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Vegetarianism and sustainability.


This paper focusses on meat as a distinct product category. It does not consider seafood or dairy.


Worldwide meat consumption has doubled in the last 50 years and experts predict that by 2050 twice as much meat will be produced for consumption as is today, for a projected total of 465 million tons (1). For more than a decade the largest increases in production have taken place in developing countries: more than half the world's total meat production took place there over this time (1). Despite this, more than one in seven people globally do not receive sufficient protein and energy from their diet, and one in every three people worldwide (encompassing all age groups and populations) suffers from malnutrition (2,3). An Increase in global population and the relative declining per capita availability of energy resources, land and water have contributed to this. Technological advances in agriculture have secured increased production and output but have meant devastating environmental impacts, including climate change. The complexities of competing agendas of food production and environmental sustainability will have to be carefully managed: "Balancing competing demands from the need to sustainably intensify food production to meet growing demands for food while also responding to consumer demands for more meat and more dairy products will be a significant challenge for food systems in the coming decades" (4).

Current Consumption

On average each person in the world consumes approximately 40kg of meat per year. This is expected to increase to 45.3kg by 2030 (5). Predictions for meat consumption differ between developing and developed countries: 36.7kg and 100.1kg of meat per person respectively. In 2011, Australians consumed around 111kg of meat per person: 33kg of beef, 9kg of lamb, 43kg of chicken and 25kg of pork. Currently Australian consumers allocate about 40% of their total food expenditure to meat (6).

In developing countries, access to meat of any variety means increased food security and decreased malnutrition. In poorer countries the less affluent are forced to buy whatever is affordable and readily available, whether it be poor quality fruit and vegetables, processed foods or factory-farmed meat and dairy.

"The perception of the role of meat, particularly red meat, in the global diet is dichotomous" (7). Should the first priority be adequate food security and nutrition standards for all, or should environmental conservation come first? This paper presents some of the key arguments in this complex debate.

Food security and national standards

How important is meat in human diets? A dichotomy exists regarding attitudes to meat consumption: meat is deemed both a protein-rich and nutrient-packed dietary necessity and an artery-clogging, life-shortening food that should be avoided at all costs. On the one hand red meat contributes key micronutrients (iron, vitamin A, vitamin B, essential fatty acids and zinc) and protein to the global food supply, all of which are essential for human health (7,8). But, on the other, excessive consumption of meat in developed countries is often linked with non-communicable diseases, obesity and cancer (8). And as Australians we are disproportionately guilty of excessive consumption. A report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed that Australians consume 116kg of meat per year, compared to the world average of 40kg (9).

Recommendations to reduce consumption of animal fat, and in particular saturated fat, continue to dominate dietary guidelines, with emphasis on selecting lean cuts of meat and trimming external fat. Studies have shown that lean meats such as chicken and beef can contribute to a well-balanced, energy-restricted diet to support weight loss or maintenance (7)

Can we live without meat?

It is entirely possible for vegetarians to meet all their nutritional needs without having to consume meat. Vegetarian diets, when properly planned, provide the full range of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and fibre necessary for optimal nutritional status (10). However dietary planning needs to take into account that nutritional needs may increase during stages of growth and development, pregnancy and lactation, which may mean that it becomes necessary to eat meat at certain stages of life (11).

Malnutrition in the developing world

In developing countries it is estimated that 16-28% of the population are consuming insufficient energy-rich foods, compared to less than 5% in developed countries. On average, only 10% of this limited energy intake is consumed as protein, with less than 25% derived from high-quality animal protein (7). The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that by 2050 consumption of red meat worldwide (bovine and ovine) will increase by approximately 200%, and that of pork by 158%. Predicted growth in production and consumption of livestock products suggests an opportunity for increased food security among a growing population (7). The FAO notes that livestock varieties, such as cattle, that consume primarily roughage and agro-industrial waste products, add to the food supply beyond what can be provided by crops (12). Feeding agri-waste to livestock raised for food contributes more to the food supply than would be contributed by people eating crops and grains because the total of the end product of cattle-raising is more nutritious than the content of the vegetable matter the cattle consumed.

The effects of malnutrition on child survival in developing countries are devastating. It has been noted that protein malnutrition is a causal factor in 49% of the approximately 10.4 million annual deaths of children under five years of age (12). UNICEF have also estimated that one-third of children under the age of five in the developing world have stunted growth. Stunting is caused by long-term insufficient nutrient intake and frequent infections (13). On top of this, iron deficiency and anaemia affect nearly 600 million pre-school and school-aged children in developing countries (14). A recent study highlighted how important meat is to the diets of children in developing countries to decrease stunting and increase the sufficiency of key micronutrients (15). Meat is also important to the diets of pregnant and lactating women: "Efforts to reduce micronutrient deficiency through the increased availability of animal proteins are also important to support maternal health" (7).

Environmental Conservation

Changes to global patterns of wealth and prosperity are changing rates of food production and consumption and in turn increasing the environmental impacts of agricultural and livestock production. People in developing countries such as Brazil, China and India are experiencing greater wealth and therefore have greater purchasing power. This purchasing power is often linked to adding more meat to their diets (4). In China this has caused a substantial westernisation of diets, entailing a rapid increase in the demand for meat. More than half of the 107 million tons of pork eaten worldwide in 2013 were consumed in China (16).

Even though the amount of grain produced in the world today is enough to feed the world's human population twice over, 70% of this grain is fed to livestock (17). In 2010 the global production per capita of grain was 323kg. Only half of the 2010 harvest was used directly for food; the other half was used for animal feed or for bio-fuels. The FAO has predicted that the percentage of grain used directly by humans will fall even further, as developing countries emulate the dietary habits of westerners (17). It has been argued, on both geopolitical and ethical grounds, that it would be better to re-deploy this production in an attempt to meet the nutritional needs of the world's poor rather than feed it to animals who will then be slaughtered to cater to the culinary tastes of its middle class.

Land use

Currently 80% of the world's agricultural land is used directly or indirectly for animal production (18). In the US over half the total land mass is used for the production of meat and dairy products. In Australia about two thirds of land is given over to farming production: about 90% of farm land is for grazing on native pastures (19). The irony is that the more arable land we use, the more arable land we need. Farming increases topsoil loss and soil degradation, which steadily decrease the productivity of farm land (20).


The harsh reality is that there will not be enough water available to produce enough food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we adhere to current dietary trends across the globe. In terms of water availability, a study undertaken at the Stockholm International Water Institute warned that the world's population may have to convert almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages. Currently 70% of all available water goes to agriculture (21).

According to the FAO food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050. However this will have huge ramifications for our already-stressed water resources (22). Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products. The Stockholm International Water Institute has warned that this percentage will need to drop to 5% by 2050 if we are to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be living on the planet by then (21).

The FAO has suggested that adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world. Producing animal protein-rich food consumes five to ten times more water than producing food for a vegetarian diet. One third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals (21). Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit (22).

Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming

A 2006 report by the FAO found that our meat-heavy diets cause a greater amount of greenhouse gases (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere than either transportation or industry. Current meat production levels contribute approximately 22% of the 36 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases the world produces every year (23). The huge impact of the livestock sector on global warming is often overlooked. A global transition towards a low meat diet may reduce the effects of climate change by as much as 50% by 2050 (24).

It is evident that livestock production requires more land, water, fossil fuels and other resources than the production of edible crops. The United Nations (UN) has also identified the livestock industry as "one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems, including global warming (livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is higher than the share of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (1), loss of fresh water, rainforest destruction, spreading deserts, air and water pollution, acid rain, soil erosion and loss of habitat" (25).

Conclusion: Vegetarianism is not enough

Although there are powerful arguments against over-consumption of meat and dairy products by wealthy populations in the context of global food security, blanket advocacy of universal vegetarianism may be too simplistic a prescription (26). To quantify the entire impact of meat consumption on global food security would require highly sophisticated computer technology that analyses how purchasing decisions on a micro level effect macro systems, including farming systems, global supply chains, and food markets (18).

One study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute found that if the western world halved their meat consumption per capita, the demand for meat would fall and prices would decline. This would make meat globally more affordable, which would have the greatest impact for those in developing countries who would be able to increase their animal-protein consumption. This would have substantial nutritional benefits, especially for children (18).

However the study also suggested that eating less meat could compromise food security. For example, if consumers in developed nations replaced meat with wheat-based products global wheat prices would rise. This in turn would effect the prevalence of malnutrition in developing countries which rely on wheat (18).

Although there are many benefits of vegetarianism, the complexities of global markets and human food traditions could produce some counterintuitive results (18). A serious discussion about food security and natural resource consumption must emphasise redistributive social justice and not only lifestyle choices. It would be incredibly difficult to persuade people to eat less meat, due to overall popularity of meat and the great variety of factors that influence food practices (24). In Western countries these habits are strongly reliant on a chain of industrialised activity that produces "highly standardised meat products, commonly sold in supermarkets and de-animalised to avoid reminding customers about the link between the meat dish and the killing of the animal" (27).

What we learn from the application of market economics to global human welfare may be that there is no one global solution, only partial solutions that may provide food security or environmental gains in particular contexts. The hopeful prospect of aggregated individual responsibility solving diabolically complex global problems has rarely been fulfilled in human history when the prosperity of powerful elites has been in the balance. Perhaps when a meeting of the G20 group of wealthy nations places the food security of developing nations and environmental health higher on its agenda than growth the situation may begin to turn around.


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(12.) Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. World Livestock 2011: Livestock in Food Security. Rome: FAO2011.

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(26.) Gopal P. Turning vegetarian will not solve the food crisis. The Guardian. 2012 29/08/2012.

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Alexis has graduate and post-graduate qualifications in Journalism and Graphic Design. She recently completed a Graduate Certificate in Sustainability at the University of Sydney.
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Author:Clarke, Alexis
Publication:Journal of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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