a vegetarian meal

Photo © Markus Mainka \ Shutterstock.com

Agricultural land covers 40 percent of the earth's surface. This figure may not appear too surprising when observing the sweeping fields as on a long car ride, or the patchwork of different coloured crops as you fly. But what if you factor in the United Nations research, which found that 75 percent of this land is dedicated to livestock? Now imagine it — for every three out of four fields you pass, the land is used to either feed or hold animals. Three out of four fields, of nearly half the world’s surface, dedicated to meat and animal byproduct production.

Why do animals require so much land? When animals consume plants, 90 percent of the biomass consumed is lost as the animal respires and excretes. The result, when you consume something that has consumed something else, you gain only one percent of the initial source. The nutrients of crops are in effect taking an extensive detour to reach us, and along the way undergoing huge losses.

The problem does not end with energy loss and land use. The UN has published studies indicating that the livestock sector is globally responsible for 18 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 37 percent of methane emissions, 64 percent of ammonia emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. In the documentary, Cowspiracy, Dr. Will Tuttle further describes the implications of the meat industry. "10,000 years ago free living animals made up 99 percent of the biomass and human beings made up one percent of the biomass, today human beings and the animals we own make up 98 percent of the biomass while free living animals make up two percent."

Add our growing human population into the equation, and the future really does start to get frightening. By 2050, the growing human population is expected to increase the demand for meat production by 50-73 percent. To even begin doubling the resources animals require or their detrimental outputs is futile, we are simply dealing with the impossible. Utilising our old friend efficiency will not bring the answer because the beautiful, if somewhat irritating, thing about nature is that it’s built on trade-offs — you can’t have it all. Increasing efficiency would require the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which will result in increased carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions. Looking at the other approach, free-range conditions result in lower efficiency and increased land use. The endless spiral of trade-offs has led to a growing recognition by scientists that meat alternatives is the only way to achieve demand in the future.

Last year Nature released research on the impacts of a diet high in meats, fats, sugars and oils. It found that a global adoption of alternative diets could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land clearing, extinctions and even diet-related diseases. If these dietary changes were not to occur, the study predicted that global greenhouse gas emissions produced by agriculture would rise by 80 percent in 2050. Meanwhile, a global adoption of a vegetarian diet would actually decrease greenhouse gas levels in 2050 to what we see today.  

Social problems are also encased in the meaty mess. Around 795 million people in the world are starving, this is in part due to food being fed to animals rather than humans. Those in developing countries suffer the most, where the staple foods produced are redirected away from a human’s mouth and into an animal’s. A study this year found that if beef was removed from our diets globally, the amplified number of available crops could feed an additional two billion people.

Whether the decision is for the environment, for health or for people — cutting out or cutting down meat consumption will make a difference. The only question remaining is, what are you willing to change? 

Julis is a biology student at Oxford University, she volunteered at A\J in summer 2015. 

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