The plant-based solution to hunger

Adopting an industrial agriculture model in the global south is destroying ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and expropriating land. If we are serious about feeding all people and preserving our planet, we must target meat consumption, says Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Barbara Unmuessig.

Vegetarian pizza
Vegetarian pizza. People can be 'nudged' towards more climate-friendly diets by making the vegetarian food the default option. Image: Sharada Prasad CS, CC BY 2.0

The way we eat in the industrialised world is unhealthy, unjust, and unsustainable. Far too much of the meat we consume is produced under questionable ecological, ethical, and social conditions. And now our industrial model for meat production is being exported to the global south – especially India and China – where meat consumption is rising among these countries’ emerging middle classes.

Worldwide, 300 million tonnes of meat are produced each year, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the annual amount will increase to 455 million tonnes by 2050 if demand continues to grow at the current rate. Such large amounts of meat can be produced only on an industrial scale, and at high social, political, and ecological costs.

Meat production is a tremendously inefficient use of agricultural land, because considerably more plant-based food is needed to feed livestock than we would need to feed ourselves directly through a plant-based diet. For example, producing one kilogram of chicken meat, pork, or beef requires 1.6, three, and eight kilograms of animal feed, respectively. This pits farmers and animal-feed producers against one another in a fierce competition over land.

Meanwhile, the production of soy – the world’s most important animal-feed grain – rose from 130 million tonnes in 1996 to 270 million tonnes in 2015, with 80 per cent of output going to meat production, especially in China (70 million tonnes) and Europe (31 million tonnes).

This expansion of soy agriculture, as a result of the growing demand for meat, is driving up land values. Consequently, in the global south, common land is being privatised, rainforests are being destroyed to make room for agricultural cultivation, and international agribusinesses are expropriating the land that one-third of the world’s people still rely on for their livelihoods.

Industrial agriculture system’s production chains must be replaced with local, decentralised, and sustainable production chains…People should not lose their livelihoods and food security for the benefit of agribusiness profits.

Animal-feed production, and the intensive cultivation of agricultural land that it requires, is not only destroying ecosystems and reducing biodiversity; it is also fuelling climate change.

Worldwide, our industrial agriculture system produces an estimated 14 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions; including emissions indirectly linked to deforestation, and those associated with fertiliser production, increases that share to 24 per cent.

Moreover, the extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides – 99 per cent of the world’s soy is genetically modified, and is routinely treated with pesticides – is also contaminating groundwater sources, destroying biodiversity, and eroding the soil.

We can no longer ignore the external costs of this system. If we are serious about addressing climate change and securing every human being’s right to proper nutrition and food security, we must challenge the presumption that an industrial agricultural model, let alone meat, is necessary to feed the world.

In fact, that presumption has little merit. The UN Environment Programme estimates that, by 2050, an area between the size of Brazil and India will have to be repurposed into cropland if current food consumption trends continue.

But if the 9.6 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by then were to have a plant-based diet, industrial meat production could be abandoned and all of them could be fed without the need for any additional agricultural land.

For many people, the competition for land is a fight for survival. Land access, which is more unevenly distributed than incomes, is a deciding factor in whether someone suffers from malnutrition: 20 per cent of households that experience hunger do not own land, and 50 per cent of people who experience hunger are small-scale farmers.

The industrial agriculture system’s production chains must be replaced with local, decentralised, and sustainable production chains. It is incumbent upon governments to prioritise people’s right to food and nutrition above private economic interests. People should not lose their livelihoods and food security for the benefit of agribusiness profits.

To move toward an ecologically sustainable and socially equitable agricultural model, we can leverage existing political frameworks, such as the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. As it stands now, large-scale industrial meat producers are profiting extensively from EU subsidies; but these subsidies could be redirected as investments in decentralised meat and grain production chains that adhere to a more sustainable model.

Doing so requires recognising that realistic alternatives to industrial agriculture do exist. For example, “agroecology” – a system based on traditional and indigenous knowledge that is passed down through the generations – is easily adaptable to all geographic circumstances. In fact, in 2006 Jules Pretty of the University of Essex found that this mode of production can increase harvest yields by 79 per cent.

But, to implement this shift, governments must ensure that all people have guaranteed access to land and potable water, and they need to create political frameworks to promote ecologically and socially just agricultural models – which, by definition, excludes industrial agriculture.

The challenge of feeding every human being should not be viewed in opposition to – or as somehow ruling out – questions of social justice and the future of the planet. Poverty, malnutrition, and hunger are a result of politics, not scarcity.

Barbara Unmuessig is President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.

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