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

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.