Beef vs. veggie burger

I try not to poke fun at other writers, especially ones who are talented at what they do, like one Kiera Butler, a wanna-be vegetarian who writes for the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine. So the following rant is less about her conclusions and more about the presumptions that underlie the entire “veggie is a better way to go” platform about which somebody’s preaching on a daily basis.
Doesn’t matter whether the angle is the animal abuse and suffering we’ll supposedly eliminate by eschewing meat, or the positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions that would allegedly vanish, or the incredible longevity and good health that purportedly awaits practitioners of the vegan lifestyle—every argument against meat-eating comes down to one primary supposition: Meat (and poultry and dairy, let’s not forget) is bad for you, bad for the animals and bad for the environment.
In this latest case, Butler’s article analyzes a subject that I myself have tackled many times before: Is eating a processed veggie burger better for the environment than consuming a beef hamburger? It’s an intriguing question, actually, because if the total eco-footprint of the various meat analog concoctions available in supermarkets and on trendy menus is no better than that of a beef burger, that knocks one of the veggie community’s principal arguments out from under them.
But before we can dig into the head-to-head, Butler has to give voice to her angst about the very subject itself:
“Despite local food god Michael Pollan’s edict to ‘eat mostly plants,’ my friends seem to be consuming more meat, not less,” she wrote. “Parties are no longer just parties—they’re pig roasts, or chili cook-offs, or crab feeds. At the farmers market, stroller moms swarm the meat stand to flirt with the hunky, bearded butcher. Meatpaper, a fledgling magazine of ‘art and ideas about meat,’ has garnered much local buzz. And an acquaintance recently told me she’s joined a meat CSA (wherein you get a butcher box direct from the farm) for ‘environmental reasons.’ No doubt the bucolic pasture where her burgers grow up is a far cry from a Food, Inc.-style feedlot, but aren’t my salads, cage-free egg sandwiches and veggie burgers always better for the planet than any kind of meat—no matter how responsibly it’s raised?”
Okay, this is going to shock you. Guess what the answer to her question is? “Not necessarily.”
Analyzing food’s eco-impact
Butler’s go-to guy on the subject is none other than Gidon Eshel, the Bard College geophysicist who specializes in analyzing the carbon footprints of various products and processes, and who, by the way, is the principal investigator behind the recent UN report claiming that global meat production contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than the world’s transportation systems. He might seem an unlikely source for a debunking of the myth that veggie burgers are better in every way, but his analysis is spot on.
“Coaxing soy [protein] into a red-and-white rectangular strip of fakin’ bacon takes work—which is why Eshel believes most veggie burgers are the caloric equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot,” Butler wrote. “A 2009 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (“The Environmental impact of four meals with different protein sources,” published in August 2010) found Indeed, analyses done by Eshel that while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a pea-burger and a pork chop are about equal.”
Indeed, the impact of all the processing inputs and energy required to turn soybeans into a flavorful food item cannot be discounted, and Eshel admitted that the caloric yield—how much food energy is returned to the person eating the food, versus how many calories were required to produce the food—of supermarket spinach is worse than that of beef. Growing such produce in winter climates requires heated greenhouses, while shipping and storing it during warm weather requires a refrigerated food chain.
“The take-home message,” Butler wrote, is that there are no shortcuts.”
Shortcuts to enlightenment, I thought she was going to suggest, but she was referring to the path toward becoming a born-again veggie believer.
Of course, the one argument that vegetarian evangelists never consider is also omitted in this otherwise provocative article, and that is the economic impact of a truly meat-free planet. In the developed world, we’d have millions of people who would suddenly find themselves out of work, their livelihood destroyed. I guess they’re supposed to find work in veggie burger factories or as foodservice employees in all-vegetarian restaurants.
In the developing world, hundreds of millions of people who depend upon cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats and water buffalo for essential protein from meat, milk, eggs and would face starvation, but I guess whether they’re native Inuits living near the Arctic Circle or Sudanese tribesman who inhabit the semi-arid grasslands on the edge of Africa’s vast deserts could learn to cultivate soybeans and build processing plants to crank out soyburgers to supplement their meat-free diets.
In the end, the argument Butler tried to make about the comparative carbon footprint of beef versus meatless analogs that she’d like to substitute ends up where most other discussions also terminate: It’s not the meat itself that’s the problem, it’s the way it’s produced.
If only cattle were raised “naturally” on a diet of grass alone, then vegetarians would feel better about their meat-eating kin. And if only North America’s rangeland hadn’t been put to the plow, the energy calculations surrounding production of the primary food supply components would look so much greener.
Butler concludes her analysis of the “beef versus veggie burger” debate with the following admission:
“Which basically explains how I found myself at a burger joint: I had decided to take myself out for a grass-fed educational experience. When my burger came, I doused it in ketchup and took a timid bite. ‘What do you think?’ asked my friend. Pretty good: Pleasantly charred outside, tender in the middle. Plus, it had staying power. I didn't feel hungry for the rest of the evening.”
Me, I’m still hungry for a definitive answer to the question of why vegetarians get the benefit of presumed superiority, when even their own apologists come away admitting that beef ain’t all that bad.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator

2 comments:

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I think it is pretty uncontroversial and widely accepted by anyone who doesn't directly profit from animal slavery and murder that meat is bad for animals. It is the only reason needed to be vegan. Meat is abhorrent & morally unjustifiable.

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