Should dairy products count as meat?

Are beans really "worse" than cheese? (Photo by pizzodisevo, modified)

In my first post I classed eggs and diary products (in particular cheese) with meat as things Repentant Carnivores might try to cut back on. Since then Heather has emailed some interesting calculations. She was curious whether using less dairy would in fact use less land. This was an issue that came up in the discussion on the Tear Fund Facebook page too, so I’ll copy Heather’s figures here:

[u]sing my ‘food footprint’ spreadsheet I already had and plugging in data for g of protein/kg of the food I found you get the following numbers of kg of protein per Ha of land:

  • Nuts (as peanuts) 480
  • Pulses (dry, uncooked) 125
  • Milk 243
  • Yoghurt 270
  • Cheese, milk powder 274
  • Eggs, free range(12 = 636g) 42
  • Goat infinite! (as in NZ goat meat tends not to be farmed as such – it’s feral goat or goat that is brought on to increase the productivity of the land for other uses by them eating up the gorse)
  • Beef 52
  • Chicken (free range) 37
  • Pork (free range) 22
  • Sheep meat 14

Based on that, it looks like eggs should be thought of in the same light as meat, but that dairy products use no more land than pulses or nuts. And that goat should be eaten in abundance 🙂

On the other hand, to get the same g of fat butter takes 21 times the amount of land as canola oil (although if you’re consuming other dairy products obviously a bit of fat goes along with it).

There’s lots to discuss here 😉 Is the goat meat my butcher sells feral goat, or imported meat with huge cost in fuel etc? Should sheep meat be thought of as “worst”, remembering that sheep (in NZ at least) usually use land that is not good for other “crops”? But if these figures are correct (can anybody verify or challenge them?) it looks as if Milk, Cheese and Yoghurt could come off the RC list, which would be very good news for cheese-lovers 🙂

10 thoughts on “Should dairy products count as meat?”

  1. Hi there,

    if anyone wants to go over my sources, feel free to contact me here.

    My info on goats in NZ mostly comes from my recollections of this Radio New Zealand documentary, and some internet searching I did in its wake. I’d be surprised if your butcher sold non-NZ goat meat – believe they said on the documentary that NZ is the world’s largest exporter of goat meat (and that most of it goes to the Maldives, of all places!).

    And I realise that my last sentence that you’ve quoted made little sense! What I meant was, if you are consuming dairy products, you are already responsible for the production of a certain amount of milk fat (and, indeed, bobby calves), so you may as well eat some butter in your diet even though, gram for gram, it’s a very land-intensive way of making fat.


    –Heather 🙂

  2. Interesting… and a nice illustration of how such issues rapidly become complex 🙂 at which point (until or unless one does much more research) one either gives up resignedly to follow the herd (pun intended 😉 or cuts the Gordian knot. I wonder what others think?

  3. This about cheese would be good news indeed for my kids at least.

    I was thinking about this yesterday, that certainly issues would become much more complex. Certainly not all types of meat or dairy are created equal. Thanks so much Heather for volunteering your research. It has provided me with a bit more to think about.

  4. I’m interested in your thoughts about sheep, and about them being raised on more marginal land. One of the reasons I’m an omnivore is that different ‘crops’ (if animals are a crop!) suit different kinds of land, so you can make the best use of the land as a whole by growing an appropriate mix – just like in the food footprint article in New York. It’s also something that disturbs me about the dairy intensification going on in NZ at the moment: cows are a super-efficient way of turning grass into protein, but once you start feeding them palm kernels and stuff they start to make a whole lot less sense.

    One thought about raising animals vs. growing plants, the FAO produces stats on how much land in the world is currently being used to grow food. They have three categories: arable (i.e. annual crops), pasture and meadowland (for raising animals) and permanent crops (fruit and nut trees). Roughly 25% of the ice-free surface of the planet is in pasture and meadowland, 10% is arable land and 1% is in permanent crops (an additional 31% is in forest – both plantation and natural – with the balance being everything from buildings and roads to desert). So if you want to take a ‘fair share’ type model then you can eat enough animal protein to use up 2.5 times the land you use for beans and stuff before you are using more than your ‘share’.

    I must say I haven’t yet divided out the different types of agricultural land in my ‘food footprint’ calculator to know how I track on this measure. But I do know that the food we ate in the 2009/10 tax year (we audit based on tax years) used just under half a hectare per person (or 66% of our fair share of land currently in agricultural production globally). That’s with eating meat (stretched in a stew or stirfry) once per week (for dinner, often with enough left over for lunch as well), and eating one tray of eggs between us each month, maybe a third of which end up in baking or icecream :-). So I would say that not only can a repentant carnivore eat dairy products with (relative) impunity, but that meat/eggs a couple of times a week could well work out fine.

    Although it’s tedious, this is the merit of the kind of auditing Martin and I have done: once you have the data you can work out the actual consequences of your actual lifestyle, and figure out a set of responses that work for your particular household, rather than having to rely on other people’s generalities.

    It does help if you’re a numbers and details person, though! 😉

  5. And I am afraid I’m the exact opposite of a numbers and details person 🙁

    Though in this case I think the two approaches reach much the same end point. Some meat animals, especially goats and sheep use land that is not good for growing crops. So repentant carnivores should eat some of this meat. Unless you go dairy free, and as you pointed out the stats for dairy (I assume on its own, not thinking of the male calves that will be used for meat as a by-product of dairy) are good so some dairy and beef is also not using excessive resources.

    My idea at least is to use less than most Westrerners normally do of the high demand foodstuffs, and more of ther lower demmand alternatives (like beans and veges). Maintain a varied, tasty and interesting diet, and as a happy by-product also probably be healthier than I would be as either an Un-repentant Carnivore or as a Vegan 😉

  6. PS I am not quite convinced by all your argument above as some of the current pasture/meadow could be used to grow vegetable crops or tree crops. That part of the argument also perhaps only applies to places like NZ where meat animals are pasture fed, where this is supplemented with crops grown elsewhere the figures presumably get less favourable…

  7. Hi again,

    I take your point about some pasture/meadow could be used to grow vegetable or tree crops. However, without changing current useage of these land types, 10 billion people could eat the varied, yummy (and largely vegetarian) diet that Martin and I eat.

    And yes, the picture does change depending on what animals eat and how they are raised. Obviously, confined animals require fewer calories than free-range ones, so their land footprint, assuming they are eating the same diet, is much smaller. And, as you say, cattle etc. are excellent converters of grass into protein, and so raising them is a good use of that land. The same no longer applies when you are feeding them grains, where the nutrients in the feed would already be accessible to humans.

    However, my numbers only take into consideration the kind of foods Martin and I actually eat, as, thus far, it’s only been developed for our own use. This means that I’m assuming free-range animals, with the ruminants eating exclusively grass but the chickens and pigs being fed grains as well. Those are choices we’ve made for animal-cruelty limitation – not environmental concern. In New Zealand such animal products are easy to find even in ‘cheap’ supermarkets like PakNSave (we assume all beef and sheep-meat to be free range unless its obviously imported).

    Based on our experience, it seems to me that a non-details repentant carnivore 😉 may well choose to get the bulk of their protein indiscriminately from dairy and plant sources (and local goat), but each week could also eat around 200-250g of each of chicken, beef, pork and lamb/mutton and 3-4 eggs. Which suggests that your ‘one non-vegan meal per day’ rule of thumb (reinterpreted to include milk products) is about right 🙂

    Hope that all makes sense – I’m knackered but was keen to respond!

    –Heather 🙂

  8. Thanks, Heather 🙂 Even though I am not a details person, it is nice to know that (as far as you can tell) the detail is close to the gut feeling (pun NOT intended 😉

    I also think that such a rule of thumb allows a diet that is varied and interesting, and easy to ensure is healthy, avoiding the difficulties of ensuring some nutrients that a fully Vegan diet would entail, yet also as you point out allow for other choices (like choosing meat that is farmed in ways that are [less?] cruel to animals – and tastier 🙂

    I’m not sure about goat meat though as I thought the program you linked to suggested that goat meat in NZ butchers was farmed not feral… but that’s a detail.

    Although currently most readers, and even moster (!) commenters, live in NZ it is likely that Repentant Carnivores will be more widely read, especially as my first co-blogger Jeremy is an American studying in South Africa, and who knows where the next co-blogger to join the team may live…

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