No, I won’t stop eating meat to feed the planet

September 6, 2013
By Chad Kruger

Full disclosure: I come from a livestock-producing family tradition and I eat meat. And I like it. A lot.

In his latest provocative post, my colleague Andy McGuire reflects on a new paper that assesses the potential to feed a growing global population by shifting from meat consumption to a vegetarian diet. The paper presents a very compelling scientific rationale for the shift and has Andy contemplating his future dietary choices. Go read Andy’s post – it’s worth your time. In the conclusion of his post, Andy asks readers whether they would quit meat to feed the planet.

My answer to Andy is an unequivocal “No.”

It’s easy to get fixated on the challenges of global livestock production and end up debating the over-generalized dichotomy of meat vs. plants when in reality there is a lot more nuance to consider. While there are certainly powerful, systemic trends in global livestock production, the reality is that there is still a significant amount of diversity to consider in livestock production – especially in local, agroecological contexts.

While I’ve been critical of Allan Savory’s Holistic Management framework as it relates to global livestock production, one salient fact that Savory points out is that the vast majority of the global land base is not suitable for crop production and can only produce food for human consumption through some form of animal agriculture (either hunting/gathering or animal husbandry). While there are many regions of the world that could likely make the proposed “shift” and we could certainly produce more total human-consumable calories (and possibly nutritional units) per acre globally, the reality is that many regions of the world can’t make the shift. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Nobel Laureate Amyarta Sen pointed out that agricultural production is not the only (or even most important) driver of food security and therefore there is no guarantee that pushing a global shift from animal to plant-based foods would secure food for 9 billion people. Furthermore, using Sen’s logic, a shift away from livestock production, especially one induced by policy rather than markets, could actually exacerbate the problem by impoverishing many of the world’s poorest people who depend on livestock as a primary source of wealth and exchange.

A significant core of Andy’s post is focused on the idea of shifting away from meat consumption as an alternative strategy to the monumental task of developing and commercializing new technologies and management practices to sustainably feed 9 billion people on the same acreage – what is often called sustainable intensification. However, I think there is a good ecological argument that many of the sustainability challenges we have encountered are actually a symptom of the dis-integration of crop and livestock production and dis-intensification in our modern agricultural systems. Every healthy natural ecosystem is based on the complex interactions of animals and plants – with ruminant animals often playing a critical role in the sustainability of the system. We’ve simplified our modern agricultural systems by extracting the animals and using engineered approaches (e.g., steel; synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) to address the ecological demand for complexity (entropy). It’s now becoming painfully obvious that this compartmentalized approach that was great for productivity gains over the past few decades has had unintended consequences to sustainability. As Andy points out in another recent article, manure is good for the soil and we’re beginning to see a wide-spread shift towards re-connecting animals and plants (or at least the by-products of animals). I think we are really just beginning to grasp the gravity of the need for re-integrating livestock and crops in sustainable agroecosystems.

Finally, there is the question about how to measure the nutritional contributions of food. There is no question that by shifting suitable acreages that currently produce livestock feeds toward human food production we could “feed more people per acre.” This is effectively a thermo-dynamic equation. However, as Chuck Benbrook points out in the comments string of Andy’s post, more attention is now being paid to the concern of nutrition beyond calories – and the idea that there are specific foods that have more nutritional density (calories, vitamins, etc.) per mass unit. Henry Thompson at Colorado State University has published on a variety of clinical findings related to the disease reduction power of diverse foods, particularly grains and grain legumes (not greens), and argues that our best strategy for improving human health and nutrition is to increase the genetic diversity of our dietary base. The reality is that the majority of our plant-based diet comes from a fairly small set of branches of the plant community. Livestock, on the other hand, are capable of consuming a far broader base of plants with greater genetic variation than humans and I suspect in the long run we will discover that moderate consumption of meat may be a key ingredient in improved human health. In the first chapter of his book The End of Food, Paul Roberts makes the argument that meat consumption was a key evolutionary step in prehistoric human development. Maybe we’ll come full circle in our thinking about this?

Finally, I really do appreciate Andy’s provocative post. If it really is within our means to make personal consumption decisions that can benefit our global neighbors and future generations – both from a feeding people and environmental sustainability perspective – we need to take it seriously. For me, that manifests not in a decision NOT to eat meat, but rather in the decision about WHAT meat I do eat and the criteria by which I make that decision.

6 comments on “No, I won’t stop eating meat to feed the planet”

  1. HeatherTwist said on September 6, 2013:

    Well said. It’s hard to see a sustainable way to feed humanity using *just* plants. Plants and animals need each other.

    In addition to providing fertilizer though, animals were also in integral part of the waste stream. Chickens and pigs, especially, are very good at “processing” human garbage. We got chickens originally because we didn’t have garbage pickup. Tons of food are tossed into landfills daily, but much of what restaurants and grocery stores toss out could raise some very healthy chickens and pigs.

    Also, most people think of beef when they think of “meat”, but goats were kept in town in the past, perhaps tethered in the courtyard. One goat produces a gallon or so of milk per DAY, and is happy with some brush trimmings or hay.

    Fish can be efficiently raised inland, using duckweed, algae, or black soldier flies at the bottom of the food chain.

    So no, I’m not giving up meat to save the planet. I do buy local beef that eats the local grass. And we eat more and more eggs, from our chickens, who eat our garbage (and that of some other families). Goats mow my lawn too!

  2. Andy McGuire said on September 6, 2013:

    Chad, I agree completely with your last two sentences. What the paper presented, and I addressed, was the shift from “all crops currently allocated to animal feed [they did not include hay or forage here] to human food.” Grass-fed or wild game meat were not a part of the calculations, and so those would still be available, although I expect, much more expensive. The choice I intended to present (I simplified the question for effect) was not between a vegetarian diet and a diet that includes meat, but rather a choice between eating meat fed with crops grown on land that could have grown food for people, and not eating such meat. A more precise question would be, would you give up crop-fed beef, chicken, or pork to feed another person ? (I think “feed the planet” is too nebulous for this choice)

    If livestock could still be raised in a integrated system without having to raise crops specifically to feed them, i.e. they would take care of waste, then such meat would not be subject to this shift.

    Whether this livestock-crop integration is required for sustainability, is not clear to me, especially if the argument is that because healthy natural ecosystems have plants and animals, so to must agricultural systems. The two systems are so different that we need to be clear about which components of one actually are relevant to the other. If we decided to promote the production of food for people instead of corn and soybeans for livestock, there would probably be some significant sustainability gains over the current system (Corn-belt) in terms of crop rotation and nutrient cycling.

    As I see it, a major benefit of such a shift would be feeding more people without increased yields. We could then be more selective in the technologies we implemented, focusing on improving sustainability while maintaining yields.

    On the subject of manure, this shift would have major implications. The rates of manure often applied to fields today are anything but natural. If we did not feed livestock, we would not have concentrated sources of manure, and so these rates would drop greatly. Soil building would have to depend more on other wastes, and on non-imported organic matter such as cover crops, and conserving crop residues. This would be particularly problematic to organic agriculture, which depends to a large extent on concentrated manure sources.

  3. Anne Schwartz said on September 7, 2013:

    This topic should get a conversation going. My attitude about any livestock product is akin to what Wendell Berry says, I don’t want any animal to suffer on my account. I believe eating livestock products is appropriate and necessary for most agricultural systems. I believe a cropping system integrated with livestock is a more sustainable model. I believe our modern livestock production system is devastating to our ccommunities as well as our soil, water, and air quality resources. It is abhorrent to the animals forced to live in cages and feedlots. It is dehumanizing to people that learn to work around such animals. It produces unhealthy meat, milk and eggs and is contributing to the loss of critical animal and human medicines. There are many reasons to leave that model behind as soon as possible.

    I think we need to establish more accurate accounting principals to consider all of the true costs to our society with our current food system, of all our resource uses, as a matter of fact.

    But I still eat some meat, milk and eggs. I raise much of my own, and I buy from sources that graze their animals, do not force confinement and pay their growers well. There are many factors to consider when we spend our money. It is our choice who will survive.

  4. Wesley Dickey said on September 23, 2013:

    I think it is not the matter of giving up to feed the many but instead in the aspect of production. They simply have to produce more with the right farming methods. If we give up, then what about our own nutritional needs? It would still be the same.

  5. rossalupus said on October 15, 2013:

    well, we cold just kill like 75% of the worlds human population…
    which i must admit, although y our standerds this would be an act of pure evil and the people who organised it would be seen as monsters.
    but if only one billion seven hundred fifty million people (still way too many but much better) are alive, then they can eat all the meat they want, as the impact they have would be a fourth of what it was now

  6. Diana Roberts said on March 8, 2014:

    Choosing a compassionate lifestyle (veganism) awakens one’s being to the amazing potential of relating with animals as equals (or better). The consequent enrichment of one’s life cannot be described in the left brain language used above – but that doesn’t mean it should be left out of the equation. Try it…!

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