I’ve seen this guy publish variations of this essay in a few places now. I’m getting tired of raising my objections over and over again. So I’m going to lay them out here, where I can consistently link them. Here’s the essay in question recently posted as an op-ed in the New York Times (paywall warning).
He’s selecting the data to make it appear unsustainable but leaving out a number of key elements.
Many of the farms he seems to be referencing are not truly sustainable farms, but rather large scale “organic” farms. Part of the point of sustainable meat production is that you keep it small, you don’t scale it up. Otherwise it doesn’t get the title “sustainable”. He seems to be making the argument that market forces will always force farms to scale up and thus “sustainable” will never exist for long. Part of what needs to happen for any kind of sustainable farming to be a success is for there to be a change of culture that removes some of this growth pressure from food markets.
Intensive grazing builds soil, and builds it fast. The nutrients lost when you remove an animal from the system are negligible compared to the amount you are adding. Salatin doesn’t use his chickens to add nutrients — the cows do that — he uses them primarily for pest control. And yes, he still feeds his chickens grain. And he cuts corners on that. It doesn’t mean corners have to be cut there. Part of the problem here is supply of sustainably farmed grain, it’s hard to find right now.
Animal farming can use land that cannot be used for vegetable farming. Yes, right now we’re clearing rain forest for cattle. But right now we eat way too much meat. That does not mean we need to go to zero meat. Sustainable meat production is possible, it just requires a cultural shift to a reduced meat diet — not a vegetarian or vegan diet, though.
When people measure the “efficiency” of meat production as a food source, they usually measure the output in the form of calories. However, there is more to food than calories — when you eat animal flesh you are taking in complex proteins that don’t register when they measure calories but that none the less would cost you calories if you had to produce them yourselves. In other words, when they measure the energy content of meat, they get it wrong because they don’t consider the whole nutritional picture.
Finally, people’s bodies are different. Their nutritional requirements are different. The way their bodies absorb nutrients are different. Not everyone is able to maintain a nutritionally complete diet with out meat. Some people can, but not everyone. Sustainable meat production is perfectly possible. It requires a cultural and paradigm shift, but that is different from being impossible.