Among many vegetarians and vegans of my acquaintance, the idea that animal products are inherently inefficient is broadly accepted. In fact, some people I know have specifically chosen that diet because they have concerns about food chain inefficiency, and on the surface, the argument is compelling. It costs much more to raise the grain to feed cattle for slaughter than it does to just eat the grain, in terms of water use, land use, and other resources, for example. In the face of that argument, it’s hard to defend animal products if you claim to be concerned about resource usage, setting aside animal welfare issues and concerns about the ethics of consuming animal products.
Except that argument isn’t necessarily right. Food systems, much like the rest of the planet, are extremely diverse. Even here in the US, the argument that raising cattle—to stick with the original claim—is inefficient is not necessarily accurate. Raising cattle on a feed lot is absolutely a poor use of resources, because it’s necessary to grow hay and grain for them and supply them with water. The bulk of beef sold in the US is from feedlots, which means that the bulk of beef in the US is not very efficient, in terms of resource use.
However, pasture-fed beef is a slightly different story. Cattle raised on open land are not necessarily less efficient, although they also aren’t necessarily without environmental problems. Sustainable cattle raising can be an effective use of land that balances environmental concerns with the desire to keep cattle; unsustainable practices can leave ground stripped bare and watersheds heavily damaged by cattle. In other regions of the world, raising animals may be more practical than raising plants; goats, for example, can thrive in places where gardening isn’t logistically possible. Should people not be raising goats?
The food chain inefficiency argument comes from a long colonialist tradition of imposing beliefs about the world on others even when there’s ample evidence to the contrary, paired with forcing specific values on people in the guise of being concerned about ethics and welfare. People believe that because raising animals where they are is inefficient, raising animals everywhere would be inefficient. For me, raising a cow would be silly, and keeping a vegetable garden makes sense, but I don’t assume that applies to everyone else, because not everyone lives in the same type of environment that I do. Some people live in places where conditions are very different, and where raising animals actually makes for very good practice.
Some vegetarians and vegans can be very self-righteous about their diets, as I know well from my own history of being a self-righteous vegan. They like to find an endless series of ways to make other people feel bad about what they eat and how they approach their dietary needs, and those ways include shaming tactics. Seizing on the food chain inefficiency argument allows people to claim moral superiority because they can say they’re eating the ‘more efficient’ diet, making them better people, people who actually care about the environment, unlike those pretenders who say they do and then eat a burger.
It also carries a certain element of suggesting that they know better than other people about their own lives when these arguments are turned to the global south. Telling people the way they eat is ‘inefficient’ smacks of suggesting that they are backward and unable to navigate the world, that their culture and community clearly need to be fixed because they can’t even eat right. The same imposition of values occurs with attempts to force agricultural practices that clearly do not work onto communities in the global south, whether it’s labour-intensive grains or livestock that can’t survive in harsh conditions.
Food judging within a culture is bad enough. Within the US, it’s safe to say that for most residents, particularly those of average habits, eating meat and other animal products is in fact inefficient because of the resource use involved. There are some exceptions that should be recognised, but as a rough rule of thumb, the food chain inefficiency argument is not necessarily a bad one. This doesn’t mean the argument should hold weight everywhere, or that it should be used in discussions about policy and welfare in other regions of the world.
Applying US-based assumptions to agriculture and food systems assumes that the environment and food are a one size fits all thing, that all food systems are like those in the US. This is clearly and patently not true, as evidenced not least from the huge culinary diversity worldwide. We eat different things around the world because different things live around the world, and we take advantage of what is available to build a cuisine. Many national cuisines also integrate foods from other regions now, a reflection of global trade and exchange of ideas, but not all, and the deep roots of culinary tradition lie in local, efficient food systems.
Which, yes, sometimes include animals. Those lecturing on whether food systems are efficient and effective might actually want to research the systems they’re condemning first, to make sure they have the right information available. Subsistence farming in low-income communities doesn’t really lend itself to inefficiency, for instance, since people have a powerful motivation to make sure they stay alive and have enough food for the household for the year. That would belie the claim that keeping a goat, cow, or sheep on a farm is ‘inefficient,’ or that eating animal products is inherently environmentally unsound as well as costly.