How Vegan Diets could improve Global Food Security
A study from the US has found that plant-based vegan diets have lower food loss rates than animal-based diets.
Regardless of your dietary choices, global food security is one of the pressing issues of our near future as our world’s populations continue to grow. Animal diets tend to be more resource-intensive with food production consumes more gram, calorie, or gram protein compared with food production from plant sources. Food loss in conventional food practices can have many different pot holes, such as food spoilage and leaky supply chains. However, efficient – or inefficient – dietary choices are not usually included in the equation. Thus, researchers have termed this consumer choice as “opportunity food loss”.
Researchers calculated food loss by estimating the amount of food that could be produced if animal-based items were replaced by nutritionally comparable (i.e. similar protein content) plant-based items in a typical US diet. They looked at individual animal-based food items such as beef, pork, dairy, poultry and eggs, and compared with a plant-based diet.
What is the current food security crisis? And why is meat an unsustainable option?
The huge environmental impacts of cattle and poultry production, due to the intensive use of water and energy, make the continued farming of livestock environmentally untenable. A conservative estimate by the UN claims 18 per cent of worldwide carbon emissions come from livestock farming, more than all global transport emissions combined. Other estimates go up to a massive 51 per cent.
Crucially, meat production also perpetuates the inequality between the richest and poorest countries in the world. The EU currently imports 70 per cent of its protein used for animal feed. So people go hungry in developing countries because instead of growing grain for their own populations they are growing grain for meat consumption in western countries. Therefore the environmental and social impacts of meat production, along with the huge economic investment required to farm livestock, present an inadequate solution to food security in developing countries.
How can veganism help?
A vegan diet uses significantly less water and land for its production than a meat diet. John Robbins is the author of No Happy Cow-Dispatches from the frontlines of the food revolution. He calculates it takes 60 pounds of water to produce a pound of potatoes and 108 pounds of water to produce a pound of wheat. In comparison he claims it takes around 20,000lbs of water to yield a single pound of beef. Farming uses around 70 per cent of the world’s available water. If meat production increases to keep up with population growth, this can only put a strain on water resources.
In terms of land, it is generally believed that around 30 per cent of the available (and ice-free) area of the planet is used for rearing livestock or growing feed for livestock. While it is not a straightforward equation (for example, low grade agricultural land used for grazing may not be sufficient for arable farming) by using some of this land to grow food for humans directly we would yield more protein from the same amount of land than if it were used for livestock.
A switch to vegan diets would produce more food for more people, from the same amount of natural resources.
The future for food security?
Food security remains a key concern for people and governments across the globe and is only likely to increase in significance, as populations grow and increasingly turn to meat-based diets. However, vegan diets could feed substantially more people than a meat-based diet, with the same amount of plant mass.
Whilst plant-based proteins are far from environmentally or socially neutral, new technologies in the fermentation of vegan protein sources could lead to the more sustainable and affordable production of plant-based protein in developing countries. This acknowledgement of the unequal distribution of food could help to address not just the supply of food, but also the structural inequality in access to food.
So a vegan diet that recognizes inequality of nutrition and works to improve access to protein-rich foods could provide a more economically and environmentally sustainable future for global food security.