Nature’s Capital II – The Moo Factor

A while back I posted my thoughts about the progress trap – a theme that runs through almost everything that we do today. Simply stated, as we make progress and improve the manageability of our lives in the large scale, we reach (or have reached) a point of diminishing returns, as we exhaust too many environmental resources along the way. By over exhausting those resources, we are living off nature’s capital, instead of living of nature’s interest.

(to see this visually, take the ecological footprint test).

I claimed that one reason for which I choose to avoid meat is because of its negative environmental impact. When describing this idea to friends and acquaintances here in Israel (but only when they ask me first), I often face a very harsh resistance and an expression of disbelief. A lot of people, some of which are highly supportive of green movements, don’t see the connection. Most of them simply aren’t aware of the facts, so I figured perhaps it is worth a while to elaborate on this issue a bit more, and what a better place for this than this blog?

(You see, in the real world, unlike in this blog, there is the issue of timing. Usually, people ask me about this topic exactly when they serve meat at the dinner table. It happened a few times when my dad and I were invited for a Friday night dinner. I then start twitching and turning uncomfortably in my chair as they are eating their turkey and I am supposed to lecture about environmentalism. Although pushing guilt-trips over others is a well-known Jewish trait, it’s not as fun as it sounds, especially not when you are a guest, and sometimes amongst the youngest at the table)

There was an article in Haaretz a couple of months ago exactly about this subject. I wish everyone would read it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an English version of it. The article’s bottom line: switching to a veggie diet helps the environment more than switching to a Toyota Prius.

Why is it that a meat-based diet is more harmful than a veggie-based diet? lets look at a source close to home – our friends at They write:

Farm animals naturally inefficient … Like us, animals are naturally inefficient because much of their food is converted into energy for movement, excreted as manure, or used for the growth of body parts not eaten by people. Very little can become direct edible weight gain. For example, cattle excrete 40 kilograms of manure for every kilogram of edible beef produced.

Combine the fact from the last sentence, together with the fact that meat production have increased almost fourfold in four decades, and we are in deep shit! … sorry, I couldn’t resist :)

In a previous comment, my friend Jorge wrote something similar:

Consumption of resources at the end of the food chain is less energy-efficient than consumption of resources at the beginning of it, since end-of-chain beings spend a good deal of energy just staying alive.

The energy spent by end-of-chain beings, i.e., livestock, can be categorized as follows:

  • Use of land;
  • Use of water;
  • Use of energy, for example, the use of electricity for heating;
  • Pollution, produced both by the animals themselves and by the operating cost incurred by the use of energy.

It worth examining to details each of those categories. I’ll try to do so in a later post. Meanwhile, here are a couple of additional references:

  1. This is a futuristic article by Guy Dauncey. If you are into computer science, you might recognize a similarity in spirit to this article.
  2. If you are a vegetarian, you are in good company
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3 Responses to Nature’s Capital II – The Moo Factor

  1. Yigal says:

    Great post, Yoni. I myself was shocked to learn that cow farts are a worse contributor of greenhouse gas than exhaust pipes! Scary stuff. Let’s hope the ugly consequences of our unsustainable lifestyle don’t show up before 2100…

  2. Yoni says:

    Thanks Yigal. Now if only someone will investigate the effect of human farts ;)

  3. Jorge says:

    “Now if only someone will investigate the effect of human farts”

    Mine are deadly.

    Seriously now, good post. There’s one more thing to consider, no matter which diet you have: the ecological costs of food transportation. I’m starting to feel a bit guilty when I buy South African grapefruits here in Canada, for instance. I won’t stop buying grapefruits, at least not in the short term, but I wish there was more relatively local stuff available.

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