Agriculture uses more land than anything else.
Food production takes up almost half of the planet's land surface. (National Geographic)
Yet 1 in 9 people go to bed on an empty stomach.
"Eradicating hunger and malnutrition is one of the great challenges of our time." (World Food Programme)
Sadly, many people dying from hunger are just children.
"Undernutritition causes 45% of child deaths, resulting in 3.1 million deaths annually." (BBC News)
So where's all the food going?
Globally, farmed animals consume five times as much food as all human beings. (IPCC - see page 836, figure 11.9)
Eliminating animal agriculture would result in a 75% reduction in overall farmland use and still feed the world. (Research published in Science – the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet – per the Guardian)
Meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, while using the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and producing 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. (same study as above)
If U.S. farmers took all the land currently devoted to raising cattle, pigs, and chickens and used it to grow plants instead, they could sustain more than twice as many people as they do now, or an additional 390 million hungry mouths. (Research published in PNAS)
"The current production of crops is sufficient to provide enough food for the projected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050, although very significant changes [including]... replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and greater acceptance of human-edible crops currently fed to animals, especially maize, as directly-consumed human food would be required."
(Research Published in Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene)
Western animal-based diets – which are spreading to other parts of the world – require a disproportionately huge amount of (squandered) resources.
The monopolization of the food supply for "livestock" systems for the elite has been going on for a long time. As one example, animal farming was a root cause of the famous Irish potato famine, given that an over-reliance on potatoes (cheap and easily cultivated in less than ideal soil) only occurred after the best land was seized for "beef cattle."
Today, multinational agribusiness is known for using land in impoverished, even famine-stricken countries to grow crops that are then exported to wealthier countries for livestock feed (and biofuels).
There will always be far more plants embedded in animal meat/products than if the plants were eaten by people directly. Cornell ecologist David Pimentel has determined the U.S. could feed 800 million people with just the grain given to "livestock" (given proper distribution).
For these reasons, veganism must play a major role in challenging our culture of waste.
Distribution of the world's food supply
What about food waste?
Animal agriculture IS the ultimate form of food waste, as it's responsible for the most losses of all harvested crops on Earth (40%).
This is because most crops fed to farmed animals are lost – meaning they are burned up by the animals to power their own bodies, and therefore don't end up in human stomachs.
Researchers have found that on average, only 12 in every 100 calories fed to so-called livestock are converted into meat, eggs, or dairy.
Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel researchers refer to the resulting massive pre-consumer loss as the “opportunity food loss” of animal agriculture – and it’s larger than completely eliminating all conventional food losses in the United States.
Aligning with the basic science of trophic levels, these researchers found that when you cycle plant proteins through farmed animals, you lose the following percentages of the protein (opportunity food losses):
Union of Concerned Scientists explains why it's hard for people to understand that "livestock production" is "the largest way we waste the resources that can be used to produce food" as follows:
It’s not food that goes into our garbage or landfills, but it represents an enormous loss to the potential global supply of food for people just the same. The reasons have to do with ecology: when we eat one level higher on the food web we’re losing about 90% of the edible resources from the level below.
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh concluded the following in 2017:
"Livestock production is the least efficient process" in the global food system, with losses of 78% or 840 million tonnes of crops.
Over a billion tonnes of harvested crops are used to produce only about a quarter million tonnes of edible animal products.
Encouraging people to eat fewer animal products is a major part of stopping food waste.
The food chain operates under the ten percent law of transfer of energy from one trophic level to the next, in which energy efficiency is best preserved by sourcing food as close to the initial energy source as possible. In bypassing so-called livestock altogether, this is exactly what plant-based foods achieve.
All harvested crops used for livestock production
All losses of harvested crops on earth
But that’s not all. To then actually throw out animal foods at the consumer level is additional waste upon waste. Even the farming industry itself acknowledges the greater material cost of animal-based food waste, including Modern Farmer magazine sharing University of Missouri research.
Of course, not only is animal agriculture/consumption responsible for this unconscionable waste of resources and food, it's also responsible for a staggering amount of wasted lives.
Who should be accountable for making a change?
Scientific research published in 1999 estimated that worldwide:
2 billion people live primarily on a meat-based diet (richer countries)
4 billion live primarily on a plant-based diet (poorer countries)
"Shortage of cropland, freshwater, and energy resources requires that most of the 4 billion people live primarily on a plant-based diet."
Yet a recent report in Environmental Research Letters found that 67% of all plant calories and 80% of all plant protein produced in the US go to feeding the animals we farm.
Additionally, it's been reported that one-fourth of all grain produced by third world countries is now given to so-called livestock, including those in well-off countries like the US, UK, and elsewhere in Europe. This actively reduces the food supply and creates scarcity from abundance.
The disproportionally resource-intensive nature of Western animal-based diets means we're taking far more than our fair share. Yet rather than focusing on the ethical obligation of wealthier countries to adopt plant-based diets, the onus is often unfairly placed on developing countries not to follow our lead.
The responsibility falls with those who have access and autonomy to make a change now, and to hold agribusiness accountable. Let's use our privilege for good.
Primary Diets of the Global Human Population
Note: World hunger is not a straightforward issue and has its roots in the allocation rather than availability of resources. Yet it’s undeniable that animal agriculture helps create the artificial scarcity and high price of staple crops that serve elite interests while actively wasting food due to trophic levels. A global vegan shift would not automatically end world hunger. For those of us privileged to be living in a society of abundance, however, each individual's shift to veganism is a great place to start.
Veganism & World Hunger: Experts Weigh In (Truth or Drought Facebook note)
The opportunity cost of animal based diets exceeds all food losses (research published in PNAS)
Related coverage of this study:
A Vegan Diet is Key to Reducing Food Waste (LiveKindly)
Turning plants into meat-like foods to save the planet (Chemical & Engineering News)
4 QUADRILLION CALORIES ADDED (Conservation Magazine)
Redefining agricultural yields: From tonnes to people nourished per hectare. (Environmental Research Letters)
A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World (National Geographic)
Hunger Directory (A Well-Fed World)
Animal Agriculture, Hunger, and How to Feed a Growing Global Population (Richard Oppenlander/FOK)
There's a Bone to Pick With Meat Eaters (Jeremy Rifkin, LA Times)
Feast or Famine: Meat Production and World Hunger (Mark Hawthorne)
Fifth of food lost to over-eating and waste (University of Edinburgh)
You Might Be Wasting Food, Even If You’re Not Throwing It Away (Union of Concerned Scientists)
Meat Waste Is Worse for the Environment Than Vegetable Waste (Modern Farmer)
Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers (Research published in Science)
Four steps to food security for swelling cities (Nature, International Journal of Science)
Since farmed animals eat much more food than they produce, they consume five times as much food as all human beings. Cycling crops through animals actively reduces the food supply. Therefore animal agriculture is responsible for more losses of the world’s harvested crops than any other process, and additionally, animal-based food waste has a greater material cost than plant-based food waste. Rather than continuing to perpetuate animal-based diets as symbols of status and prestige, the responsibility falls to those who can already afford animal proteins to switch to plant proteins.