I met Dick Manning about ten years ago, and an excerpt from Richard Manning's Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie was a staple of my nature-writing classes. His article "The Oil We Eat" was published four years ago in Harper's. It follows some of the same paths as Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals, making the case that simple judgments are more complicated than they look:
Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the energy argument by eating processed food, with its ten calories of fossil energy for every calorie of food energy produced. The question, then, is: Does eating processed food such as soy burger or soy milk cancel the energy benefits of vegetarianism, which is to say, can I eat my lamb chops in peace? Maybe. If I've done my due diligence, I will have found out that the particular lamb I am eating was both local and grass-fed, two factors that of course greatly reduce the embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches here in Montana, for instance, where sheep eat native grass under closely controlled circumstances - no farming, no plows, no corn, no nitrogen. Assets have not been stripped. I can't eat the grass directly. This can go on. There are little niches like this in the system. Each person's individual charge is to find such niches.