To feed the world and save the planet, eat less meat! (and 4 more necessities)
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October 19th, 2011
08:42 PM ET

To feed the world and save the planet, eat less meat! (and 4 more necessities)

Editor's Note: Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.

By Stewart Patrick

Appropriately enough, Halloween this year brings some scary news. On that date, the global population will surpass seven billion, according to the UN Population Fund. That’s quite a strain on an already crowded planet where one billion go to bed each night hungry or malnourished. And there’s no sign of a let-up. The planet should hit eight billion inhabitants by 2025 - and could hit ten billion by 2083.

The dilemma for humanity - and earth itself - is stark. In recent years, the world has been rocked by recurrent volatility in the supply and prices of staple foods. And yet economists say that global agricultural production must double in the next forty years to keep up with population growth and changing dietary preferences (including growing consumption of meat in developing countries).

However, doubling agricultural production will subject the planet to tremendous ecological damage, unless agricultural methods are drastically altered. This is the conclusion of a groundbreaking study in the journal Nature, “Solutions for a Cultivated Planet.”

Bottom line? In trying to feed ourselves, we risk killing the planet.

The scale of contemporary agriculture is mind-boggling. Farming and animal husbandry now take up nearly forty percent of the planet’s ice-free land area. Having converted huge tracts of grassland, savannah and temperate forest, farmers and ranchers are now exploiting more sensitive areas. By 2010, they had cleared 27% of the world’s tropical forests. This is an ecological tragedy, because these biomes are irreplaceable components of the global ecosystem - for example, they serve as carbon sinks, contain the majority of the world’s biodiversity, and provide vast quantities of fresh water.

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Furthermore, agriculture accounts for an astounding 30-35% percent of humanity’s greenhouse gases (thanks to deforestation, emissions from fertilized soil, rice cultivation and methane emissions from livestock). Fertilizer is also a major source of pollution, as it degrades aquatic ecosystems, damages marine fisheries, and disrupts natural processes that replenish soil nutrients. Finally, irrigation accounts for 70 percent of human demand for fresh water, which is simply unsustainable in many regions.

Fortunately, the Nature article provides five solutions to help humanity “meet the twin challenges of food security and environmental sustainability.”

1. Stop expanding agriculture: At first glance, this may sound counterintuitive. Humanity needs more food, after all. But the world needs to slow and ultimately cease expansion of agriculture, particularly into tropical forests, where food production benefits are marginal and vastly outweighed by the environmental gains of keeping these biomes intact. Critical to the success of this “solution”, of course, will be to provide economic incentives at both the global level (such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation or REDD program) and at the national and local level, such as initiatives to promote ecotourism, and sustainable harvesting of rain forest products.

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2. Intensify agriculture in underperforming regions: Crop yields vary enormously by region. The average hectare of land in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, produces one sixth the caloric value of Illinois farmland. Closing yield gaps will require new techniques but need not imply massive industrialization. Reform of inefficient farming and animal husbandry practices, better soil and forestry management, a more diverse menu of crops, and openness to genetically-modified seed stock will significantly raise efficiency. These steps promise enormous productivity gains not only in Africa but also Latin America and Eastern Europe. The Nature authors suggest that “bringing yields to within 95% of their potential for sixteen important food and feed crops” could increase global food production by 58%.

3. Reduce unsustainable uses of water, nutrients, and chemicals. More efficient irrigation systems are one key to increased agricultural production, particularly where water is scarce. But productivity gains will also require a more sophisticated approach to the use of chemical fertilizers, as well as manure and leguminous crops. As the Nature authors explain, the world confronts a “Goldilocks” problem. There are too many places where farmers either overfertilize (like China and the United States) or underfertilize (as in much of the developing world), and too few where they get it “just right.” This trend will have drastic consequences, unless national governments, farmers, agronomists, and ecologists can cooperate effectively.

4. Reduce food wasteGlobally, huge quantities of food are never consumed—perhaps a third of the total, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In the developing world, entire cargoes rot before reaching consumers, thanks to inefficient storage, transportation, distribution, and refrigeration systems. But massive quantities are also wasted in the developed world by countless consumers after purchase.

5. Eat less meat. It has been an iron law of development: the richer countries get, the more meat they demand. Farmers and ranchers have responded in kind. A jaw-dropping 75 percent of all agricultural land is currently devoted to raising livestock (including land for grazing, pasture, and growing animal feed).  This trend is ecologically devastating and economically inefficient. “It takes 30 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of boneless beef,” as John Foley, one author of the Nature article, observes. Changing the dietary preferences of seven billion humans is no easy feat, of course. But even modest dietary adjustments - such as prioritizing pasture-fed over grain-fed beef or shifting toward chicken and pork - could pay major dividends.

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Combined, these core strategies could “increase global food availability by 100-180%, meeting projected demands while lowering greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity losses, water use and water pollution.” Implementing any one of these five solutions would be a Herculean challenge. But the message (NPR) from the scientists is even more sobering. We don’t get to pick and choose among them: We need to do them all.

Translating these proposals into action will be among the most daunting challenges humanity has ever faced. It will require a widespread sense of urgency, sustained political will on an international, national, and local level, and the deployment of economic and regulatory incentives to shift the market preferences of billions of individual producers and consumers. As so often in human endeavors, the binding constraints on performance are more likely to be political and economic than purely technical.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart Patrick.

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Topics: Environment • Food

soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. Karl Drobnic

    I think I first came across the "eat less meat" solution in "Diet for a Small Planet" 30-40 years ago. Perhaps it was a similar book, if not that one. So the message has been out there for decades, but hasn't taken root. It's also healthier for the individual to eat less meat, and that message has gotten some traction with the public. But without a well-funded organization to promote an "eat less meat" agenda, we are unlikely to see this solution take hold even though it is practical, doable, and in everyone's self-interest.

    October 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Reply
    • Eelco

      Wrt self-interest: eating less meat and other animal products – if you replace it with eating more fruits and vegetables – will make you leaner and healthier. It's time to get that message out more strongly. Which is hard because of the lobbies that have been fighting that message effectively for such a long time.

      October 20, 2011 at 12:12 am | Reply
    • Lampman

      Genesis 1;29 – Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.

      October 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
      • danladi

        wold

        October 23, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  2. 100% STRONGER

    "Over crowded Populations", well, even though it is a tragedy, the World Populations has been reduced(unexpectedly) after the statistics published. These are:
    1) The mass deaths in Twins buildings,
    2) The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
    3) The tsunamis, and Earthquakes,
    4) The diseases,...
    ----------

    *"Eat less meats", we must expand researches to have SYNTHETIC MEATS.

    Since the Earth Soils reduced because of erosions, we must have a technologies to start building Condominiums on the top of bridges, where there are more Oceans and Lakes.

    Having also a Law is not bad, like Four people per 5,000 sqft.(Maximum for residential).

    These might happen.

    October 19, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Reply
    • Christian Burgess

      why the hell is everyuthing about 911??? there have been far worse attrocities and mainly because of you lot starting damn wars .... peace and respect to 911 victims but you can't play this card forever, kind of like the Holocaust ... move on

      October 20, 2011 at 1:09 am | Reply
  3. Michael Perry

    Sounds like another socialist / environmentalist / climate change fanatic who is unhappy with the state of the world. Well wake up....the world will always be screwed up and there will always be poor and starving people. a better idea is to have some of the countries who are the poorest jettison their corrupt and immoral governments and run the so the people have a chance to have some freedom to better their lives. Much of africa used to feed its own people and even export crops, now most have malnurished or starving populations caused mainly through corrupt socialist / marxist regimes where a handful of government elits run the countriews for their own benefit while their countires suffer greatly! Respect for human rights and freedom will go much farther towrds the goal of feeding the worlds population!

    October 19, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • ES

      But what about all of us fat-ass Americans. We should eat better staff and less of it generally just to save ourselves from obesity-related diseases. Nothing to do with any "isms" or human rights. You do not need to eat meat every day.

      October 21, 2011 at 1:43 am | Reply
  4. Alan

    I've got a good idea, lets build some piggeries and chicken farms in your neighbourhood.

    October 20, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply
    • wasso

      But why o why can't cannibalism feed the world ?

      October 20, 2011 at 12:24 am | Reply
  5. Eat less meat

    This message has been around for centuries depending on which culture, religion or part of the world you come from. I would say eat less or no meat at all to build a healthier planet and body.
    Its proven that people who eat no meat live longer and healthier life.
    I think the reason the message was not as relevant as it is today is for the simple fact that the world population is about to hit 7 billion and we are really tight on resources. Last thing we should do is waste them by having beef farms all over the place.

    October 20, 2011 at 12:35 am | Reply
  6. carlhungus

    Micheal Perry, why are you reading this page if you believe such things as you wrote?
    you just wrote that you don't want to change the status quo because there will always be starving people, knowing that you won't be one. that's all you just wrote. and honestly that's what most people would think.

    but why do you think you need to brag something like that? do you feel somewhat guilty and defensive and maybe hoping to get some attention from others who join your opinions?

    but do you feel that because there always will be killers and victims, so why do something about it, like having the police? Police never will erase all the crimes, does that mean we shouldn't even have it to reduce the crimes?

    you are just a thoughtless, lazy person who refuses to adjust your diets a little. also, it's a concern in US as well, not just Africa. you will have to pay a lot more for food here, too.

    October 20, 2011 at 1:00 am | Reply
  7. cyberbeing

    Where women are under educated either because of economic or cultural norms, the population grows exponentially.

    October 20, 2011 at 1:27 am | Reply
  8. Beef

    And on the same CNN homepage, at the bottom, is the story "Cut above: Legendary Kobe beef".

    October 20, 2011 at 1:30 am | Reply
  9. Gabor47

    How about birth control methods in overpopulating areas? USA happens to be one of the few countries in the world with stable TFR (total fertility rate), which leads to no increase or decrease of population (except of course the influx from Mexico). No point of recommending some world-socialist theories, because in the long run it can't work. In the long run the only thing can work is decreasing the population growth.

    October 20, 2011 at 1:35 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Birth-control is a very delicate issue, out of cultural and religious point of views! We in the West occasionally shake our heads when we see a taxi-driver struggles to survive and feed his 20 children. Should we voice our concerns, we would immediately be branded as self-interested and intolerant.

      October 20, 2011 at 8:30 am | Reply
  10. cyberbeing

    Agree Gabor47, a world wide stop at 2 policy must be in place. Only I don't know how this can be effectively enforced.

    October 20, 2011 at 1:37 am | Reply
  11. Craig

    This is all utopian garbage, these type of people for example yell birth control while importing more people. The same people are taking about the green house gas issues. Example Americans produce so much more CO2 than others so we should reduce it whilst they import and convert people from low CO2 to high CO2 producers. They are 2 face hypocrites who have no consistency at all, or Socialist.

    October 20, 2011 at 2:23 am | Reply
  12. cuckoo

    The caption should have been EAT LESS MEAT AND SAVE LIFE ON THE PLANET. Why must humans consume meat when they are meant to eat fruits and vegetables. Animals are meant for animals. We humans are not living anymore in the stone age or some other prehistoric age.

    October 20, 2011 at 3:15 am | Reply
  13. THE DINNER BELL vs THE BATTLE CRY

    The preverbal "dinner bell" is not commonplace anywhere in nature because it would be self-defeating. Survival of the fittest has pretty much been and will continue to be the law of nature. Supplying and sharing food (with the exception of offspring) is just not part of animal instinct because it would contradict the omnipotent will to survive. And even for humans, the notion of eliminating this from our genes or stifling it logically could only be deemed sacrificial, suicidal, or insane. So here lies the crux of the problem. How will we eventually be able to feed ourselves?

    On the other hand, the ability to warn of pending danger can be heard or seen throughout the natural world. Even rabbits which are rather quiet animals have a means to warn of pending danger. And when it comes to hunting or attacking, the strategies developed by many species whether individually or in a pack is nothing less than remarkable, and without exception, humans of course being the most highly developed.

    The ability to intellectually rationalize a solution to either of the above, and then implement it successfully would take complete and unified global cooperation and effort. And if we were to examine a snapshot of our current global situation, the only sane statement would be "we're obviously just kidding ourselves".

    October 20, 2011 at 8:13 am | Reply
  14. Mark Schrader

    What about "have fewer children" as a solution? Unfortunately this requires everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. Something that people have shown time and again that they are not very good at putting the needs of the whole above their own needs and wants.

    October 20, 2011 at 11:31 am | Reply
  15. Jonathon

    Everyone needs to do more research. 1. The amount of people who could live in the U.S. compared to China or India. 2. Our digestive tracts are more closely aligned to that of man's best friend, the dog and wolf. 3. Why do we have canine teeth? 4. Doctor's who study "primitive cultures" like the Inuit, Plains Indian, the Pygmy's of Africa, Aborigines, etc. are extremely healthy individuals. Vegans age very quickly, lack enzymes for repair of their body's, lack probiotics which are 70% of the immune system, also, vegans brain size shrinks by as much as 25%. Anthropological studies have shown that humans developed massive brains because of a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and wild game. We cannot depend on flax, chia, sacha inchi, or hemp because many of us cannot convert alpha linoleic acid to a true omega-3 fat. For example fish and grass-fed are directly utilized by the body. So, if we want to be dumb and weak then we will eat just plants. At any rate, are we going to be intolerant of other people's 2000 plus year tradition of eating lamb, goat, or beef?

    October 20, 2011 at 11:38 am | Reply
    • Doug

      Jonathon,

      Think man. 1) The relative size of the US population growth relative to China or India doesn't change the point. it's still a problem; we are still part of the solution. 2) Using human digestive tracts to justify what we eat is like using the size of a gas tank to determine what goes in it. Weak at best. 3) We have canine teeth (barely, when compared to dogs, wolves etc) because we are OMNIVORES! Pretty obvious really... 4) Primitave cultures were more healthy (while they were alive in their short lives) because of EXCERCISE. They had to actually work in the fields or hunt with a spear (very hard actually...) in order to survive at all! Equating their meat heavy diets with their health is stupid. And to top it off, you treat vegans as if they have anything to do at all with a lower meat diet. This article wasn't even talking about going vegetarian, let alone to the vegan extreme (who do have some nutritional challenges)... it was only advocating reducing meat intake to make the system run better, and get the side affect of better health.

      I'm thinking it's you who is either unable to read, or barely able to comprehend what you've read.

      October 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  16. V

    Why not just have less people? Why go on and on about how our food requirements are overwhelming the planet without addressing the exponential growth of humanity? Increasing food production 100% sounds impressive until you compare that with 200% population increases.

    October 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  17. Joe

    How about getting less bail out money, or how about letting the too big to fails fail first before we go blame the common individual for the growing "environmental" problem.

    Why should the common people make sacrifices upon sacrifices when the oligarchs themselves practice not what they preach. Moreover, there are bigger problems like corruption and a failed financial system to be addressed first before we start discussing trivial or perhaps unimportant discussions about or daily food consumptions.

    Solve the bigger problems, before we start minding about the environment, because, we're all going to face bigger problems when unemployment sky rockets, the economy fails and the paper currencies become worthless. Saving the world starts with a moral ruling system, not a corrupt system trying to preach a morality to the commoners that is unproven and is not truly scientifically proven to save the world.

    October 21, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  18. Paul Pot

    Abandon the cities and return to a rural lifestyle.
    Produce food locally, grow a garden.
    Adopt non-tillage sustainable farming practices such as 'pasture cropping'.
    organicandsustainablegardening.yolasite.com
    .

    October 21, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  19. AGuest9

    How 'bout Bubba and Honey stop making 12 kids to live in the double-wide on welfare. That would stop stressing the farms and the schools, and untimately, the prisons and unemployment offices.

    October 22, 2011 at 10:45 am | Reply
  20. Occupado

    I've been a vegetarian for ten years. My brother in law eats a lot of meat. He makes fun of me. He also has a 50-inch waistline, he takes blood thinners and statin drugs, and it seems like he's always passing a kidney stone.

    Other than that, he's a great guy.

    October 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  21. eric

    instead of bashing beef and the the millions who are employed by this industry why not spend more time solving the over population problem. once this is solved everything else will fall into place.

    October 22, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Reply
    • Marianne

      You're right. We need zero population growth. We ned to eat less meat, get cows, pigs, sheep cut way down, like down 90%. Stop war. Plant trees. Slow down transportation.

      October 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  22. johnny

    Save yourself. Stop eating red meat. Stop eating or drinking anything that is part of a dead or life cow. Butter is deadly. Butter killed more people than diseases do.

    October 22, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  23. Marianne

    What the planet to survive? Then USE BIRTH CONTROL and plant more trees. We need to pay people to "get fixed", as in vasectomies and tubal ligations and put people to work plantings trees.

    October 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  24. John

    Cigarettes are to lung cancer what animal products are to heart disease. The more the public is aware of this, the more progress we'll make.

    October 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  25. Tom Davis

    Rather than deprive people of meat-based protein, let's invest in agriculture so we can feed the world a better diet - invest in agriculture; invest in farmland. http://www.terraworldwide.com

    October 26, 2011 at 2:44 am | Reply
  26. Mesothelioma webmd

    The internal organs of the body of a human are surrounded in a very shielding sac the mesothelium. Samples of mesothelilial walls are the peritoneum (belly …Mesothelioma

    January 27, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  27. al leong / toronto / ny/ chicago

    there is no requirement to feed your enemies worldwide – feed americans first.
    feeding enemies (if there is going to be a food shortage) is like feeding your economic or physical enemies leading to our own destruction. stop it! subsidize our farmers like the chinese subsidize the koreans for their strategic gains. if they're not enemies, then feed them. like mom. if you don't like the food, lock the fridge!!!

    March 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply

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