Americans love their meat, with the average person consuming roughly 198 lbs (90 kg) of pork, beef and chicken every year. The global average is considerably less, at around 75 lbs (34 kg) per year, but not everyone is a meat lover, as around 5% of the world’s population choose to be vegetarian. In the USA, close to 5% of people choose this lifestyle compared to 12% of Bris and 30% of Indians. With the majority of the population currently consuming meat and enjoying burgers, ribs, bacon, wings, and steak on a daily basis, what would happen if everyone just stopped? How would it affect the economy, our livelihoods, the environment, and our health? That’s what we’re going to look into:
It is estimated by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) that the meat industry brings $894 billion to the US economy with $95 billion of that being for beef alone. 800,000 people are employed in the meat and poultry business in the US, and millions worldwide, so a sudden turn to vegetarianism would mean a huge loss of jobs. It would, at the same time, create jobs in different fields. Moving into a meat-free lifestyle would have a significant impact on the world’s economy, with the meat industry being perceived in value of up to $1.6 trillion by 2050.
The social impacts of global vegetarianism could be devastating for many communities. Currently, around 1 billion people dedicate their lives to tending to livestock and lands or working in meat factories, so if we stopped eating meat, their livelihoods would be stripped from them, losing their income and lands. What work could they do instead? Many may take to growing and selling fruit, vegetables or wheat crops, or finding another source of income. The poor could be hit hard with their diet no longer including the nutrition that they get from meat with animal products containing many more nutrients than grains and rice. There are many cultural and religious traditions that include meat as a focal point, which would no longer exist or would have to be altered due to a vegetarian lifestyle. Many of the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha every year as part of the Islamic calendar and as part of this tradition, a goat or sheep is slaughtered and some of the meat is offered to poor and needy families. In the USA, a longstanding tradition is having a turkey on the table for Thanksgiving dinner, but in a meat-free environment, what would be the feature food on our plates? Tofurkey?.
In a vegetarian world, our environment would be much better off, leaving way to a healthier and cleaner planet for future generations. Livestock production and the meat industry is thought to be one of the biggest contributors to climate change, with a larger impact on the planet than anything else, as 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the human activity of meat production. Most people do not even think about the effect food has on climate change, but if we stopped eating meat, we would be doing our planet a favour with gas emissions being reduced significantly. Meat production emits much higher gas emissions than fruit and vegetable production, and research has shown that the production of beef is so environmentally destructive that it causes 5 times more climate warming emissions than other animals. In the US, an average family of four emit more greenhouse gases due to the meat they consume than from having two cars on the road. With the sudden change to vegetarianism and the elimination of meat, our food related emissions could drop by up to 60-70%.
Another major environmental cost of meat production is water usage, with livestock consuming more of our water than anything else, and also being one of the largest causes of polluted water. The total water footprint for one pound of beef is 200 times that of one pound of plant foods. One kilo of beef requires 15,000 litres of water before it arrives on your dinner plate, while a roast chicken would take up 4,325 litres. Globally there are millions of people that do not have access to clean drinking water, so if there were less livestock to feed, there would be a lot more water to go around.
According to Dutch scientists, there are currently 2.7 billion hectares of land being used for cattle grazing with between 20-30% of the globe’s ice-free land solely for farming pigs, chicken and cattle. Another 100 million hectares on top of that are dedicated to growing the crops that feed the livestock. In the US, around 700 million tons of food are consumed by livestock alone each year, which could actually be given to humans instead to help combat world hunger, which could be eliminated with an estimated 40 million tons of food. Global vegetarianism could free up this land currently used by livestock, and even though a lot of it would not be suitable for habitation for humans, some of it could be used to cater to the growing global population, to grow more plants, and to lead way for other innovative ways to use the land.
56 billion animals are farmed and killed each year for human consumption with many being kept alive by a steady diet of drugs so they withstand the stressful and unsanitary farming conditions. At any time of year, there are approximately 20 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, 1 billion pigs, and 1 billion sheep in farms and factories around the world – that is three times the amount of humans and they are all there to feed us. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of animals that require land for grazing is growing by 25 million each year. Factory farmed animals are full of diseases and can be a breeding ground for new strains of viruses and superbugs. By eliminating these factory farms, we could lower the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria and diseases such as Mad Cow Disease being released into our environment.
Another point to consider would be that without meat to provide all-important protein in our diets, what would be our primary source? Fortunately, there are many alternatives. Soybeans are historically known as ‘meat without bones’ and contain 35% protein, meaning it is a quality protein source. There is a current perception that vegetarians drain the world’s plant sources but in fact most of the soybean crops and grains grown go to livestock. Other ways we could get a healthy dose of daily protein would be to eat more peas, nuts, beans, quinoa, greens and buckwheat. Dairy milk and chicken eggs are also an excellent source, provided that milk and egg farms would still be in operation.
So, what do you think? Would the world benefit from a global vegetarian diet? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!