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America is one of the world leaders in per capita meat consumption—which means we’re also one of the most inefficient users of land and other resources when it comes to feeding people.
According to Action Against Hunger, “After steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is on the rise, affecting 8.9 percent of people globally. From 2018 to 2019, the number of undernourished people grew by 10 million, and there are nearly 60 million more undernourished people now than in 2014.”
Many of the drivers of this increase are unconnected (at least directly) to any of your daily actions. Warfare, for example, displaces populations, which disrupts food cultivation and distribution in the affected areas.
But if you eat red meat—particularly red meat—you are directly supporting a practice that limits how much food is produced in the world and how accessible it is to poor populations.
Before delving into the hows and whys, let’s clarify our terms. Biologically speaking, food is simply anything that supplies the body with calories, the energy on which the body runs. “Hunger,” says Action Against Hunger, “is the distress associated with lack of food. The [average] threshold for food deprivation, or undernourishment, is fewer than 1,800 calories per day.”
With that, it’s merely a matter of simple math to know what you need to keep a given group of people from undernourishment. For example, putting aside questions of uneven distribution (a subject for an entirely different article), for a town of 1,000, you need to provide a minimum of 1.8 million calories a day to keep the entire town properly nourished.
Of course, food isn’t created out of nothing: it’s the product of the recombination of existing resources, including water, land, and other food. Because all of these resources are finite, the more efficiently we use them, the more food we are able to cultivate. More food equals more calories, and more calories equals more nourishment.
In terms of the ratio between resource usage and the amount of calories in the food that results, the cultivation of red meat is a terribly inefficient practice. How inefficient? According to the World Resources Institute, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to “develop[ing] research-based solutions that create real change on the ground [via a] three-step approach: Count it, Change it, Scale it,” beef cultivation requires roughly five to six times more water and over 20 times more land than is needed by vegetables and grains to provide a similar amount of nutrition, while producing over 20 times the amount of greenhouse gases.
In reporting on a 2018 study that was “the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet,” the Guardian puts it another way: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet,” noting that livestock “provides just 18% of calories but takes up 83% of farmland.”
Although most animal products are inefficient calorie providers compared to vegetables and grains—fish farming being somewhat of an exception, consuming slightly more resources than vegetable and grain production while requiring no irrigation—beef is far and away the biggest culprit, being roughly five times less efficient than dairy or pork and faring even worse when compared to eggs and poultry.
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” Oxford University’s Joseph Poore told the Guardian. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car. […] Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems, [and] animal products that are responsible for so much of this.”
More recent reports present different aspects of the same message. Deutsche Welle, for example, notes that a January 2021 study published in Nature found that red meat “suppl[ies] 1% of the world's calories but account[s] for 25% of the emissions that come with changing how land is used”; and that “[t]o produce the same amount of protein as tofu, beef uses up 75 more times land.” Unfortunately, organic farming is not the answer. Although there are clear benefits to organic farming practices, such farms require a higher land-to-calories ratio than factory farms; and a 2019 study published in Nature Communications noted that in the U.K. a switch to 100% organic would actually result in a net increase in emissions, as the U.K. would be force to increase food import to offset the shortages created the reduced land-to-calorie ratio resulting from the switch.
Want more organic farming, which means healthier, higher quality food, less disease, and less damage to waterways? It comes down to: eat less meat. According to Chatham House’s Tim Benton, an ecologist and co-author of a just-released report of spiking extinction rates, in light of rising world population, changing the way we use land for food cultivation is essential. “If our demand for food continues to increase, the more intensively we have to use the land that is left," he told Deutsche Welle. “[… It] sounds horribly elitist, middle-class—'Let's all go vegan’; but [doing so] could free up demand for land that could then be satisfied by sustainable farms.”
But eating less meat is not the same as going vegan. And there’s more room to eat less meat in the United States than in any country on Earth. We’re #1 when it comes to total meat-eating per person. And while we’re “only” #3 when it comes to per capita beef consumption, we consume four times more total beef than the top two nations (Uruguay and Argentina) combined; and we account for over 20% of the world’s total consumption despite accounting for only 5% of the world population.
Although world population is inexorably on the rise, the world isn’t getting any bigger. And the more land we dedicate to meat production—especially beef—the harder it is to meet that collective caloric need. By doing your part to reduce the demand for beef, you make it easier to feed the world.
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