Less animal meat might feed more

Reducing the intake of animal products could ease global food insecurities.

by Eliana Schreiber

An increase in global meat consumption could have negative impacts for both the environment and people.
A paper published last month by the World Resources Institute found shifting global diets could significantly impact food insecurity and environmental problems, like greenhouse gas emissions. 
The report used projections from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization as a basis for their predictions, said Janet Ranganathan, WRI vice president for science and research and co-author of the study.
The world’s population is expected to increase to 9 billion people by 2050, and the UN predicts 70 percent more food than is currently produced will be needed to close the food gap, Ranganathan said.
The report observed how certain shifts — like eating less animal products or fewer calories — impact agricultural land usage and carbon emissions, Ranganathan said.
“More people on the planet has an influence on the increase in number but small, relative to the demand increasing, due to a shift in diet,” said Paul West, a University of Minnesota co-director and lead scientist of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative.
Clearing lands for pastures and feed to raise animals for meat also contributes to tropical deforestation globally, West said.
“Directly or indirectly, eating meat or increasing a demand for beef and feed for animal products is driving a good part of the forest loss in the tropics every year,” he said.
WRI developed a diagram that includes strategies the food service sector can use to shift people toward plant-based proteins, Ranganathan said.
Previous research shows some types of meat production impact the planet more than others, said Mike Clark, a natural resources postdoctoral candidate at the University. 
“If there’s a single thing to cut out of the diet, it would be beef or goat and sheep meat,” he said.
Wasting meat impacts the environment more than wasting fruits, vegetables or other food groups because of the calories wasted in the process, West said.
More than one-third of all calories produced in crop lands never end up on the table because they’re used for feed for animal products or become fuels, West said.
In 91 percent of countries, people consume on average more protein than their recommended dietary allowances, Ranganathan said. In developed countries, this number is even higher, she said.
“And yet … our perception is that people aren’t getting enough protein,” she said.
Instead of eating meat every day, U Students Like Good Food President Evelina Knodel tries to limit herself to only eating meat once or twice a week, which allows her to buy better quality products.
“It’s a matter of maybe not cutting [meat] out completely but just being more choosey about the kinds of meat that you’re getting,” she said.
Minneapolis-based Wedge Co-op encourages its consumers to think critically about the environmental impacts of their food, brand marketing director Jessica Pierce said.
In their latest newsletter, the Wedge explained the new dietary guidelines and the impact that the standard American diet — one rich in animal-based protein — has on the planet.
The newsletter recommended consuming a variety of proteins, eating local food whenever possible and trying to go vegetarian a few days a week.
While the WRI report acknowledges the importance of eating more plant-based proteins, it doesn’t suggest the entire population should shift to vegetarianism, Ranganathan said.
“What our paper talks about is not just how the food was produced; it’s that what food you actually consume can have an enormous impact on your footprint,” she said.