Feeding the World

Recently, a friend from Platypus Affiliated Society raised the point that many people concerned with the the impacts of the global consumption of animal products overlook the fundamental question of how to feed the growing global population. His concern is a fundamental one, because seeing that all people have access to affordable, nourishing, humane, human rights-friendly food goes far beyond merely reducing the consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy — though this is an essential starting point.

When it comes to world hunger, modern famines are more a problem of price and distribution than of global scarcity. Not only is food insecurity today largely manmade but ‘the livestock revolution’ has exacerbated it in many ways. Diets that require less land, water, and carbon (i.e. plant-based diets that do not involve the inefficient cycling of grain calories through animals) are in general much less likely to create food insecurity in the world. The food price hike of 2007 and 2008 was surely linked to increasing demand for livestock feed from emerging markets such as China and the persistently high consumption of animal products from developed countries such as the US (despite that other factors were at play, such as commodity speculation and biofuel production). Such rises in food prices leave the poorest in a more vulnerable, precarious nutrition situation insofar as the food they consume is linked to world food markets.

The unsustainable growth in demand for meat, eggs, and dairy  has surely exacerbated food insecurity in many parts of the world. The UN estimates that by 2050 agricultural output will have to increase 70% from its 2000 level due to population growth and a mass diet shift towards input-intensive animal products. But demand is socially conditioned, so this business-as-usual projection is not a given. Regardless of how much livestock actually grows in the coming decades, soil erosion and climate change will have a negative impact on agricultural yields, moving us closer to a position where global food demand outpaces global food supply. While techno-fixes can mitigate the effects of livestock in certain ways, the fundamental reality remains that raising 60 billion land animals for food in the world per year (FAOSTAT) requires vaste amounts of land, water, and grain, creating a dramatic impact on the Earth System. It is no negligible fact that currently 26% of Ice-free terrestrial surface is dedicated to rangeland, 33% of arable land is dedicated to livestock feed, and 70% of total agricultural land is dedicated to livestock activities (FAO).

In practical terms, it is unlikely that the whole world would reduce animal consumption overnight, but one could imagine piecemeal reduction and a move away from the most unsustainable practices such as CAFOs (concentrated agricultural feeding operations) and the clearing of vaste swaths of natural lands for feed crops or rangeland. Creative innovations such as meat grown in petri dishes might offer alternatives to livestock if they were safe, sustainable, and economically-viable, though they would be just part of the larger issue global food security. And to be sure, the well-being of people, animals, and the planet does not crux solely on whether global diets are vegan or not, but this is a pretty damn important, cross-cutting issue (check out some excerpts from UNEP’s new report entitled “Global Environment Outlook-5: Environment for the future we want,” which references the monumental environmental impacts of animal agriculture in its sobering assessment of the state of our environment on the eve of Rio+20, the high-level UN meeting on sustainable development).

Besides reversing ‘the livestock revolution,’ nourishing the planet in a sustainable way will depend upon a range of other activities. For people in the developing world — and especially the 1 billion of them who are small-farmers — what is needed is climate mitigation measures, better seed varieties, improved land tenure, more stable, equitable, transparent political institutions, and a fair international system that does not give grossly unfair advantages to rich countries. Things like agroforestry, drought-resistant crops, nitrogen-fixing plants, and better management of fresh water will be key to supporting food security.

But whatever combination of these and other methods is necessary to nourish the planet, the fundamental reality remains that the world simply does not have the resource stocks required to support the current growth in consumption of animal products into the future. We must therefore work simultaneously to reverse ‘the livestock revolution’ while also supporting a variety of other food security solutions  — many of which go far beyond food itself.

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