the "theory" of evolution. An eye-opener on that one is in the movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It's scary to think how much control some corporations/governments etc. have on everyone even when they may indeed be wrong. Check out you tube, and others (CNN Glenn Beck: Global Warming, Greatest Scam in History). If the media is pushing it, it's probably not true.

Comment by HeatherW Tue Jun 29 17:02:27 2010

I think we're going to have to agree to disagree about global warming and evolution since I don't have the patience to discuss them in depth. I have a bachelor's degree in biology and have read the primary literature about evolution (extensively) and global warming (in less detail, but still far beyond what the media reports), and I have seen absolutely no evidence that either is a scam. However, the media has a terrible time reporting science of any sort, so it's not surprising that the general public thinks these theories are scams --- what's more surprising is that we don't also think that theories like gravity are scams!

I always recommend that people who think the government is out to force false science down our throats go to the primary literature --- reading the thoughts of lay people (including me) is pretty pointless. Science is an empirical process, and the data is all out there in journals to be browsed through, allowing you to come to your own conclusions.

Comment by anna Tue Jun 29 18:04:49 2010

Daddy --- I totally agree with you. The way we treat the animals' waste is nearly as obscene as the way we treat animals in a factory farm.

I love the idea of going back to a world in which 90% of the population worked on a farm, especially if these are small farms that are owned by the farmers.

Comment by anna Tue Jun 29 18:08:03 2010

It really is good to see someone discussing this topic in such an easy to read manner.

The simple fact is that an unfortunately large portion of farmers grow only one crop which depletes the soil. There is currently no incentive to do anything else.

Oh and the person who does not believe in humans creating climate change, can you please post a link to your alien conspiracy website. And please put your money where your mouth is and invest in absolute waterfront property, maybe some on one of those Pacific islands where the absolute waterfront property is already underwater!

Comment by Trevor Tue Jun 29 21:59:21 2010

"This week's topic is pretty controversial and is bound to make many of you decidedly uncomfortable, so I hope you'll bear with me rather than jumping to the wrong conclusions."

And here I was expecting your topic to raise my hackles, when in reality only some of the comments did. :P I think I'll have to agree to disagree with some of them myself.

What do you think about folks that choose to be vegetarian due to religion such as Buddhists? When you started talking about every actions having consequences, I thought maybe that was the road you were going to go down.

Oh yeah... Any advertising campaign that causes more naked women to be printed is good in my book. It's not going to get me on the bandwagon, but I sure don't mind them trying! It's better than some of their other really creepy adds.

Comment by Shannon Wed Jun 30 00:40:12 2010

@ irilyth: "I imagine they're intended to be eye-catching, rather than to argue that vegetarianism makes you beautiful..." While I would love to believe this and have faith in the goodness and positivity of mankind, as Colonel Potter from MAS*H would say, BUFFALO BISCUITS! :) See for an ad campaign to the contrary (imho, of course).

They ARE disturbing! And they get my semi-feminist dander up.

Comment by W.E. Junkie Wed Jun 30 02:36:11 2010

Trevor --- thanks for your kind words! I agree that the current agricultural system is set up to reward monoculture, and that is at the root of many of our problems.

Shannon --- Hmmm, I'm not sure what I think about folks who choose to be vegetarian due to religion. I tend to have a very hands-off approach to religion, and I certainly wouldn't argue with anyone's faith-based reason for a dietary choice. I don't know whether Buddhists come at vegetarianism as a way to relieve suffering, or if it's more of a mortification of the body thing, or what. I guess I have to say I just don't know enough to comment.

Walden Effect Junkie --- I missed that ad while browsing the internet for PETA ads! I'm glad to see they're not just pushing their naked woman message. :-) I tend to stay so far out of the advertising mainstream that I can't quite decide what I think of advertisements on the rare occasions when I see them. I can never decide whether using sex to sell toothpaste is bad (primarily because I think it waters down your own sex life by leaving you in a semi-aroused state the whole time you live in the normal world, and because it sets up an unrealistic expectation of what real women look like). Or whether using sex to sell toothpaste is okay because our society is so puritanically anti-sex that maybe we do need to be more open about it. I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

Comment by anna Wed Jun 30 08:41:18 2010

I agree and disagree. I hate to see vegetarians and meat eaters constantly pitted against each other. I am vegetarian, but that doesn't mean that what I think that you are doing on your homestead is wrong in any way. On the contrary, I think it is one of the most "right" things that you could be doing. I don't eat meat because I know that I couldn't kill a cow, lamb, pig, etc. for myself. I have no problem with those who can. It's those people who only eat highly processed meat so that they never have to face the fact that it was once an animal that bother me. And the vegetarians who judge others while scarfing the products of monocropped corporate farms are equally troubling.

We are slowly working toward a model of vegetarian self sufficiency that would depend on non-meat animals and cover crops for keeping our fields fertile and in balance. So, I guess I would argue that you can be sustainable and vegetarian OR sustainable and meat eating. Just as you can be very unsustainable in both regards. I get annoyed when animal raising homesteaders assume that I survive on frozen veggie burgers and other processed foods--just as I'm sure you would be annoyed by those hyper judgmental vegans who would assume you subsist on factory farmed meat and eggs.

And if we're going to get really technical about what is and isn't natural, one could pose the question of whether we should be farming at all. But, that's entirely different discussion!

Comment by megan Wed Jun 30 10:54:26 2010

Megan --- thank you so much for commenting! That's precisely the perspective I want to hear more from. (And now I'm going to have to go subscribe to your blog... :-) )

I know this sounds odd, but in a way, I think a homesteader can choose to be sustainably vegetarian or meat-eating in a way that even someone eating only free range, pastured, organic, etc. food from the grocery store never could. I think you hit the nail right on the head when you took offense at people who eat meat who aren't willing to slaughter their own livestock. I think that we can only achieve true sustainability if we become part of our own food web. Who would choose to eat factory farmed meat if they had to live with the filth and suffering right outside their back door? Probably very few people, and I think the same could be said about monoculture soybeans.

I have to apologize for being polarizing. I agree that we shouldn't be pitting vegetarians and meat eaters against each other. I was just trying to explore my own thoughts on meat and why I choose to eat it. It sounds like you are one of the thoughtful vegetarians who didn't need to be told not to buy soy burgers. :-)

Comment by anna Wed Jun 30 12:10:39 2010

Anna--I didn't mean to imply that you were polarizing. I reread my comment and realize it seems that way, but I was really mostly referencing PETA and their ad campaigns. I think they have made it really difficult for more moderate vegetarians. I don't know how many times I've had to argument the ridiculousness of "cruelty-free" products made in Chinese sweatshops. Then, there are the exact same people on the other side of the spectrum that think that the treatment of animals (and often people, not to mention the environment) is totally irrelevant that drive me crazy, too.

I think it makes more sense to be a little less dogmatic, which seems the approach you are taking in your argument for a meat producing homestead. It's a lifestyle that I respect, even though it isn't one that I practice.

Comment by megan Wed Jun 30 14:08:33 2010

"I don't know whether Buddhists come at vegetarianism as a way to relieve suffering, or if it's more of a mortification of the body thing, or what."

One of the five precepts is "do not kill". Of course, there are many interpretations of this... But certainly ordained Buddhists are usually vegan or vegetarian.

Of the lay Buddhists, I know some that choose to follow as the monks do, and are vegan. I also know some that choose to only eat meat that they have slaughtered themselves. Then I know some that don't consider their diet to be part of the five precepts.

There are as many interpretations of Buddhism as Buddhists I think... But this should give you the general idea.

Comment by Shannon Wed Jun 30 15:41:53 2010

Megan --- you didn't really imply that. I think you've had to deal with lots of people taking you to task for being vegetarian in the same way I've had to deal with lots of frozen-processed-soy-eating vegetarians who think they're saving the world. :-)

I agree that PETA is far too polarizing. Mark and I have been watching 30 days on netflix, and there was an episode about a hunter going to live with a PETA activist family. I was really disappointed by the PETA people --- their tactics all seemed to consist of eye-catching, but not substantive, protests. Granted, that's filtered through the lens of reality TV, which is in itself eye-catching but not substantive....

Shannon --- I wonder how Buddhist's interpreted that precept a couple of hundred years ago when we all lived in a more agrarian culture?

Comment by anna Wed Jun 30 20:06:22 2010

It's not the general public who thinks it's a scam, but the scientists who oppose it. Trevor, there was a link in my post and you can further your research online. I don't have a website but I do indeed have some waterfront property - it's still there - as it has been for thousands of years. How about you? Man has certainly made a botch of earth in countless ways, and will continue to do so, but the global warming is definitely open for debate, if you're a thinking person rather than a media imbiber. Here's another link for you that states there are 30,000 scientists signed up to debate global warming with Gore, 9000 with PhD's, but he won't do it.

As Anna says, we can agree to disagree without attacking one another so I'm not going to do that. This is not that type of forum. Let's treat each other with respect.


Comment by Heather Thu Jul 1 16:01:11 2010

Had to take a few days to think about how I concretely felt about using sex to sell toothpaste. :D Unfortunately I didn't get far, and I find that I am torn along with you. On the one hand, I vehemently oppose the cookie cutter approach to advertising-- skinny women with large breasts and long windblown hair and poutyfaces or vapid-looking meatheads with enough product in their hair to pollute a watershed. I also agree that the saturation of these images has diluted the sexual appeal intended in the first place.

I perceive that our society isn't so much puritanically anti-sex so much as it is puritanically the-body-is-shameful (though you could argue this to be a 'which came first, the chicken or the egg' point). Breastfeeding in public-- perfectly natural life process but somehow inappropriate (says society) to do in the presence of others. What's up with that! So instead of being delighted that the knickerless gals in the PETA ads are somehow thumbing their nose at the puritanical prudes, I'm caught up in being annoyed at how stereotypical they are, how much they feed into society's definition of beauty.

I would be happier to see advances being made in the anti-sex/anti-nudity with average Joe or Jolene. Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty is in itself a beautiful thing, in my opinion. And you know, beyond that, why does "sexy" have to mean "more bared skin"? There can be so much that's titillating about a woman wearing a hijab, or a homesteadress in a bee jacket in a golf cart...

Comment by W.E. Junkie Thu Jul 1 17:09:20 2010
Heather --- You're totally right that we need to keep this civil. I should have been the one taking folks to task, not you. No meanness on my blog, please! :-)
Comment by anna Thu Jul 1 21:19:31 2010

Walden Effect Junkie --- Just like I said to Mrs. Fuzzy on another post, I appreciate you thinking this through since it helps me think it through. I totally agree that probably a large part of why we dislike those images is the implied this-woman-is-prettier-than-you-and-you-should-look-like-this-unrealistic-ideal. (I think that men get an entirely different message from those images. :-) )

I like your point about the-body-is-shameful too. That seems to be at the root of many parts of American body image culture that I detest. Is it really so terrifying to be able to smell our own sweat? Must we carefully remove hair from every part of our body except our heads? And those images do feed that, by perpetuating the stereotypical beautiful-woman body that's really unearthly.

Another good point with the bared skin comment. I think that's appealing to the least common denominator.

Comment by anna Thu Jul 1 21:35:41 2010

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