Feeding the World: Veggies Alone are NOT the Answer

Posted on May 23, 2014


Instead of figuring out how to feed nine billion people in 2050, we should be figuring out how to not have nine billion in the first place.

L.V.Anderson, writing for Slate magazine, conducts a sort of thought experiment: what if the whole world became vegetarian or vegan? What would this mean for the environment, for land use, for climate change, for feeding the world’s population? Oh, she knows it isn’t going to happen, but she wants us to consider the tremendous environmental costs of the meat industry worldwide. 18% of greenhouse gas emissions; 25% of the world’s land surface for grazing; 34% of global cropland goes to animal-feed crops. The implication is that we could vastly reduce emissions and vastly increase food production for direct human use, if only we would abandon or greatly reduce meat consumption.

Ms. Anderson gleans much of her information from a study by Elke Stehfest et al, Climate Benefits of Changing Diet. This paper predicts the climate and environmental effects of abandoning or changing meat production and consumption to varying degrees. The writers talk about the benefits of substituting animal proteins with plant proteins; they talk about shifting meat consumption more toward pork and poultry, and away from ruminants, which require more pasture and feed crops and produce more greenhouse gases. You know what the writers haven’t examined in their paper? Just one pesky little detail: human nutrition.

Humans are omnivores. We are evolved to eat some meat. We know this not only because of our teeth (arguable evidence), but also because of our physiology (not so arguable). Vegans – those who use no animal products – must take supplements or consume artificially “fortified” foods to maintain their health. This is a well-known challenge to growing and developing children on a vegan diet. Probably the biggest concern is Vitamin B12; another is Vitamin K2 (which we are only now learning more about, and may be a key in resolving the so-called calcium paradox). These vitamins, by and large, are really only available from animal sources, though they can also be had through bacterial fermentation. Then there are other essential nutrients that can be found in vegan sources, but animal sources are far richer: for instance, iron, zinc, calcium, and certain fats.

If you have to take artificial supplements to stay healthy when you don’t eat meat, you know what that means? You’re evolved to eat meat!!

Frankly, it’s not reasonable to even theoretically suggest that the entire human population should stop eating the diet they were evolved to eat, and replace that diet with a bunch of factory-made bottled supplements and vitamin tablets. Research indicates that vitamin tablets and mineral supplements really are not very effective, and could even be harmful. It’s bad enough that we already get most of our meat from hormone-soaked feedlot farms; it would only compound the problem to eliminate meat altogether and try, in our imperfect and ignorant way, to just take a pill instead of consuming our nutrients in the form of real food.

Suppose we avoid a vegan diet and really push vegetarianism, then; we’ll consume eggs and dairy for our animal-sourced nutrients. Problem solved, right?

Ha, no. One more pesky detail: once we have eliminated ruminant livestock in favor of the less-environmentally-damaging pork and poultry, where do we get our dairy? Cows are not the only ruminants out there; so are goats, sheep, camels, water buffalo, yaks… pretty much everything that humans milk, worldwide.   Goodbye, cheese, yogurt, kefir, cream and butter, and every food and recipe you can think of that derives from those things.

Oh, hey, maybe we can figure out dairy-pig farming (not easy at all, but in theory it could be done). But that wouldn’t be real appealing to all the Jews and Muslims out there… roughly 23.2% of the world population as of 2010… or anyone else who believes pork is “unclean.”

And before you point out the joys of soy milk or rice milk or almond milk, those do not have the same nutrients that actual mammal milk does.

To be fair, Elke Stehfest et al are pretty realistic in their expectations that the global population will keep eating meat, and probably a lot more of it since there will be a lot more people who are predicted to have more wealth in the future. Which brings me to my final point:

If we are so concerned about the environment that we would even explore the possibility of radically altering our basic diets in order to feed everyone, you know what that means? It means there are too dang many people. Instead of figuring out how to replace ruminant meat in our diets, we should be figuring out how to avoid having nine billion mouths to feed in the first place.