World leaders in Paris are in the midst of critical climate negotiations toward the first enforceable agreement in two decades. We hope that two giant questions–too often missed or downplayed–will be a focus:
• Can our food system–now speeding climate change while leaving a quarter of humanity suffering nutritional deprivation–reverse course?
• Instead of a climate curse, can our food system become part of the climate cure, while at the same time producing nutritious food that’s accessible to the world’s poorest people?
Big changes! But evidence of their possibility mounts. First, however, the big obstacles.
Our industrializing food system–from land to landfill–has become a big climate troublemaker, estimated to account for up to 29 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Most startling, these emissions are growing so fast that, if they continue at current rates, in thirty-five years those from our food system alone could nearly reach the safe target set for all greenhouse gas emissions.
To get a fix on how big the problem is, take in these fast facts:
• Agriculture alone contributes nearly a fifth of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions; and industrial agriculture (that using manufactured inputs) releases two to three times more carbon dioxide per unit of land than does organic farming.
• Since the industrial era began, humans have removed a third of the Earth’s carbon-absorbing forest cover largely to grow crops, a shift that can reduce soil carbon per unit of land by more than 40 percent. That’s an area roughly the size of South America. Increasingly, that land is growing feed or fuel, not the basic foods of the planet’s poor majorities.
• Soils treated with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers hold about 30 percent less organic carbon compared to organically managed soils.
The current model of industrial agriculture–only about 70 years old–has already proven to be a dead end. But, by adopting ecological practices, farming would emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions and store more carbon.
And now to my second question–food accessibility for those who most need it? Ecological practices free farmers from expensive corporate-controlled inputs, so they especially benefit small-scale farmers and farmworkers, who also are the majority of hungry people. Some of these beneficial practices are:
Composting–returning to the soil decaying organic material from plant and animal wastes. Just one ton of organic material can result in storing almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide.
Agroforestry –integrating trees on farms. It improves crop productivity and yields additional food and fodder from the trees. Globally, says the World Bank, among a range of ecological farming practices, “agroforestry by far has the highest sequestration potentials.” One study
found that this approach in the EU, combined with other ecological farming practices, has the technical potential to sequester GHGs equivalent to 37 percent of its 2007 emissions.
Water is central to our food system. It irrigates crops, hydrates livestock, and is even used as a mode of transportation to get food products moved from one region to the other. Not only does water grow crops to sustain communities at a local level, it also fuels supplies for international trade and economic growth. Water certainly is the lifeblood of society and without it, our food system would cease to exist. And that is why water shortages worldwide are increasingly becoming a concern – we simply cannot survive without enough water to produce the food we eat.
It is estimated that as soon as 2025, two-thirds of the world population will face water shortages. That is two-thirds of the world population that doesn’t have enough water to drink, maintain adequate hygiene, provide proper sanitation, and grow food. It is safe to say that water scarcity has the potential to create a disaster for mankind in the future.
While projections for future water shortages are concerning, the reality is that many regions across the planet are already facing water shortage issues. And while this is bad news for many aspects of everyday life, it is the food system that is taking a massive hit from water shortages.
Take a look at how several countries around the world are dealing with their own water scarcity problems, and how they are struggling to produce enough food in the process.
If you’re a coffee drinker, you’re in for a doozy. Water shortages are spelling bad news for coffee producers worldwide, including Brazil which has been the leading supplier of java for the last century. A staggering 35 percent of coffee beans originate in Brazil. But a drought that began in January 2014 caused coffee production to drop 20 percent that year. And given that coffee is not harvested once a year but rather throughout the year, stress on the plants will stunt their growth and continue to have an impact on production into the future, even once the drought hopefully eases. While some may argue coffee isn’t an important food crop entirely necessary for sustenance, it still does hold a place in the food system as a widely distributed good as well as a crop that provides a livelihood to many individuals worldwide. Water shortages act as a direct threat to that.
Coffee isn’t the only Brazilian crop hit by the drought. Perhaps surprisingly, Brazil is actually the largest producer of soybeans in the world. China has shifted to being the number one importer of Brazil’s soybeans as water for soybean production in Asia becomes more scarce. And while Brazil has historically had enough water for soybean production, the country has seen declining production numbers for soy due to recent drought. Water rationing for citizens is already taking place in some regions, and food security is being challenged by the lack of available water to grow crops important to the world’s food system, soybeans included.
The United States is currently facing a problem of epic proportions when it comes to food production in the face of drought. Water shortages have gripped the Western U.S., and especially California where a third of the country’s vegetables and two thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown. With 80 percent of the state’s water going to agriculture, the shortage has had a huge impact on California’s food production. In 2014, farmers planted 25 percent less rice than the year before, and 34 percent less corn in response to the drought. With the decreased production of many crops, prices for items such as broccoli, berries, lettuce and melons grown in California increased. With California playing such a major role in providing the rest of the country with its produce, the drought is threatening to upend a system that has historically provided enough fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts to the nation. These healthy and nutritious foods become less available and less affordable, especially to the disadvantaged members of society.
Over the recent years, Afghanistan has faced a series of droughts that have threatened its food security. By 2001, a three tear-old drought had caused a famine that depleted the necessary cereal grains needed to feed the country’s population by half. Animal agriculture was also impacted by the decrease in cereal crops, and poppy farms had to be abandoned as irrigation was not available. The job losses resulted in five million Afghans having little no or no access to food.
Last year in the Ghor providence of Afghanistan, residents began fleeing their homes in response to the food insecurity caused by drought. Water in the region decreased by 60 percent, making drinking water and irrigation water much less available. And because 80 percent of the providence’s people rely on agriculture as a livelihood, many lost their source of employment and thus ability to even pay for food.
Ethiopia has seen a drought-induced food crises similar to that in Afghanistan. In 2011, Ethiopia was in the midst of the worst drought the country had seen in six decades. The resulting widespread hunger was staggering. Roughly 700,000 were in need of food aid and medical workers in the area noted the sharp increase in severely malnourished children they were treating. While the country continues to yo-yo in and out of drought and famine cycles, the resulting sanitation and health issues only compound the problem. With only 21 percent of Ethiopians having access to adequate sanitation, the spread of disease and waterborne illness in the country is all too real for an already undernourished population.
The Big Picture
We may not “run out” of water on planet earth as it will still be maintained in one form or another. But fresh water may become less accessible to us as we withdraw it at unsustainable rates and continue to carelessly use it. With unstable water supplies, we also face unstable food supplies. Production levels will drop and there will not be enough food to go around. Prices stand to increase as supplies fall, making the first victims in the crises those with the least money. Beyond food availability, international trade and business, as well as, the livelihoods of those that grow and produce food are also put at risk. The impacts of this issue become far-reaching, touching many aspects of life and society all over the planet and forcing us into survival mode. Yes, it is very important to recognize the importance of water within our food system.
Do Your Part
Global water scarcity is a massive problem and not one that any single individual can address on their own. However, your efforts paired with those of other concerned individuals does stand a chance in making fresh water sources more stable and in helping solve food security problems in the process. By addressing your personal water footprint, you can help ensure that fresh water resources are used sparingly and efficiently, reserving it for important uses like food production.
There are a variety of ways to lower your water use to help ensure the future our food system, but interestingly, one of the best ways to cut your water footprint comes in the form of your diet. On a whole, agriculture sucks up around 70 percent of the world’s fresh water supplies and one-third of that goes to irrigating feed crops for livestock. That all translates into the amount of virtual water that is hidden in our diets. Did you know that a person who eats meat and animal products uses on average, 162, 486 more gallons of water than someone who adheres to a plant-based diet? If you send animal products packing, in converse, you can save that many gallons of water annually.
Looking at the breadth of our global water scarcity issue, it is clear that if we want to ensure a sustainable future for our food supply, we need to start taking into consideration how our personal choices impact the world around us. As a defining voice in the space, One Green Planet has made it a point to draw the connections between our individual food choices and the broader impact they have on the planet. As Nil Zacharias, One Green Planet’s co-founder puts it, “If we want to have any hope for a sustainable food system that can feed our growing population, we need to exercise our power to be a part of the solution with every food choice we make.” Starting with the #EatForThePlanet campaign and our commitment to promoting plant-based foods, One Green Planet has worked to empower individuals to see the incredible opportunity they have three times a day to craft a better food system.
Plant-based foods are the future of sustainable food and the best part is they are already readily available. Join One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet campaign and start making a difference with your food today! Together we can create a more sustainable food system, one meal at a time.
Should we eat meat? That’s the big question, which — for this series — I’m asking three different ways: in terms of environmental sustainability, morality, and practicality.
Today, to begin: Can meat be sustainable?
In any comparison of the environmental impact of meat eaters and plant eaters, we have to start by noting that plant eaters have a powerful ally on their side: physics. Every time energy moves from one state to another, a little is lost along the way. Flip on an incandescent bulb and only 8 percent of the electric energy turns into visible light — the majority of energy is lost as infrared light and heat. Convert the calories in corn into meat by feeding a chicken, and you’ve got the same problem.
In even the most efficient, high-tech farms, it takes a pound and a half of grain to grow a pound of chicken — because that chicken is constantly radiating heat and burning energy to move around. The picture gets worse if you just look at the parts of the chicken that people like to eat. The scientist Vaclav Smil, who has a reputation for objective number-crunching, considered this basic issue of thermodynamics in his book, Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory, and came up with this table:
LW = live weight, EW = edible weight, MJ = mega joules of energyVaclav Smil
According to Smil’s calculations, you need 3.3 pounds of feed to get a pound of chicken meat, 9.4 pounds of feed for a pound of pork, and 25 pounds of feed for a pound of beef. It’s simply more efficient to eat plants than to feed those plants to animals and eat meat.
This efficiency problem puts meat eaters way behind from the beginning, and it extends from energy to every other resource. Look at water use, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, land-use footprints, and just about anything else, and it’s always going to make more sense to grow grains for people to eat rather than for animals to eat. To take just one example, scientists looked at the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that flows into rivers and creates dead zones in oceans: They calculated that a kilogram of red meat put an average of 150 grams of nitrogen equivalent (in various fertilizers) into waterways, versus 50 grams per kilogram of chicken and less than 3 grams per kilogram of grain.
This idea, that meat is environmentally unfriendly, has been the conventional wisdom since 2006, when the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization published a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. Which is why I was surprised when Frank Mitloehner, a UC-Davis animal science professor who is leading an update of the FAO’s livestock assessment, told me that the idea of eliminating animals from our food system was ridiculous and, actually, unsustainable.
“Agriculture cannot be sustainable without animal agriculture,” he said. “That is something I’m sure of.”
There are two key points to consider, Mitloehner said. First, most of the feed that livestock eat is not edible by humans. Globally, just 18 percent of animal feed is made up of grains or other crops that people might otherwise eat. The rest is crop residues, grass, and waste from milling grain and other food processing. And so, despite the inefficiency of converting calories to meat, animals are able to give humans access to energy that they wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.
The second, issue, Mitloehner said, is that what I’d been thinking of as the “waste products” of animal agriculture are actually valuable resources. The manure animals produce is vital for agriculture (especially organic agriculture). “If we were to reduce the fertilizer animals produce by 100 percent, we would have to double or triple the amount of chemical fertilizer we apply, and we just don’t have that,” Mitloehner said.
In addition, every part of the animal that we don’t eat as meat — the skin, bones, sinew, organs, and fat — is used in some way. The artist Christien Meindertsma demonstrated this beautifully with her book Pig 05049, in which she followed every part of a slaughtered pig to its final use. Extract from pig hairs are used in baking bread, bone ash is a key part in train brakes, gelatin is used to filter your beer, elements from blood are used as edible food glue — Meindertsma found 185 products in total. If we were to eliminate animal agriculture, we’d have to find new supply chains for these things, and each would come with its own environmental footprint.
Livestock is especially important to poor farmers. Animals are often a key part of the agro-ecological system and provide high-quality nutrients to the people most likely to go hungry — more frequently in the form of dairy than meat. In some of the poorest areas of the world, people need cattle because manure is their only source of fuel. In his book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?, Gordon Conway lays out the benefits of livestock animals, which can be easy to forget when you’re rich and comfortable:
-Contribute 40 percent of global value of agricultural output
-Support livelihoods and food security of almost 1 billion people
-Provide food and incomes and consume non-human-edible food
-Contribute 15 percent of total food energy and 25 percent of dietary protein
-Provide essential micronutrients (e.g. iron, calcium) that are more readily available in meat, milk, and eggs than in plant-based foods
-Are a valuable asset, serving as a store of wealth, collateral for credit, and an essential safety net during times of crisis.
-Are central to mixed farming systems, consume agricultural waste products, help control insects and weeds, produce manure and waste for cooking, and provide draft power for transport
-Provide employment, in some cases especially for women
-Have a cultural significance, as the basis for religious ceremonies
But anyone reading this probably is relatively rich and comfortable — at least rich enough that it may be a bit mindboggling to think you might need a cow so you could burn its dung for energy. For those of us living with easy access to energy and cheap calories, would it make ecological sense to reduce our meat consumption? Probably.
I called up Rattan Lal, one of the world’s leading soil scientists, to ask him what he thought about meat eating. I wanted to talk to him because there’s been a lot of excitement about the idea that cattle grazing on grassland could actually be carbon negative — that is, we might need more animals, not less, to combat climate change.
Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, had told Washington Post journalist Tamar Haspel that we shouldn’t expect cows to save the world. Haspel wrote:
He says one metric ton per hectare is a reasonable estimate of the maximum [carbon] that grazing can sequester in a place like Ohio, where growing conditions generally are favorable, and a half-ton would be more realistic in drier areas. He supports grass-fed beef but says carbon sequestration “can’t completely compensate for the greenhouse gases in beef production.”
I wanted to double check — was there anything else? Some way that animals are crucial for soil health? When I spoke to Lal, he said it just came down to basic logistics. “In the next 40 years, there are 2.3 billion people coming to dinner. We have invited them — they haven’t made the choice to come. It is our moral duty to insure that they are well fed. The luxury of having so much meat as we do in the U.S. will become less and less feasible as population grows.”
Animals are a key part of the agricultural system, but the people who eat the most meat — the rich of the world — almost certainly need to eat less to make the global food system sustainable, especially as billions rise out of poverty and begin demanding their share.
Smil came to the same conclusion. He says that we should aim for an average of 33-66 pounds of meat per year. The French eat 35 pounds a year, while Americans eat 270 pounds of meat. If we got down to the French level, Smil’s calculations suggest that everyone around the world could have their share of meat, and we could still reduce the farmland used to grow feed from 33 percent of all cropland to 10 percent — with huge environmental benefits.
So can meat be sustainable? The answer, based on the evidence I was able to assemble, seems to be: Yes, but only in moderation. And because we are currently eating so much meat, those who give it up altogether are probably making the most environmentally friendly choice of all.
Next, I’ll tackle the morality of meat eating. And then I’ll turn to what’s probably the most important question of all: It’s fun to debate what we should do, but it’s more important to figure out what we can do, realistically. So after looking at morality, I’ll look at the most pragmatic ways to improve meat production.