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October 12, 2005

Soy vs Meat

-- by Dave Johnson

The question

I finally went vegetarian several months ago, and one of my main reasons was the environmental impact of meat production. The other day, however, a friend pointed out that soy foods take a great deal of energy to produce too. So is there really that big of an environmental difference between TVP [textured vegetable protein] and free-range beef? And how does dairy compare? Should I just try to stick to nuts and beans?
Go see the answer at: On soy vs. meat .


Posted by Dave Johnson at October 12, 2005 3:20 PM

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Comments

Don't rely too heavily on soy products anyway because too much soy can knock out your thyroid. A moderate amount of soy is fine. I got into trouble with soy. You have to eat a very varied diet if you're going to be a vegetarian. I've had friends from India and other vegetarian countries who pointed out that they grow hundreds more varieties of vegetables, grains, and protein sources like beans than we do and they have a very hard time here putting together a balanced diet.

I'm switching over to vegetarianism, too. I'm going to at least include fish and some dairy, though. I'm glad I was warned by friends! This is going to take plenty of research to do successfully in an American city. I think we have maybe 5 different veggies generally available and you search for anything else.

Posted by: MJ at October 12, 2005 3:31 PM

What you wrote is not logical. Why would substituting soy for meat make a difference either way if we aren't getting enough variation of grains and vegetables?

Posted by: Dave Johnson [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 3:57 PM

From "Ask Umbra" (the link):

The journal picked soy studies for a comparison, lucky for you. Meat production took more land (6 to 17 times as much), water (4.4 to 26 times), fossil fuels (6 to 20 times), and biocides (a lumped-together category of pesticides and chemicals used in processing -- 6 times as much). In fact, meat lost in every category. When processing and transport is factored in to the equation, the difference becomes less extreme, but it's still there. Meat-based diets use about twice as many environmental resources as soy-based diets. Despite concerns about deforestation and genetic engineering, soy appears to be the winner here.

This is really extra-specially unclear. We are told that meat is very roughly ten times worse in every resource category than soy. (I'm surprised meat scores that well!) Then, with literally no explanation, we're told that the actual ratio of resource use is about 2-to-1. HUH??!! How can that be taken seriously?

And the last sentence is another gem of obscurity. It seems to imply that soy production causes disproportionate deforestation and genetic engineering, but I'm not really sure WHAT the goofy writer is trying to say.

I'm not arguing with your point, with which I agree, but the source you cite is HORRIBLE.

Posted by: richard [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 6:14 PM

Richard, it seems to say that before considering processing and transport, meat is "very roughtly ten times worse", but after considering processing and transport, meat is about twice as bad, as far as environmental impact goes. So, perhaps not the clearest language, but the jump down to "twice as bad" isn't "literally with no explanation".

Posted by: ArC at October 12, 2005 7:12 PM

You're right, but I'm left wondering about all the numbers presented. Is "processing" such a huge fraction of the end (resource) cost of both meat and soy that the differences beteeen meat and soy become nearly irrelevant? Or is the "processing" of meat and soy differentially costly? Is it so much more costly to "process" soy that all the other advantages are nearly lost? That's a critical question, I think, and it's not even discounted -- it's ignored. I suspect that transportation costs are probably about the same per unit weight of meat or soy. But is that true? Again, ignored. Unclear to the max.

And that final sentence is maddeningly obscure.

Posted by: richard [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 7:29 PM

Without knowing more, I suspect it's because "texturized vegetable protein" is a pretty long way from the soy plant and may involve a lot more processing than what meat requires.

As for the enigmatic reference to GE soy, the linked column mentions that 85% of soy grown in the States is GM soy -- specifically, Roundup Ready, and a link from that column goes to a general argument against GM food on the basis that it's not really well-proven to be safe.

Finally, the cited article on impacts says:

As shown by Jungbluth et al (23), long-distance transport of food by airplanes, as evaluated by LCIA methodology, may have a very large effect on the overall environmental burden of food. They found that long-distance air transport of 1 kg food has roughly the same environmental impact as the primary production of 1 kg organic meat. So vegetarian food flown in by plane may well be at an environmental disadvantage if compared with locally produced organic meat. Jungbluth et al (23) also show that deep-freezing of vegetables is associated with relatively large environmental impacts. Their study suggests that deep-frozen vegetables may have environmental burdens exceeding the effect associated with the primary production of organic meat.

On a cursory google search, I couldn't find said Jungbluth article available for free.

Posted by: ArC at October 13, 2005 2:16 AM

Yes, I was curious about issues of freshness and preservation and how these might affect transportation costs. Does the food have to be delivered very quickly? Must it be cooled in transit? Etc. All very interesting in terms of resource impact. It does seem that the comparison is being VERY artificially skewed if one compares locally produced organic meat versus distantly produced vegetables, delivered frozen. As transportation costs increase (as they inevitably will in the age of post-peak oil) such comparisons will be even more tendentious.

Of course if there is some inherent property of soy or other vegetable products that make them more difficlut to produce near centers of consumption than meat (and the opposite strikes me as intuitively obvious -- haven't seen too many ranches in Connecticut), then maybe the comparison is not quite as silly as it at first appears.

There are very interesting calculations. I think we all have to become sensitive to how they are made and how they can be perverted by people with something to lose (like the beef industry, which has already succeeded in criminalizing speech calling their products into question).

Posted by: richard [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 13, 2005 3:05 PM

I was reminded of this discussion as I ate a TVP Boca Burger a few minutes ago. And it struck me that one factor was overlooked in the cost/benefit analysis.

Meat is delicious. TVP tastes like soggy cardboard.

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2005 1:32 PM

"Meat is delicious. TVP tastes like soggy cardboard."

Perhaps to you. I can't get over the aftertaste of corporate-farm cruelty when I eat meat. Not to mention that it kills you.

Posted by: Dave Johnson [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2005 1:54 PM

Dave, I live in a rural area in the middle of Beef Country, and I assure you that "corporate farm cruelty" is a myth. Farmers need to keep cows happy or they don't grow well and thus profit is not maximized. A contented cow is a profitable cow.

There is so much BS about farm raised meat animals, anyone who ever lived on a farm can smell it as propaganda. Let me give you an example. One of the nuttiest vegans I know forced some images from "Diet for a Small Planet" into my face one day. The pictures purported to show a calf in confinement feeding, which caused it to become sick and you could see the waste products running out of the cattle pen. I saw it and immediately recognized what was happening, it was exactly the opposite, the calf had been confined BECAUSE it became sick, so it could heal in isolation from the rest of the herd so as not to spread sickness. What one person wants to see as cruelty, another can see as humane. There is nobody so blinded as someone motivated strictly by ideology (and this doesn't apply to just militant vegetarians). The realities of farmed meat animals is not what you have been lead to believe.

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2005 9:18 PM

I'm certainly not talking about the kind of farm you are describing. I'm talking about the huge corporate chicken and pig facilities.

Posted by: Dave Johnson [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 15, 2005 9:33 PM

Dave, I assure you the "huge corporate chicken and pig" facilities are as abhorent to farmers as everyone else, and they are far less widespread than you might believe.

I don't really want to get into a big debate about vegetarianism, but I will leave with one remark. As I see it, the "ethical vegetarianism" issue comes from a natural religious question, is it ethical to benefit from the suffering of other beings? But ultimately, all life feeds off the suffering of other creatures, be it plant or animal. Alas, that is the cruel equation of nature. We cannot escape our animal heritage. Once you decide not to eat meat for ethical reasons, there is no end to the matter. You have to give up driving, burning gasoline causes global warming and the suffering of other people through droughts. You have to give up your warm house, as it deprives others of natural resources they might use to shelter themselves. Etcetera etcetera. There is no end to this moral dilemma. But let me illustrate with a buddhist parable, which I have researched and it is a true story.
There was a buddhist sect that had strict dogma that they must never harm another living being. They carried brooms and swept ahead of their footsteps as they walked, so as to not crush an insect underfoot. They only ate fruit that had fallen from trees in their garden, so as to not even inflict damage on plants. This took much work so as to assure food was ripe during the whole year. Eventually the younger monks became emaciated and left the sect, and a few of the most dedicated priests starved to death.

Oh, and BTW, last night I had a real hamburger, prepared exactly the same way as my previous Boca Burger. It was delicious. But I do appreciate the reasons to cut down on meat in my diet, after all, I DO eat TVP instead of meat sometimes, even if it does taste like cardboard. I just don't believe in total abstinence, it is a type of imbalance in and of itself. I am fond of a quote by Larry Flint, "Abstinence is the ultimate addiction."

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 16, 2005 8:58 AM

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