It’s no secret the meat industry is bad for the environment. Australia’s Deakin University says nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats. Many environmental advocacy groups are calling on people to lower or eliminate their animal product consumption to tackle this.
A common counter-argument to reducing meat consumption is that there may not be enough farmland on earth to sustain a population of plant-eaters. I’m sure we’ve all heard this one from a meat-loving friend or relative. After all, it does sound plausible. Large parts of the earth are simply not suitable for growing crops that are edible for humans. So is veganism really the answer? That’s what we’re going to discuss today.
And just before we jump into it, I want to address that many people choose to follow a vegan diet for ethical reasons. But to keep today’s episode as inclusive as possible, I’m going to be focusing solely on the environmental impacts of eating meat.
Deforestation and land use
Let’s start by talking about the deforestation associated with meat production. WWF says beef production is the single biggest driver of tropical deforestation world. The organisation says this is being driven by a growing amount of disposable incomes globally. One of the first things people buy when incomes rise is meat.
The second biggest contributor to deforestation is soy. While it might be easy to blame this on vegans, it’s actually for meat production. About three-quarters of all soy becomes livestock feed for chickens, pigs, farmed fish and cows. Just 7% of soy is eaten by humans, according to Our World In Data. The remainder is used for things like biofuels. The idea that meat and dairy substitutes made from soy are a driving force behind deforestation is a common misconception.
Analysis has found that livestock consumes one-third of global cereal production and are currently using about 40% of global arable land. Much of this could be instead used for growing crops. Ruminants are poor converters of feed into food products; 1 kg of meat requires 2.8 kg of human-edible feed for ruminants and 3.2 kg for monogastric animals.
The common argument against eating meat for environmental protection is that if humans instead ate that 2.8kg of feed instead of feeding it to animals to produce just 1kg of meat, the associated carbon emissions would be much lower. When it comes to protecting natural habitats from deforestation, plant-based foods will make this process much easier. If meat demand falls, so will our need for cutting down forests for grazing and animal feed.
To sum it all up, there is enough land for everyone to be vegan; including the extra 2 billion people we’re expected to have on this planet by 2050. But the next question is, would having 9 billion vegans be more environmentally friendly? Now that’s where it gets interesting.
Not all animal farming land is suitable for crops
While it might seem like a no brainer to turn all animal grazing land into crop farming, it’s not that simple. In many areas of the world, animals are grazed in areas that are not suitable for growing crops and grains for humans. Other areas are only useful for growing grass and hay to feed ruminant animals. We can’t digest that stuff but animals can.
If we all went vegan, arid areas in Sub-saharan Africa, Northern Australia and within the United States which are currently used for cattle grazing would be rendered useless for feeding people. While this may not seem like a big deal now, food security is set to become an increasing challenge as our planet warms. By 2050, it’s predicted popular crops will have diminished yields due to higher temperatures and increased periods of drought. National Geographic says global corn yields could drop by 24% and rice by 11%. That’s a big dent in food availability when you’re talking about a global population of 9 billion people.
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Conventional crop farming isn’t environmentally-friendly
A 2015 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that 25 to 40bn tonnes of topsoil are lost annually to erosion, thanks mainly to ploughing and intensive cropping. The FAO says letting arable land lie fallow and returning it to grazed pasture for some time is the only way to reverse that process, halt erosion and rebuild the soil. This is what farmers used to do before artificial fertilisers made continuous cropping possible.
Say we’re able to increase the amount of soy eaten directly by humans from 7%; it’s important to remember that the majority of this soy is produced in vast monoculture farming operations using large amounts of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. Modern agriculture is rapidly degrading our topsoil. Many regions around the world predict they may have fewer than 100 harvests left before the land is biologically dead and unable to produce crops. Although it must be noted that growing animal feed is a big contributor to this problem.
Another issue about ending all meat farming comes from assuming that all farm animals negatively impact their environments, which is untrue. Manure from organically-raised animals such as cows and chickens is one of the best ways to naturally fertilise plants. In free-range farming that’s antibiotic-free, manure feeds earthworms, bacteria, fungi and dung beetles in the soil. This helps to restore the natural ecosystem that crop farming so often destroys and replenishes topsoil.
So you might have gotten to the end of this episode wondering what on earth we should be eating if we care about our planet. It’s a tough question because there’s no definitive answer. There’s no denying that a diet high in meat and animal products is bad for the planet and bad for your health. A higher number of plant-based diets would lead to higher population numbers with fewer deaths from heart disease, obesity and cancer. Yet ending animal agriculture completely could have negative impacts on the environment and food security.
The best thing we can do is try to form some connection with where our food is coming from. Buying organic where possible is a great step. Opting for locally grown food and eating seasonally helps lower emissions. Finding a local farmers market is one of the best ways you can find out where your food is coming from. Supporting local regenerative farmers, projects and organisations who are trying to return our food system to one that works with mother nature are our best bet.
Eco Action Step
Your eco action step for this week is to research regenerative farming in your little corner of the world. A quick Google search should be able to provide some options. Whether that be a stall at your local farmers market or a day trip for hydroponic veggie picking. Let’s see what the sustainable future of food is all about!