Let’s start with a little science about why getting protein from cows is even an issue.

A letter published in IOPscience analyzed the efficiency of livestock animals in converting protein and calories from its feed into protein and calories consumed by humans. To summarize, the results are pretty dismal. Animals just aren’t that efficient in passing along protein to humans, and even worse in terms of calories. Our friend the Cow is the worst offender. It takes an insane amount of resources to feed cattle, but only 3% of the calories and protein they gobble up are usable to human consumers.

Since when is 3% an acceptable efficiency for anything?! Go ahead, tell your boss that you only completed 3% of a project while your coworker completed 100% of the same project using less resources. See who gets invited back next week.

Here’s a chart to break it down. Plant protein comes in from the left, gets consumed by livestock, and largely becomes “loss,” or, more literally, bull crap. Below, we put the notion of 3% efficiency (or 97% waste) in a few other contexts to see how ludicrous it is.

protein from cows
Protein feed-to-food efficiencies in the US. Image source.

1. Shaquille O’Neal shooting 3-pointers

Shaq was a great basketball player and a notoriously inefficient shooter. In fact, “The Big Aristotle” made just one 3-pointer in 22 attempts for a 4.5% career percentage. There’s probably a reason he only shot 22 3-pointers in 21 NBA seasons, but Shaq could have missed 11 more 3-pointers and he still would have been more efficient than getting protein from cows!

Yes, I know he’s shooting a free throw below. He was terrible at those too, but still shot over 50% in his career.

2. Loan interest rates vs protein from cows

Currently, the average auto loan interest rate is 5.27% and the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage is 3.99%. Lenders won’t even get out of bed for anything less than a 3% return — why not hold our food to the same standard?

3. The Seattle Mariners hitting home runs

In 2019 the Mariners averaged 33.95 at bats and 1.48 home runs per game. That means they hit home runs in 4.3% of trips to the plate per game. And with a 68-94 record they were FAR from being considered a good team. So even one of the worst MLB teams is more efficient in turning at bats into home runs than cows are at turning protein into protein.

4. Throwing things in the air and catching them in your mouth

Let’s say you have a big plate of your favorite food in front of you. Sure, eating it with utensils will get the job done, but you’re feeling crazy so you scoop the food in your hands, toss it in their air and open your mouth. As long as 3% of the food lands in your mouth, you’ve outperformed cattle.

5. Restaurant food waste

According to FoodPrint, “approximately 4 to 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants is wasted before reaching the consumer.” That includes food dropped on the floor, spoiled in the fridge, eaten or stolen by workers, discarded scraps and imperfect items, and uneaten buffet food. After all of that, as little as 4% goes to waste.

However, that’s nothing compared to the waste a cow makes. 97% of the calories and 97% of the protein cows consume goes to waste, while just 3% of each make it to human consumers. Imagine a restaurant with that food-to-waste ratio. It would go out of business on opening night!

Interested in crafting an Earth-friendly diet? Check out our Food & Drink articles!

6. Constructing a building

You’re in charge of a large construction project. You’ve hired an architect and a builder, paid for building materials, passed inspections, and overcome setbacks. Finally, after years of patience and planning, it’s finished…. and it’s 3% of the size you bargained for.

Why does it matter?

If beef were a delicacy or a special treat, this wouldn’t be an issue. But that’s clearly not the case in the US. According to Bloomberg, “Between pastures and cropland to produce feed, 41 percent of the U.S. land in the contiguous states revolves around livestock.” That’s the single largest land-use in the contiguous 48 states and a vast majority is devoted to the least efficient livestock animal.

Here’s why the IOPscience letter authors think it matters:

Averaged over all categories, caloric and protein efficiencies are 7%–8%. At 3% in both metrics, beef is by far the least efficient. We find that reallocating the agricultural land used for beef feed to poultry feed production can meet the caloric and protein demands of ≈120 and ≈140 million additional people consuming the mean American diet, respectively, roughly 40% of current US population.

“Energy and protein feed-to-food conversion efficiencies in the US and potential food security gains from dietary changes,” A Shepon, et al. IOPscience, 2016.

So we can nourish up to 140 million people — or 40% of the population — just by ditching cows for chicken and use less land doing it. What if we cut out the middlemen altogether and swapped beef for plants? According to the letter, we could nourish an additional 190 million people or more than half of the US population.

Can you think of something ridiculous that’s more efficient than using cows for protein? Share it in the comment section or on social media using the icons below! Feature photo by Jonathan Bölz on Unsplash.