Animals Aren't Inefficient—Human Appetites are Excessive
The alternative protein movement's main argument ignores the greater underlying cause of our food system's woes. 🥩
Our food system is unsustainable.
We've eaten our way into an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease on foods that are not only harming our bodies but also degrading the planet at an alarming rate.
To get to the root of the problem, we've analyzed the health and environmental impacts of global dietary patterns. We’ve relied on human analysis for solutions to a problem that can only be solved by looking to our Creator.
And we’ve come to the brilliant—but misguided—conclusion that, simply by shifting the type of protein we consume, we can save the world.
Because, after all, those animals we love to eat? They're so inefficient.
This is a common narrative among proponents of alternative proteins: Because the ratio of meat output to resource input is relatively small, animals are an all but ineffective means of protein production. If we continue on our current trajectory (the argument goes) we'll run out of resources as we attempt to keep up with demand for animal protein.
In our rush to develop innovative solutions, we’ve forgotten how the demand for meat became so crazy in the first place. We’ve embraced our current consumption patterns as normal and failed to examine the fundamental issues with our appetites.
We’ve made the glaring error of pegging an integral part of God‘s creation as the problem—and we’re convinced we must eliminate it.
But animals aren't the problem.
The "Inefficiency" of Animals
Where did we get the idea that animals lack efficiency as food sources?
It stems from basic math that appears to make sense. Every 100 calories of grain-based animal feed produces:
40 calories of dairy products
22 calories of eggs
12 calories of chicken
10 calories of pork
3 calories of beef
This 3% to 40% "feed conversion ratio" provides a picture of how many calories are "lost" as animals turn their feed into what we refer to as protein. They, like us, burn calories as they live and grow. Some calories become muscle and fat; others go toward producing energy and maintaining bodily systems.
To many supporters of the alternative protein movement, this is a clear example of inefficiency. Take animals out of the equation and the calories from feed could go to people instead—mainly in the form of exact analogues for meat products. We could shut down the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, commonly referred to as factory farms), end animal suffering and feed the world.
It's not an entirely bad sentiment. Factory farming is a horrible way to produce food, and there are plenty of benefits to eating more plants.
But to categorize all animals as inefficient protein producers is to declare our human perception superior to the wisdom of an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.
From the dawn of time, animals have been an integral part of God's design for the world. Launching a quest to remove them from our food system reveals our irreverence for the One who gave us animals in the first place.
It signals our fundamental misunderstanding of who God is—and of our own role in creation. Particularly in relation to animals.
God is Not Inefficient
The Christian creation narrative is clear: In the beginning, God created everything, including animals:
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:20-25, KJV)
He not only created them; He also called them good.
And the Bible makes clear that God's Word is both authoritative and truthful. He is incapable of lying (see Hebrews 6:18). So, when God—the Ultimate Good—deems something good, it’s tantamount to blasphemy for us to declare otherwise.
Animals are Acceptable as Food
God also gave us permission to eat animals. This important detail is often overlooked or brushed off in vegan, vegetarian and plant-based circles, but it’s a solid Biblical truth that can’t be ignored:
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, ...
Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.” Genesis 9:1,3 KJV (emphasis mine)
Although this passage doesn't command us to eat animals, it’s clear that God provided them as a viable food option as they were. And, since the Bible shows in numerous places that He is a God of order and purpose (see Nehemiah 9:6, Exodus 25-31), the responsibility for our unsustainable food system can't be placed on Him or His creation.
Like it or not, that responsibility falls squarely on humanity—and it goes all the way back to the dawn of time.
Our Sin Affects Animals
God's original design for creation was a pristine garden in which humans and animals lived in companionable harmony (see Genesis 2:8-9,15). Mankind was given dominion over animals and tasked with both caring for them and tending the plants of the earth (see Genesis 1:28).
It was the perfect picture of a sustainable system, with humans as divinely appointed stewards.
But then sin entered in. On the fateful day when Eve tasted the forbidden fruit and shared it with Adam, mankind rebelled against God's design—and all of creation was tainted as a result:
...cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:17b-19 KJV)
The apostle Paul gives more insight into the details of the fall in his letter to the Romans. Writing about the Christian believer's identity as a child of God and the coming deliverance from the presence of sin, he pulls back the curtain on how human rebellion affected, and still affects, God's created world:
For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.
For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. (Romans 8:19-22, KJV)
The word "creation" in this passage encompasses all that God made—including animals.
Paul's implication is clear: Because of Adam and Eve’s sin and mankind‘s continued rebellion, creation suffers corruption and decay. It lacks the strength and vibrancy with which God originally imbued it.
The creation narrative shows that God didn’t design the earth to be an unsustainable system. Its tainted state can be traced directly to the decisions and activity of humanity throughout all of history and into the present day.
Driven by a growing global demand for meat, today's food system reflects the very same internal rebellion that drove Adam and Eve to choose their own path over God’s. Our desire to feed our own appetites has led us to point the finger at animals as the issues instead of examining ourselves.
The Real Problem? Our Appetites
We only need to look at eating patterns among contemporary Americans to see what’s going on:
The daily average caloric intake is approximately 3,680, far above the recommended average of 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men.
On average, Americans get 46.5% of these calories from carbohydrates,12% from protein and 39.5% from fat, which exceeds the high end of dietary recommendations for fat intake.
Food production makes an average of 3,782 calories per person available per day, the majority of which are in the form of fat.
Consumption of both meat and sweeteners has risen 100 calories per person per day since 1961, while vegetable oil consumption has jumped by 413 calories per person per day. (This translates to an average of 11% of calories coming from vegetable oils.)
These numbers reveal a clear pattern of overconsumption, both of calories and of foods derived from factory and large-scale monoculture farms. As a society, we've embraced a cycle in which a broken food system fuels an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease.
And our eyes are much bigger than our stomachs. At the same time that we're eating ourselves sick, we're collectively wasting 80 billion pounds of food every year—30% to 40% of the country's entire food supply. (This explains how over 40 million people can be food insecure in a nation where approximately 141 million people are obese.)
We are, in a word, a nation of gluttons.
And, as health educator Cyd Notter writes, gluttony in any form is a sin which we would do well not to overlook:
Many Christians consider overeating a food problem rather than a sin problem, ... Others may know that gluttony is a sin, but it doesn't seem serious enough to do anything about—after all, everyone else is overeating, too. (The Plan A Diet, p. 126)
By pointing to "inefficient" animals as the main issue, we're ignoring the real problem: a system that supports unhealthy, ungodly levels of food consumption and enables us to continue harming ourselves while ignoring God's intended design for both animals and humans.
We're Also Destroying the Planet
When God gave mankind permission to eat animals, that didn't negate our responsibility as stewards of His creation. For thousands of years, people were able to maintain large flocks and herds without causing widespread environmental devastation. Some of the most prominent figures in the Bible—like Abraham, Jacob, Job and Solomon—all had significant wealth, much of it in the form of domesticated animals.
Today, we've left this sustainable, self-supporting model far behind.
Modern meat production creates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry combined. Animals are raised in dirty, tightly confined conditions and fed unnatural diets of corn and soy supplemented with antibiotics (and occasionally, parts of other animals). These diets cause them to grow to market weight at alarming speed, and many of them die due to disease or deformity in the process.
Waste from these operations contaminates land and waterways, which can cause downstream effects hundreds of miles away. And most farmers heading up factory farms are treated as little more than sharecroppers on company land.
It’s a system built for (ironically) efficiency and profit. All for the sake of feeding our voracious appetites.
The devastation doesn’t stop with animal farming. Growing some types of plants also has a significant impact on the environment.
In Biblical times, the Israelites had a regular practice of giving their land a sabbath. Once every seven years, they followed God's command to cease from sowing and reaping so that the land could rest (see Leviticus 25:2-4). This year of lying fallow allowed natural ecosystems in the fields to renew themselves, making for healthier, more bountiful harvests in the future.
Compare this to today’s practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land. Maintaining this intensive, unrelenting cycle requires large amounts of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. These inputs not only destroy soil ecology but also negatively impact the health of both farmers and those who eat food made from these crops.
Overtime, monocropping reduces the diversity of life in fields, increases the risk of plant diseases, reduces pesticide effectiveness and causes soil loss. The result is a depleted environment and crops with fewer nutrients than those grown in healthy soils.
The Alternative Protein Argument
Overconsumption environmental degradation are widespread and complex problems requiring multifaceted solutions, but not everyone is addressing the nuances.
Instead, a new and vocal narrative has emerged as a way to target and overcome the ills in our food system: To satisfy the appetite for foods society has grown used to eating—namely meat—we need to develop alternatives.
The argument hinges on projections showing demand for meat rising 73% around the world by 2050 and overall global food production requiring a 70% increase to feed the expected 10 billion people who will be living on the planet by then.
Because animals are so inefficient at producing protein, there’s no way we can continue to use the same methods of growing meat.
The solution? Create exact analogues of meat using plants, fungi and/or microbes, which require less space and fewer resources and don’t create as many waste products. This way, people can eat exactly what they want without destroying the planet, and damaging farming practices will become a thing of the past. Problem solved.
Except that there are several significant issues with this approach:
Current meat consumption is much higher than is necessary to meet our nutritional requirements (and is, in fact, killing us).
Swapping out meat for meat analogs gives the false impression that a fundamental change in our eating habits isn't required.
Providing meat alternatives won't stop us from wasting over a third of the food we produce.
Perhaps the most troubling, however, is how the alternative protein narrative emphasizes human ingenuity at the expense of God's design.
Our collective societal sin of gluttony is what brought our food system to this point in the first place. It's a fallacy to think a solution that will allow us to continue in this sin will create a better framework.
If we continue to try and work around the natural systems God has put in place—including the apparent "inefficiency" of animals—the best we can hope to do is slow down the rate at which we continue to dig a hole for ourselves.
The Solution? Godly Appetites
The hope for our broken food system lies not in trying to recreate the foods we're already eating too much of but in reigning in our excessive appetites.
To do this, we must take heed of what the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding self-control:
And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:
But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: ... (1 Corinthians 9:25-27a)
In this passage, Paul emphasizes the importance of being obedient to God in all things—which includes putting bodily desires in subjection to Him. This means rethinking what we eat, how much we eat and how our sin of overconsumption impacts God's creation.
It means acknowledging that our consumption patterns need to change at the most fundamental level.
Our current eating habits are, after all, the reason the alternative protein movement sees animals as inefficient. Using any resource beyond its natural capacity for too long will, ultimately, lead to depletion or—in the case of factory farming and monocropping—inappropriate attempts to extract more from a system that doesn't have more to give.
In this, the alternative protein movement has one thing right: We're not free to do what we please with animals or land, particularly when it damages our bodies and the environment.
Repenting of Our Gluttony
We are called to move away from selfishness and sin, including the self-serving sin of gluttony, and embrace God's design for ourselves and all of creation. As stewards of this world, we need to open our eyes to the impact of our unnecessary overconsumption—and acknowledge that creating new iterations of the same system that brought us to this point isn't the solution.
God created both plants and animals. He pronounced both of them good. Animals are designed the way they are for a reason and, whether or not we choose to eat them, we need to respect their biology. We can't ask any more of them than what God has designed them to do. When stewarded with proper care, they can only provide so much, which means we need to learn to do with less.
We must repent of our inordinate physical appetites.
We must submit even our eating habits to God.
And we must embrace food production systems that reflect more realistic levels of consumption—systems that, by design, allow us to care for animals and grow crops in ways that don't damage the environment.
For those of us who choose to include meat in our diets, this means being aware of how much of it we eat and where it comes from. Until factory farming is no longer the norm, we need to take the time to check sources. We need to ask ourselves if we really "need" to eat meat, dairy or eggs produced in a way that doesn't honor God. We need to educate ourselves on the food system and make choices that support true change, even when that means going without.
Including some alternative proteins may be a viable option to help us make the transition or to replace familiar foods while we learn to cook meals with less (or no) meat. In this way, alternative protein can be part of the solution—if we can utilize it without defaulting to our gluttonous tendencies.
In the long run, our goal must be obedience to God, even in the amount and types of food we eat.
Taking the First Step
We have a long road ahead of us. Our food system has been in decline for a long, long time, and it can't be fixed overnight. The problems go much deeper than factory farming and monocropping and include everything from inadequacy in supply chains to inequalities among farmers and workers.
But, as with anything that's rooted in sin, the first step is acknowledging we're the ones at fault—and repenting of it.
By bringing our appetites and cravings to God and seeking His guidance in controlling our gluttony, we take the first step toward fixing our food system. We have a responsibility to turn from our habits of overconsumption and waste—to be willing to let God transform our approach to eating in a way that brings us back to His original design.
With this focus, we can solve the biggest problem behind our broken food system and suffering environment: ourselves.
In the process, we'll find that animals are exactly as efficient as God intended them to be.