I recently got into an argument with a friend who is vegetarian about vegetarianism.
For the record, I am not one of those people who thinks vegetarianism is stupid or proof of lack of moral character or something. I am similarly not one of those people who fetishizes the act of eating meat. (You know, the “ooooh I love MEEEEAT” people. The ones who seem to confuse eating meat with, say, sex. For the record: meat can indeed be quite delicious, but if you think eating it is a better experience than getting head, seek medical attention immediately.) And if someone wants to advance vegetarianism from the moral perspective of causing as little harm as possible to those species most like us, that strikes me as being a perfectly valid tack to argue from, albeit one with which I don’t agree.
But my friend was arguing from the environmental standpoint. You’re probably aware of the general thrust of the argument, so I’ll merely go over the bullet points: breeding animals for the purpose of slaughter generates a massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions, from numerous sources (their farts, their feed, et cetera). Furthermore, factory farming is more directly bad for the environment in that you get mountainous piles of toxic animal shit that can, for instance, poison groundwater. Factory farms also require us to pump animals full of antibiotics so they don’t die of disease and the like, which in turn not only reduces the quality of the meat they produce but also means that the meat they produce is similarly stuffed chock-full of things we probably don’t want in our meat anyway.
All of this is undeniably true, and there exists a perfectly valid and rational environmental argument to reduce meat consumption and eat organically produced meat – free-range, wild-fed animals are better for us to eat (and, as anybody who has eaten them can attest, taste far superior to factory-farmed meat anyway). Meat should be more expensive for us to eat; we don’t need to eat that much of it in order to stay healthy and as a result we tend to overconsume it when it becomes available by simple virtue of math. (Remember: the average amount of meta you need at a given meal? About the size of a deck of playing cards.) This is the point of things like the PB&J Campaign.
But it’s not an environmental argument for vegetarianism; it’s an environmental argument for eating less meat, which is not the same thing. (Honestly, if you want to encourage healthier meat production, doing it by refusing to buy meat is counterintuitive; doing it by buying meat that is raised in an ethical, ecologically friendly and healthy manner makes more sense, because you aren’t just monetarily punishing factory farmers, but also rewarding the free-range meat producer.) My friend was arguing that mass vegetarianism was the only environmentally acceptable solution to issues of agricultural supply. And that, I am afraid, just doesn’t fly.
It doesn’t fly because while the ills of factory farming of meat are more dramatic and obvious than those of the mass farming of fruits and vegetables, this doesn’t mean that the latter don’t exist. Oceanic dead zones are the direct result of mass plant farming, because mass plant farming requires fertilizer to come from somewhere, and if it’s not coming from animals (IE, “organic fertilizer”), it has to come from artificial fertilizer, which not incidentally demands the consumption of a great deal of fossil fuels in its production. And that means nitrates – a lot of nitrates – being dumped into the soil, and consequently into river and stream runoff, and consequently into oceans. (Simply using animal manure isn’t nitrate-free, of course, but it’s a lot less intensive because plants are, you know, designed to eat poop.)
Up until the 20th century, of course, all of this was not nearly so much an issue, because large organized mono-crop farming (“I’m a beet farmer,” “I’m a pig farmer,” “I’m a cabbage farmer,” et cetera) was relatively rare; farms existed as small, self-contained entities, with farmers having a variety of crops of both animal and plant varieties, using their obvious symbiosis to maximize production of both basic types of crop, and using the surplus produced beyond what was necessary to keep the farm healthy and stable to live off of and trade for amenities.
That’s where modern agriculture must return. Not reducing the overall yield, but gaining it from myriad small producers rather than a few macro-farms with no crop diversification. It’s healthier for the farms, healthier for us and healthier for the planet. And until we get to the point where we can really invest in massive self-contained “vertical farms” where all the plants are grown hydroponically, it’s the only realistic option we’ve got.