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Should we all become vegetarians?

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

It is widely known by now that our current lifestyle is not very sustainable, and that the production and consumption of meat has a huge impact on the environment. The rise in demand for animal products have led to the intensification of livestock production, which also leads to a growing customer concern about meat safety and animal welfare. So maybe the solution is easy: let’s remove all animal products from our diets! (Un)fortunately, it’s not that straightforward. There are a lot of dimensions of sustainability involved in the production and consumption of food, and on top of that there are many synergies and trade-offs of different stakeholders to consider. Building resilient food systems requires an approach that integrates things like CNP-cycles (the movement of Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphorus from the environment into plants and animals, and back again), water, soils and biodiversity, but also an interdisciplinary planetary health approach by addressing food cultures, nutritional security and geopolitical stability. In this blogpost, we want to show you a tip of the iceberg and explain why the answer to this question is more complicated than you might think.

So, let’s start by taking a closer look at the word sustainability. Overall, there are three pillars to consider: the environmental-, economical- and social pillar.

Environmental Sustainability means that we don’t exceed the regenerative capacity of natural resources and that we minimize emission of pollution to the air, water and soil. In developed countries, the regenerative capacity of the natural recourses is already exceeded, whereas in developing countries this is not yet the case. In areas with intensive food production, nutrients, pesticides and heavy metals pollute the soils and can leach into the ground water, causing toxicity of local drinking water. The pollutants can travel by air or water, causing regional- (f.i. acidification) and even global problems (f.i. global warming, loss of biodiversity). Economical Sustainability implies balancing costs and revenues so that a system can sustain, and raises questions like: does everyone have access to affordable food? Can a food production system excluding animal sourced products be profitable enough for farmers? And is our system resilient enough to withstand shocks and external pressures (such as global warming)? Social Sustainability refers to the fact that production systems need to be socially accepted, respectful towards humans and animals, contribute to an honest use of resources, and food security- and safety must be taken into account. So, in order to evolve to a truly sustainable way of eating, we have to make sure that the changes we try to introduce have a broad support base and are beneficial and attainable for all.

As we already said, the planetary boundaries are being crossed because of the way we produce and consume food, and a big percentage of that is caused by the production of livestock. The majority of livestock produces less human edible protein than they consume, which is why about 70% of arable land is currently being used for the production of livestock (land to keep the animals, as well as the land that is needed to produce their feed). Therefore, animals directly compete with humans for food. In other words, it’s always more efficient and sustainable to produce plant-based food directly for human consumption, however efficient your livestock production method may be.

Since the global population is expected to keep rising, in order to provide enough food over the next decades (and if we don't change our diets), we will have to produce 70% more food by 2050, which is neither realistic nor desirable.

Livestock production is growing rapidly all over the world, but the pattern of consumption is very uneven. The main determinant for this consumption is wealth: the richer a country or society, the more meat they consume. In some parts of the world (mainly Africa and South Asia) the meat consumption is very low, whereas the developed countries consume much more animal products than is necessary or even healthy.

And where developed countries have access to a variety of plant-based foods to replace animal protein while maintaining a healthy diet, in other parts of the world people are more dependent on it for their nutrient intake. On top of that, we can see that in the developing countries a lot of households heavily rely on livestock to be able to make a living. In this sense, it would actually be better if some parts of the population would be able to produce and consume more animal products than they do at the moment. Last but not least, food is a highly emotional affair, rooted in traditions and culture. For all these reasons, it would be hard to create a broad social and economical consensus in favor of switching to a completely vegetarian diet.

So maybe it’s better to look for an environmentally sustainable system in which animals can still play a role. In this case, we should try to maximize the positive effects of livestock production and minimize the negative effects.

One way we could do this to evolve to a system in which this feed-food competition is avoided by feeding livestock only with byproducts of crops cultivated for human consumption (i.e. low-opportunity-cost-feedstuff). This could free up 25% of global arable land, which is more than a system without the production of livestock. With this system, we could produce enough animal products to meet the dietary requirements of the global population without crossing the planetary boundaries. To achieve this, developed countries will have to reduce their intake of animal products (replacing the rest of the protein intake by plant-based protein), while there is still room for an increase in consumption in Africa and South Asia.

More and more people have the growing feeling that we have to evolve towards a system in which we produce animal products in a way that is more sustainable for our planet, society and the animals themselves. In order to achieve this goal, we will have to drastically reduce our meat consumption on a global scale. But, as we tried to explain in this blogpost, there is no solution that fits all. We think we can conclude that it’s not necessary to erase all animal products from our diets, but it might be good to start looking at them more as a luxury product again, rather than a daily necessity. If you feel comfortable with a vegetarian lifestyle and as long as you do it in a healthy way, our planet will benefit from it until the balance is restored. But every little change counts, and the fact that you made it to the end of this blogpost shows that you care. Good for you! We hope we can continue to help you make well informed choices in this complicated but exciting journey.

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