Once again we are plagued with a religious radicalism, forced to endure half-truths and strawmen set up to direct people along a narrow road toward a mis-Utopia masquerading as a logical solution to our woes.
Sure, everyone should choose a path that fulfills their ethical goals and lies in line with their moral compass, and many of our problems today stem from the fact that people neglect the re-assessment and re-evaluation needed to chart such a course. There are a lot of problems in the world, but it's certain that none of them can be solved with vegetarianism as a blanket prescription.
Where does the food that vegetarian's consume come from? Sadly, it generally comes from farmland, and may pause on it's journey to the consumer in a factory for further (no doubt energy intensive) processing, typically to be massaged from it's native state into something more closely resembling meat (eh?)
Isn't vegetarian food grown on the same farms where the plough tears through the field, spewing the denizens of that dark and earthy realm out into the harsh sunlight, killing them indiscriminately? Who actively takes on the karma begotten through this slaughter? What about the effects of the pesticides and fertilisers that the earth is salted with in order to raise yields to economical levels? What about the displaced fauna, the birds, rodents and other mammals small and large?
I don't read of many vegetarians that give these issues much deep thought, and any I've pointed it out to stridently insist that what I do is so much worse. Microbes don't have souls, so it's all good from a vegetarian perspective.
Is it? Any thinking person will agree that grain-fed meat must have a cumulative impact, with the burden of both grain growing and raising animals, but there is nothing natural about this kind of meat production, and certainly nothing redeeming, so I would never think to promote it.
What if one were to eat only pasture fed animals? We have a situation where the animal grazes, the worms and other soil organisms are not killed off, and, to an extent, other mammals can live side-by-side with the stock, and birds are only minimally disturbed, usually when the animal they are perching upon decides to take off across the paddock. It's not always an ideal relationship, the farmer still has to ensure the pastures aren't being consumed more by natives than by our introduced food-on-four-legs, but it's a start.
Let's consider it from a basic energetic perspective.
Let's imagine a field, say 2 hectares, with a DSE (Dry Sheep Equivalent) of 3. A DSE of 3 means that each hectare could support one ewe with lamb. A sensible farmer might run two ewes on this land, each bearing one lamb. As the lambs grow, the ewes drop back to requiring 1 DSE each (for a total of 2) and the lambs might require 1 each as they grow, for a total of 4 DSE, leaving 2 DSE, so effectively this small flock could survive on that land.
This gives us 2 sheep for meat each year. Let's say we grow them up to 36kg to try and make the most meat out of our land. This will give us a cold carcass in the area of 15kg, for a total of 30kg of meat for the year.
Lamb, depending on the cut, might give us about 800kJ of energy per 100g, or
Note It's been rightly pointed out that I've failed to take into account the muscle to bone ratio in the above calculation. 19% was suggested as a reasonable figure, which would reduce our energy to 48,000kJ. But, but, but! We must also consider that the 800kJ of energy is for lean meat, and in a normal diet (mine :-) ) none of the fat escapes the dinner table. Finding nutritional figures for full-fat meat is difficult, but http://www.nal.usda.gov/ tells me that even with 1/8" of fat left on the lamb chop has an energy of 983kJ/100g for 58,980kJ. We're also leaving out a lot of other useful sources of nutrition such as offal and bones so we could reasonably expect a total energy in excess of 100,000kJ when all is said and done. I'll provide a figure of 60,000 above to be mean to my cause.
How would we go if we put this land down to soybeans? With a yield of about 3 tonnes per hectare we would harvest 6 tonnes from this land. Soybeans have an energy content of 1.25kJ per 172g for cooked mature beans. Total energy returned: 43,604kJ! We would exhaust ourselves trying to grow and harvest this crop manually, especially if we had to live only on the energy it provided.
So we get 5.5 times more energy off the land by growing sheep! And that's before we even begin to consider the energy costs of production, and the fact that we haven't had to sterilise the earth to grow our sheep. Let me tell you, if we were doing it all by hand (as we well might be once peak everything kicks in) rounding up a couple of sheep is a lot less energy intensive that harvesting an hectare of grain...
Further to these typical production practices, we can envisage a more advanced system drawing on the practices of permaculture to inform a better way. As far as the smallholder is concerned he or she wants to maximise production of food for family and friends in the face of an uncertain future, one where the spectre of Peak Oil, even Peak Everything, and climate change looms above all plans.
Such a smallholder will not be interested in hand ploughing a field, broadcasting the seed and then scything, gathering and winnowing the crop. Far too much energy would be expended, to the extent that the farmers would starve trying to feed themselves.
Far better to build up an integrated pasture and forest system, whereby various animals can graze (sheep, goats, ducks, chickens) in harmony, maximising meat production beyond the numbers supplied above, as well as providing sideline benefits of vegetative produce.
In essence, grain production is a dead-end path. Once yields come close to the theoretical maximum there is very little that can be done to increase them further, without building your own genetic engineering lab and releasing all kinds of virulent filth upon the earth. Fundamentally, each additional species you introduce to a grain field reduces the overall productivity of your main crop.
Only through a synthesis of animal and plant within the growing area can increased yields be realised. While ever we are stuck in the two dimensional realm of the grain crop true productivity gains cannot be made, and so we cannot hope to live well in an uncertain future. It would seem, given this amateurish analysis, that suggestions we will find humanity's salvation via vegetarianism are misplaced. It's doubtful we'd even find the salvation of a single post-peak oil family. In fact, turning the earth over to grain fields might just make all our problems worse.
If you're hoping to survive peak oil, my advice would be to stick with the mixed agricultural systems that are emblematic of most "primitive" societies, and then whenever you meet someone claiming to have discovered the means to salve all of humanity's ills in one convenient spiritual package you will at least have the energy to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.