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Agriculture: What If Everyone Was Vegan?

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World Vegetarian Day and Agriculture
Dr. Olaf Zinke, agricultural today
on Thursday, 10/01/2020 - 05:00 (183 comments)

What would agriculture look like if the world were vegan? What would be produced and what would the prices be?

The fact is: The number of vegans that feels is probably much larger than the real one. That is certainly also due to the representation in the media and probably also to the current social trends.

But today is Global Vegetarian Day - and one can ask the question: What if everyone were vegan - or at least vegetarian - and what does that mean for agriculture?

The good thing is that some scientists and experts have already thought about this. And they have come to interesting results.

One of the first to look into the subject was Marco Springmann from Oxford University. In a large study in 2016, he examined the consequences of a comprehensive change in diet for the climate, health and the environment.

An area the size of Africa?

So just assume once: The Sunday roast is no longer available, French fries are eaten without currywurst and the steak is replaced by a tofu sausage or a piece of “vegetable meat” from Beyond Meat.

Springmann says: If all livestock disappeared, around 33 million square kilometers (that is 3.3 billion hectares) more land would be available for cultivation. That is an area larger than the entire African continent. With an area of ​​30 million km², Africa is about three times the size of Europe (10 million km²). In total, that would be 22 percent of the earth's total land area.

The German agricultural economist Harald Grethe has calculated that even a 30 percent reduction in meat in the OECD countries would free up around 30 million hectares of arable land.

Of course, the question immediately arises whether these areas could even be used for growing plant-based food. Springmann says whether these areas are really suitable for growing plant-based foods depends in the long term on how much work is put into soil management and irrigation.

Alternatives would also be the cultivation of new, resource-saving biofuels or the establishment of protected areas in order to improve biodiversity.

Arable and grain prices are plummeting

"But that is too easy to think," says Martin Hofstetter, agriculture expert at Greenpeace. “The fact that people go hungry these days is hardly due to the fact that a lot of meat is eaten elsewhere. It's because they have too little purchasing power, their government is selfish or corrupt, or that they get bad harvests due to weather phenomena. "

The latter, however, is linked to climate change. And there is one more important aspect: If animal production were to be discontinued, the prices for agricultural land as well as for grain and other vegetable products would fall considerably.

"30 percent of the world's grain is currently fed to pigs and poultry," says Hofstetter. "If this 30 percent is free, the price drops - albeit not limitlessly, because if grain becomes too cheap compared to energy prices, it can also be used for heating."

In particular, the very poor residents of large cities in developing countries would benefit from a lower grain price. "Because these people eat little meat anyway and would be better able to afford bread, rice or corn cakes."

Two thirds of the proceeds come from animal production

For farmers - both in Europe and in developing and emerging countries - such a price development would be very disadvantageous - especially since the income from animal production would be lost. In Germany, almost two thirds of all agricultural income comes from the production of milk and meat. Around 24 percent of this comes from milk production. The revenue ratio in retail should not be much different.

Andrew Jarvis from the International Center for Tropical Agricultural Research in Colombia also says that the elimination of animal production would be a double-edged sword: “In developed countries, vegetarianism would certainly have a number of positive environmental and health effects. In developing countries, however, it would worsen poverty. ”Because livestock husbandry is a major contributor to income in many poorer countries.

And that's not the last problem: even if you wanted to, you couldn't turn all pastures into arable land. The reason: "It is not uncommon for cattle to use areas that humans cannot manage otherwise," says Hofstetter. "Even at certain altitudes, grain can no longer be grown, and some slopes are too steep to even be cultivated as arable land."

If you wanted to keep dairy cows on these areas as an alternative, you would face new difficulties. Because: On the one hand, the dairy cows are also slaughtered at some point - in Germany on average after three years. And for milk production, the cows have to have a calf every year. However, one of them would be male and therefore only suitable for meat production.

Global development is going in exactly the other direction

With regard to climate change, Marco Springmann's team of researchers has calculated that if the nutritional recommendations of the FAO are followed (i.e. more plant-based food and significantly less meat), food-specific emissions could be reduced by 29 percent worldwide. A vegetarian diet could reduce global emissions by 63 percent and a vegan diet would mean a reduction in emissions by 70 percent - at least in purely mathematical terms.

But the real development is going in a completely different direction: A growing population and increasing prosperity ensure that meat consumption continues to rise. According to FAO forecasts, 70 percent more food (plant and animal) will have to be produced globally than today in order to meet the food requirements of 9 billion people expected in 2050.

From 1970 to 2009, according to FAO information, meat production tripled from just over 100 million tons to around 300 million tons. In terms of proportion, the growth is strongest in China and Asia. But in the USA, too, OECD calculations assume a further increase in production, especially of poultry and pork.

In Europe, production is stagnating or declining moderately. But the production and consumption of meat continues to increase worldwide - the trends towards vegetarian or vegan diets or even to "artificial meat" from the test tube or from plant-based products can do little to change that. Because these trends are mainly limited to the western world and here only to a rather small group.