Diet for a more-crowded planet: plants
Rising incomes raise appetite for meat. But how many can ‘eat like an American’?
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As these newly affluent consumers have increased their meat intake, they’ve also grown less healthy. Some 1.6 billion adults around the world are now overweight (400 million of them obese), says the World Health Organization. Yet some 800 million worldwide are chronically undernourished.Skip to next paragraph
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“There’s no need for hunger in the world,” says Polly Walker, MD, associate director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md. “There’s an equity issue here that should give us pause.”
Issues of grain scarcity aside, many say environmental impact alone is reason enough to rethink industrial-scale animal production. Livestock generate 18 percent of the human-produced greenhouse gases in the form of methane, more than the transportation sector.
“Changing our diet is essential if we’re going to get control of climate change,” says Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University in New Jersey. It’s also a simple and quick way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. “That’s something we could do straight away. We don’t need to invent renewable anything.”
The 2006 UN report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” concluded that animal production, as currently practiced, poses a range of threats that demand immediate attention, from land degradation to biodiversity loss. A subsequent report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal
Production echoed these conclusions, adding that the routine use of antibiotics on livestock increases the risk of creating a drug-resistant “superbug.”
Even the oceans are affected by livestock production. In coastal waters, dead zones caused by nutrient runoff, much of it animal waste, are a chronic problem. And a growing share of the world’s fish catch now becomes fishmeal and fish oil, which ends up in animal feed.
High feed prices have made harvesting fish more profitable, says H. Bruce Franklin, author of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America.” The fish are often vital to their ecosystems. They eat massive numbers of smaller organisms and serve as food for larger ones.(The average 8-inch-long menhaden filters 4 to 7 gallons of seawater per minute, he says.) Removing these creatures can unbalance an ecosystem. “The oceans cannot sustain this kind of pressure,” he says.
Grazing important to many ecosystems
Many note that livestock need not compete with humans for grain, nor must raising them be destructive. Huge swaths of land around the world are suitable for grazing and little else. Ruminants – animals that digest grass – can turn the otherwise inedible plants into food for people. If done in a way that mimics the Great Plains bison migrations of yore, grazing – a natural part of many ecosystems long before cattle arrived – can enhance the ecosystem rather than degrade it, says John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
“We have a tremendous potential to produce a lot more protein, and really produce it in a way that’s good for the land,” he says.
In many regions, like large parts of Africa, animals provide necessary protein that would otherwise be unavailable. There, livestock production should increase, says Pierre Gerber, coauthor of “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Yes, environmental concerns are important, he says, but so is human welfare.
“It’s not because you have an environmental issue that you should stop production,” he says. “It’s because you have an environmental issue that you should manage it.”