Updated: Nov 26, 2020
By Allison Penner
Allison Penner is the Executive Director of Reimagine Agriculture, a nonprofit focused on addressing the inefficiencies and externalities of the agricultural system through an ethical, environmental and human health lens. You can learn more about her organization here.
When we think about changing our diets to be more plant-based, we often think about it as an individual choice and focus on the individual benefits it creates. For example, various online calculators will estimate the amount of greenhouse gases or rainforest acres you’ve saved depending on how long you’ve been plant-based. These statistics are great for helping us imagine the direct effects of our actions on the environment, but there’s also a more complex story going on.
Our individual actions collectively lead to social norms which create ideas about how we view the world. These trends are reflected in meat consumption quite clearly. We’ve all been normalized to having meat be a frequent part of our meals, but this amount of consumption is actually a very recent phenomenon. The world overall now produces four times the amount of meat as it did fifty years ago, but the distribution is not equal. By far, wealthier countries like Canada, the United States, and countries in Europe and Australia consume the most meat per capita. This has set the norm and as other countries continue to industrialize, they too are beginning to consume more and more meat.
Let’s start by focusing on the effects that conventional animal agriculture has on the environment. When we break down how meat is produced, it’s obvious that it is a very inefficient process. Though the animals themselves require water and land to live, a significant amount of these resources must be put towards simply growing crops to feed them. This means that significantly more calories are being put into the animals than they could ever produce. Beef is the worst offender needing 25 calories put in to produce just one calorie of output. Think about this as throwing out 24 plates of spaghetti for a plate of beef.
This is happening in conjunction with the rapid rate at which our global population is rising. By 2050, it’s projected there will be about 10 billion people on earth which is about 2 billion more from where we currently sit. Currently, about 800 million people already experience undernourishment which makes this growth incredibly worrying. However, just imagine how much more food we would have to go around if we used the massive amounts of farmland currently used for livestock to grow plants to feed to humans directly.
The individual conversations around being plant-based eating versus eating animal products need to transition to a global discussion on how we can set up an agricultural system that is beneficial for everyone. This involves prioritizing where we’re using our resources and being conscientious of the larger health and environmental impacts these decisions hold. In other words, we have the power to make a change on an individual level, but it needs to be done with the collective movement in mind.
Hannah Ritchie (2017) - "Meat and Dairy Production". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production' [Online Resource]