Many of us spend a lot of time seeking out the healthiest foods so we can thrive. Yet our food choices have profound consequences far beyond our personal health. The perils facing the world may seem beyond our influence, but when we change our diet for the better, we don’t just change our health. We change the world!
For example, in the early 2000s, according to a World Bank report, biofuel production drove global food prices up 75 percent, dwarfing the effect of weather changes, drought, and other factors. The impact was so severe that Jean Ziegler, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on food policy, called the diversion of crops to biofuels “a crime against humanity.”
What he didn’t mention is that eight times as many crops were fed to chickens, pigs, and other farm animals, so that humans can eat meat. If we are going to be concerned about wasted crops for biofuels, shouldn’t we be even more concerned with this much larger diversion of food to animals?
It is natural to think that feeding global crops to animals is not a problem, because we then eat the animals. But the vast majority of the calories and protein we feed to farmed animals doesn’t get converted to edible meat. Instead, it is used by the animal simply living as she grows her entire body – including bone, feathers, and organs – to slaughter weight.
This is becoming clear to more and more groups. According to the World Resources Institute, “Even poultry, the most efficient source of meat, convert only around 11 percent of gross feed energy into human food according to the most comprehensive [scientific] methods.”
So you need to feed a chicken 9 calories to get 1 calorie from the animal’s flesh at slaughter. Put another way, in order to sustain yourself on 2,000 calories of plant-based foods, you simply eat 2,000 calories. However, if you want to sustain yourself on 2,000 calories of chicken, you first need 18,000 calories of animal feed. That’s 800% food waste.
It as if we had nine plates of food ready to serve our growing population, but instead, we just throw away eight of the plates. These numbers are even worse for turkey, pork, and beef.
The Worldwatch Institute explains that “grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world’s poor.” And Oxfam America writes, “Eating less meat is a simple way to reduce the pressure on global resources and help ensure that everyone has enough to eat. To say it simply, eating less meat helps fight hunger.”
Just as with biofuel production, feeding crops to animals is worse than just wasteful. Yes, by eating meat, we lose at least eight out of every nine calories we grow. But by not feeding these crops directly to people, we drive up the cost of the remaining crops even further, exacerbating malnutrition and starvation around the world. It was this impact on the cost of grains – and thus global malnutrition and starvation – that lead U.N. Rapporteur Ziegler to call biofuels a crime against humanity. It’s also why we should be at least as concerned with the practice of feeding crops to animals.
This inherent inefficiency also leads to the overuse of many other limited resources. If we are growing nine times more calories than people are actually consuming, we are using nine times more land, nine times more water, nine times more fertilizer, and nine times more pesticides and herbicides. We’re using nine times more fossil fuels to plant, harvest, and ship all these extra crops. And then, we’re using more fossil fuels to run the factory farms, and still more to ship the animals to energy-intensive slaughterhouses.
Yet the full impacts of eating meat from animals are wider and much worse. Research by UN scientists found that raising animals for food is one of the top contributors to every single one of the most severe environmental problems plaguing us – from water pollution to desertification to deforestation to loss of biodiversity to climate change.
The climate impact of our current animal agricultural system is perhaps the most surprising. When we think about global warming, we often think first about our cars, with the solution being to drive less or buy a hybrid car. But animal agriculture actually causes more climate change than every plane, train, and automobile in the world combined.
Perhaps an even greater threat than any of those already discussed is the widespread use of antibiotics on filthy factory farms, which leads to more and more antibiotic-resistant superbugs. These superbugs could cost the world $100 trillion by 2050.
A review by the UK government found that the threat to the human race from deadly new drug-resistant disease strains is “more certain” than the threat from climate change.
It may not seem like it when looking at a crispy chicken sandwich, but there is no way around it: our current system of raising and slaughtering animals for meat is a scourge on our planet and a threat to our very future.
What we hope we’ve made clear in these four days of essays is that there is a vastly better way to get protein than meat: clean protein (and if we haven’t convinced you, we hope you consider the full case in our book, Clean Protein: The Revolution that Will Reshape Your body, Boost Your Energy—and Save Our Planet).
Today, we can optimize and thrive! We have everything from inexpensive yet satisfying beans to the latest juicy plant-based Tofurky, Impossible Foods, or Beyond Meat product – and everything in between!