Mother Jones has a roundtable on whether vegetarianism is always better for the environment than omnivorous diets, featuring Jonathan Safran Foer, Joel Salatin, and Anna Lappé, among others.
It seems possible that at least some meat-containing diets can be on an environmental par with, or even superior to, some vegetarian diets (particularly those containing lots of highly processed foods).
But that hardly seems like a representative way to look at the issue. For instance, my diet doesn’t lean particularly heavily on processed “fake-meat” products. Sure, I like a Boca burger as much as the next guy, but there are plenty of less- or non-processed sources of protein (tofu, nuts, beans and other legumes) that play a much larger role in what I eat.
And besides, this is an extremely specialized debate among a very tiny segment of the population. The vast majority of the meat consumed in the U.S. (upwards of 90 percent) is factory-farmed and thus horrible for the environment by any objective measure.
The bottom line is that the standard, meat-heavy American diet and the industry that supplies it are bad for the environment, bad for human health, and absolutely require cruel treatment of billions of animals. (See here for a recent discussion of the environmental impacts of confined animal feeding operations, or “CAFOs.”)
If we get to the point where the main debate about food is between vegetarians and selective, conscientious omnivores, we’ll have arrived at a virtual utopia by comparison.