Want to Fight Global Hunger and Save the Environment? Cut Back on Meat

April 28, 2016

Earlier this week, researchers revealed some devastating news about food insecurity in the United States: it isn’t going away. In fact, one in five children live in food insecure households.

While hunger in America is certainly debilitating,  food insecurity here is more an issue of accessing nutritious and healthy food, rather than getting enough calories to stay alive. It’s true: Even the poorest American families can generally get enough to eat to stay alive, whether it’s through food pantries, the goodwill of neighbors, or ordering off the dollar menu at the drive-thru window.

But elsewhere—especially in the developing world—hunger is more dire. In these countries, famine, agricultural challenges, and extreme poverty have severely limited the amount of food, making starvation much more prevalent. The exploding global population presents an added challenge, putting pressure on farmers worldwide to ramp up production to keep up with new demand.

But rather than exporting massive amounts of chemicals and genetically engineered seeds—all owned by large agricultural corporations—a new paper from the World Resources Institute offers a surprising recipe for a more productive, more sustainable world food system: become more vegan.

In the paper titled “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Future”, the co-authors focus on the nutrition choices humans make and their impact on the food supply and the planet. In order to feed the estimated 9.7 billion people expected to populate the earth in the next several decades, the world needs to fill a huge “food gap.” That is, we’ll need approximately 70 percent more “crop calories” by 2050 than we did in 2006.

Achieving this goal is not only going to take more efficient and productive agricultural practices, but also a change in personal dietary choices. Here’s a rundown of the report’s key findings:

We should all eat less animal protein

The paper reveals that even in developing countries, people’s diets are trending toward overconsumption of calories, and specifically animal proteins such as beef, eggs, and dairy. With incomes rising worldwide and people moving to cities, the demand for these traditionally less accessible foods has risen.

The body only requires 56 grams of protein per day, but worldwide, humans eat closer to 68 grams per day.  American men may be the worst offenders, consuming twice the average daily protein requirement. As the paper points out, the “gap between the average American’s daily protein needs and the amount they’re already getting from plant sources is less than the equivalent of one chicken breast.”

Animal-based foods drain more resources

Raising cattle for beef or dairy requires more land and produces more greenhouse gases than other sources of protein, like beans, peas, and lentils. And choosing sustainably raised, grass-fed dairy or beef doesn’t give you an excuse. “When it comes to resource use and environmental impacts,” the authors write, “the type of food eaten matters as much, if not more, than how that food is produced.”

First, we should cut back on or eliminate beef

Why? Beef is extremely inefficient to produce, the paper says, compared to the amount of protein it provides humans. And it’s using up an ever-increasing amount of the earth’s land—a full quarter of it!—leaving an enormous environmental footprint.

Small changes can make a big difference

If the world’s 2 billion “high consumers” (those who eat more animal protein on average than the rest of the population) cut their meat and dairy consumption by 40 percent, the paper states, we could save a land area twice the size of India and avoid releasing 168 billion tons of greenhouse gases.

Take the first step by choosing your protein sources based on the environmental impact of their production and overall cost to produce—not just how good they taste or how easy they are to find. The World Resource Institute has even built a “Protein Scorecard” to help you make these decisions.

No one’s forcing you to give up steaks for good. Next time, maybe just choose the tenderloin instead of the T-bone.

Photo credit: Stocksy

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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