By definition, sustainability is the ability of a system or process to be to be maintained. This term is often used to evaluate the ability of our planet to support us. As we look at the burgeoning global population, it becomes important to consider the sustainability of our food production. More people require more food and more resources to produce this food. So just what can we support?
By 2050, it is estimated that the world’s population will reach 9 billion people. It is well established that all our resources are now under strain. To further understand food requirements, we need to take a look at our diets. There are significant differences in the resources required to support plant vs. animal based diets. Meat-based diets take significantly more resources to produce than do plant-based diets.
The term “biocapacity” refers to the ability of a resource-producing area to provide an on-going supply of the renewable resource and to absorb the waste created. Unsustainability occurs if the area’s ecological footprint exceeds its biocapacity. Populations that consume meat-based diets consume about 20 acres of land in biocapacity per year. In contrast, societies who consume largely plant-based diets consume only about 5% of this (or 1 acre of land) biocapacity per year. As the global population swells, we are rapidly approaching a situation where we will not be able to support widespread animal protein based eating. It will soon simply not be possible to divert the amounts of basic agricultural foods into feed for industrial livestock production to support large populations of meat eaters.
In 2014, the average American consumed 55 pounds of beef. It takes approximately 1800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Average annual pork consumption by Americans that year was 45 pounds and for chicken, 85 pounds per person. Pork and chicken require less water to produce – only about 500 gallons per pound. By contrast, one pound of potatoes requires about 120 gallons of water to produce. However, measurement of gallons per pound isn’t really the complete picture. The water per gram of protein is really more meaningful. For legumes, (beans, lentils, peas, etc.), a great plant protein source, 5 gallons of water per gram of protein are required. By contrast, the production of a gram of protein from beef takes about 30 gallons of water. As pure water is a critical and limited resource, the ‘water footprint’ of your food is a very important consideration when considering the sustainability of a diet.
Raising livestock to support meat-based diets is having a tremendous impact on the earth’s rainforests. Called the “lungs of the planet, the plants of the rainforest transform carbon dioxide (CO2, the primary “greenhouse” gas) into oxygen which helps to fight pollution and support many forms of life. In order to increase production of livestock, the Nature Conservancy reports that an area the size of a football field in the rainforests is being lost every second of each day. These areas are being cleared to raise animals as well as the grain to feed them. Most the meat produced in the cleared rainforest areas is now sold to the US. Each hamburger eaten comes at the cost of 55 square feet of the rainforest according to the Rainforest Action Network. With this also comes the loss many species of plants and animals as the supply of oxygen to support them disappears.
Another often overlooked aspect of raising livestock to support our growing desire for meat is the amount of waste produced by the animals. Both manure and urine pollute or soil, waterways, and air. It is estimated that in 2012, the largest US factory farms generated over 350 million tons of manure – which is 13 times more solid waste than 300 million people in the US generate. An important distinction is that human waste is routinely processed to less toxic byproducts. This is not the case for livestock waste which ends up in “lagoons” or is aerosolized and dispersed, upsetting soil and water chemistry as well as killing plants and wildlife.
Beyond sustainability, it is well established that meat-based eating correlates to increases in many chronic diseases. For example, in the past 25 years, more and more Chinese people are adopting the Western lifestyle and eating habits. Meat consumption in China has nearly quadrupled in that time period. In 2015, it was estimated that one new McDonald’s restaurant was opened each day somewhere in China. With the adaptation of the Western diet, the rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer in China have significantly increased. In an effort to address this, in March 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Health created a goal to reduce meat consumption by its citizens by 50% by 2030. This is expected to reduce healthcare expenses by a staggering 40%. In addition, beyond the impact to health, such a change would also favorably impact the planetary climate, water resources, and food availability. It is estimated that with that level of reduction of meat consumption by the Chinese people, CO2 greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by a billion tons per year. Putting this in perspective, as of 2015, 13.5% of global greenhouse emissions can be attributed to cattle production.
Perhaps you have heard of a public health awareness initiative call “Meatless Monday”. This program has been endorsed by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and many other public health programs. Variations of the Meatless Monday program have been implemented in the US, UK, and at least 22 other countries worldwide. The initiative was created in an attempt to help people reduce their consumption of saturated fat and to contribute to the health and sustainability of the planet. Organizers cite potential benefits to participants by reducing the risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity as well as reducing food costs and health care costs. They also stress the potential positive impacts on reductions in our fresh water usage, greenhouse gasses, and fuel consumption for food production. Plant-based eating one day a week is indeed a worthy starting point for many meat-based eaters.
There is yet another significant impact of livestock production on our world. This is the use (and overuse) of antibiotics for livestock. A new FDA report notes that approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals. Livestock producers routinely give antibiotics to animals to support keeping them in crowded and unsanitary conditions. When antibiotics are overused, some of the bacteria become antibiotic-resistant, creating new genes that are passed along. This genetic resistance to antibiotics is threatening the future effectiveness of these medicines. Health officials are reporting that antibiotic resistance is a significant threat to global human health.
Do any of these concerns play a role in your food choices? Please let us know what you think below.