Further, traditional ranching is not the norm these days, and the modern meat industry has plenty of practices that are not sustainable. For example, the way cattle is raised now is driving deforestation—about 80% of the current deforestation rate in the Amazon rainforest is connected to cattle ranching.

Taber’s argument also doesn’t take into account other aspects of environmentally sound food choices; for example, much of the beef the average American eats comes from large-scale cattle farms that rely on agriculturally-produced feed, not wild grasslands (cattle that is fed on grasslands, of course, is the source of higher-end “grass-fed” beef). Raising cattle on feed lots also generates massive amounts of pollution that runs off land towards water, contaminating local water supplies and contributing to toxic algae blooms.

And it’s fair to say that environmental arguments for vegetarianism aren’t typically centered on chastising native cultures, as Annie Lowrey, a journalist at the Atlantic magazine, pointed out:

But Taber’s point still stands: If we used the land the most sensical way (only raising cattle on scrubland), and ate locally, a vegetarian diet wouldn’t be the most sustainable choice everywhere.

One 2016 study tried to quantify what type of diet made sense for feeding the most people, from a purely land-use perspective. It found that the most land-efficient lifestyle would be a vegetarian diet that incorporates dairy, followed by a vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs. After those, the most efficient diet is one where only 20% or less of a person’s diet is made up of meat. A fully vegan diet came in fifth on the list. In other words, eating no or very little meat is most efficient, but eliminating animal products all together isn’t the most efficient option.

Land efficiency, in this case, means using the available agricultural land most efficiently to feed the most people. As Quartz food reporter Chase Purdy pointed out when that study was released:

The average US consumer today requires more than 2.5 acres (over two football fields) of land each year to sustain his or her current diet. That number decreases dramatically as you reduce meat consumption and add in more vegetables. Three of the vegetarian diets examined in the study would use less than 0.5 acres of land per person each year, freeing up more land to feed more people.

[The omnivorous diets on the chart below reflect four patterns, each with more or less vegetarian influence. The smaller percentages reflect less animal products in that diet.]

But again, that study drew conclusions by generalizing the globe’s geography as a whole—while Taber’s argument is that looking at a one-size-fits-all solution can never work. In fact, as she says, not paying attention to local conditions is one form of colonial thinking. It’s more or less what happened with the widespread dissemination of the western diet, which supplanted many local eating traditions and contributed to the rise of the modern, unsustainably-farmed, meat-based diet. It’s fair to say that the modern environmental argument for vegetarianism is more a reaction to that than it is to a rigorous consideration of what type of diet would best suit a region’s land type and rainfall patterns if we were all still truly eating off the land around us.

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