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Vegetarianism is heavily promoted. But let's say all people on Earth stop eating animal products. Can we grow enough crops so all people on the Earth are provided with enough healthy, nutritious food?

The question is of course very theoretical, but without discussing future possibilities to cultivate deserts and oceans, is there enough space to grow enough crops?

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In accordance with Jevons Paradox the efficient production of food leads to greater overall consumption of food. An abundance of food enables population to grow, which in turn makes food less abundant. Also, consider that the power of ruling classes historically arises from an ability to control the distribution of food (and in modern times, energy). That is to say, power grows from the credible threat to withdraw the means of survival. –  bmcnett Apr 13 '11 at 19:48
Why is this relevant, if most of developed countries suffer from overproduction of food, and the problem is rather obesity, than malnutrition? –  vartec Jan 17 '12 at 14:13
@bmcnett: if Jevons Paradox would apply to food, then USA would have to have population of at least 500 mln by now. –  vartec Jan 17 '12 at 16:18
I'm not at all convinced that Jevons paradox applies. That would suggest that scarcity of grains/fruit/vegetables is the primary constraint on human population growth. I'm not ruling that out, but I would like to see some evidence before I believed that. –  Oddthinking Apr 6 '12 at 1:19
@Oddthinking It should be self evident that the paradox applies when lack of food is the limiting factor. The situation in the developed world right now is different...growth is limited by restricted immigration and a set of cultural norms that generate sub-replacement birth rates. –  dmckee Apr 6 '12 at 1:41
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up vote 33 down vote accepted

The production of meat is much less efficient than the production of the crops the animals eat. If you would use all the grain to feed people directly instead of producting meat, it has been estimated that the US could feed about 800 million people with that grain.

One paper about "Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment" states that

For every 1 kg of high-quality animal protein produced, livestock are fed about 6 kg of plant protein.

The production of meat is clearly less efficient than directly producing and eating plants.

So it would be much easier to feed the world population on a vegetarian diet than with a meat-rich diet.

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I have heard say the exact opposite. In fact, cattle can process grain much more efficiently than we can, and they can process other resources that humans cannot use at all. Using meat as an intermediary may be inefficient but the detour actually makes more energy resources available to humans than we would otherwise have. Unfortunately I don’t have a good source for this (otherwise I’d post this as an answer) but I find this answer implausible and I’m not convinced by a non peer-reviewed press release. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 9 '11 at 10:06
Cows may be able to process grain more efficiently than humans, but even if that were the case it's a two step process - cows process (eat) the grain and we process (eat) the cows. The combination of the two processes is much less efficient than eating the grain. –  DJClayworth Mar 9 '11 at 15:48
@Konrad The press release is about a peer reveiwed scientific paper. A link to another paper with very similar content and by the same author is here: ajcn.org/content/78/3/660S.full –  DJClayworth Mar 9 '11 at 15:53
@vartec The question was whether it was possible, not whether you personally would enjoy it. You may not approve of vegetarians, but they live full healthy lives. –  DJClayworth Mar 20 '12 at 13:10
The answer isn't saying that we need to live only on grains. It isn't even claiming that we need to abolish meat. It just states that by substituting grains (and other plants) for meat we can easily increase the amount of food available so that we can feed everyone. –  DJClayworth Mar 21 '12 at 19:38
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It's actually more of an economic question than an environmental one*. We already produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, according to diverse sources (from progressive organizations like WorldHunger.org and the World Socialist Movement to very pro-capitalist groups). The number of acres needed to feed 1 million people has been shrinking drastically over the past two centuries, so no need to cultivate deserts. Land isn't the limiting factor; we actually have vastly more fertile land than is needed to nourish the current global population. Acreage isn't the problem.

The problem isn't a lack of supply, it's a failure of distribution, of which the majority can be attributed to:

  1. Localized lack of prosperity (not the same as scarcity, BTW)
  2. Intentional empoverishment

Intentional empoverishment is deliberate deprivation caused by the ruling class, e.g. grain rotting in relief depots because a leader's forces prevent their distribution to the people. Not much you can do about that short of using military force to overthrow such tyrannical leaders. Even then, if the raw ingredients for a stable government aren't already there, you'd just be throwing things even deeper into chaos. There are no easy answers there.

Localized lack of prosperity is another matter. Scarcity is only relative, since prosperity can overcome scarcity (houses in Arizona have running water, for example). Prosperity is the result of wealth being created, which happens when -- and only when -- someone produces, provisions or invents a good or service that others value at greater than its production cost. This phenomenon is why 80% of the United States poor have air conditioning now, whereas only 36% of all US residents had it in 1970. The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, or Athens. You can't explain the relative wealth of the United States by natural resources -- we don't export that much of those. It's not land either; Africa has more fertile land than the US does, so why is it that the US sends food to Africa instead of vice-versa?

Redistribution of already-produced wealth is one solution, but it's really only a band-aid. If everyone stops producing, everyone starves, no matter how many times you pass around the previous earnings. Confiscate all of the world's gold, distribute it pro-rated to the world's poor in proportion with their need, and in a few years it would all be right back in the hands of the people you confiscated it from. A person might temporarily grow in wealth by acquiring some of what was produced by others, but a collective gains wealth only by growing their ability to produce what others value. When that happens continually over extended periods, average people end up holding "video-communicator information banks" in their hands which are far more powerful and capable than anything comic strip authors and sci-fi shows imagined just a few decades earlier.

The efforts that are most likely to succeed at feeding the world have little to do with food production. The micro-loan movement in charities is probably the most effective weapon we have: By seeding mini economies that can begin to grow, you empower local communities to begin creating wealth and prospering, which in turn empowers them to secure a greater abundance of food (or whatever was previously scarce). As soon as those in need can start prospering, food (and any goods that are in demand) will find their way to them, and the cycle of poverty will start losing its hold on those areas.

* There is a separate question of enviornmental efficiency, i.e. how many fertile acres would be needed, and at what level of external environmental impact. Both could always improve, but today's levels of both could feed the earth's population, and that was the question.

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Please provide some references to support your claims. –  Oddthinking Apr 6 '12 at 1:21
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The question is invalid, as we already produce way more than enough food. There is no more "world hunger" problem due insufficient food production. Currently much greater problem is an epidemic of obesity.

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The lowest calorie intake is in sub-Saharan Africa, where on average people eat 2,176 calories per person per day. Highest in US with a average of 3,654 calories. World average is 2800 calories. (source: "EarthTrends: Nutrition: Calorie supply per capita". World Resources Institute.).

Healthy calorie intakes is defined as between 2000 and 2500, USDA recommends 2000 calories. Thus even in most "hunger stricken" zones of the world, people eat on average more than USDA recommendation. World average is way above upper limit of healthy diet.

Of course these are averages, the problem isn't production, it's distribution of goods. In the fattest nation of the world, where food industry produces about 4,000 calories per person per day, there are 30 mln people experiencing hunger and few thousands who die annually of malnutrition (source: LiveStrong). Clearly, no one in right mind would argue, that there isn't enough food in US.

You also have to take in account, that significant progress has been made in last decades. According to Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study, in metric of increased risk of death, child malnutrition has dropped from 6th position in 1990 to 16th in 2010, with a overall risk drop of -62%, on the other hand obesity went up from 10th position up to 6th (+60% risk increase). Currently obesity kills 3 times more people than malnutrition.

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I've offered up some minor edits and would also suggest changing "There is no more "world hunger" problem" by adding "due to insufficient food". There are hungry, even desperately hungry people around, especially in the less developed areas of the world. –  dmckee Mar 4 '13 at 4:48
I asked mayoclinic.com/health/calorie-calculator/NU00598 for a male, age 30, "very active": the result is 2500 calories/day for a 5'4" 140lb man, or 2800 calories/day for a 6'1" 175lb man. I am not sure how this affects your argument, but "USDA recommends 2000 calories" is not IMO applicable to people who work themselves for living. (I needed more than 2800/day to sustain me year-round, when I bicycled 2 hours/day.) I cannot dispute your conclusion, that it's a problem of distribution not production, but I also don't see how to reach that conclusion from the argument you made. –  ChrisW Jul 22 '13 at 16:04
@ChrisW: Not everybody is a coal miner or professional athlete, most people fall in to either "inactive" or "somewhat active" categories. Even in Africa. –  vartec Jul 22 '13 at 16:13
@vartec Because subsistence farming, or laboring in a commercial plantation, just means sitting in an air-conditioned tractor all day? Even first-world farmers are abnormally active imho. –  ChrisW Jul 22 '13 at 16:18
@ChrisW: farmers are just few percent of the population. –  vartec Jul 22 '13 at 16:23
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This question is a very contentious one as it relies upon a lot of variables that are largely poorly understood.

The first part is arable land mass. Currently animal production is focussed on either high value grazing areas or low value extensive areas. Extensive grazing areas cannot be cropped. That area of production would have to be made up by increased crop production in other areas. 56% of Australia is extensive agriculture, worldwide it is ~5,000,000,000 hectares. That is a large amount of low production land to make up for.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v478/n7369/full/nature10452.html "Simply put, we can increase food availability (in terms of calories, protein and critical nutrients) by shifting crop production away from livestock feed, bioenergy crops and other non-food applications..... But even small changes in diet (for example, shifting grain-fed beef consumption to poultry, pork or pasture-fed beef) and bioenergy policy (for example, not using food crops as biofuel feedstocks) could enhance food availability and reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture."

Also, the areas quoted vary so much, because the figures are not fully understood. Cropping land is rarely cropped every year, instead rotated or rested at intervals, dependant upon crop type, soil type and amount of water/rainfall. Some countries just don't have accurate records.

The second part is feed conversion. There are methods, such as mixed enterprise systems (crops plus grazing) and of course feedlotting that use grain feeding. The feedlotting is what people refer to the most, not understanding that cattle have a much higher energy conversion rate for vegetable matter than humans (being ruminants) and are not regularly fed for their entire lives. Thus grazing remains a large part of production.

Humans also preferentially eat higher protein foods like meat (see rise in meat demands from Asia with increasing wealth). This is because it is more calorically and nutritionally dense as a food, which is linked to satiety.

The third part is grain types. Most grains that are fed to animals are what is referred to in the grains industry as "feed grains". These are generally lower quality grains that are unsuitable for human food production. Some of the grains used cannot be eaten by humans (e.g. lupins have high alkaloid levels that give both a bitter taste and become toxic when consumed regularly). Obviously the category of feed grain varies from "could be used" through to "cannot be used" for humans. This is once again a shorfall in the production required to replace meat in the diet. Remembering that feed crops are often grown where human crops cannot be grown, or not grown regularly (e.g. see wheat classes and agronomy).

These factors combine to create quite a different picture than what is normally presented in the "can we grow enough crops to replace meat eating" discussion. There would be less land available for cropping than is available for producing a mixed diet. There would be crops produced that would not be suitable for human consumption. We would also need slightly higher production or quality of crops to make up the energy conversion gap. This all makes for a large hole in the argument.


Info on ME and DE for humans: http://fao.org/DOCREP/006/Y5022E/y5022e04.htm

This paper covers come of the conversion ratios for different animals that are grain fed (Cattle 7:1, Pigs 4:1, Chicken 2:1): http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240832

Another reference for the protein claims: http://sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301622699000196

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Thank you, Tim. :) –  Sklivvz Jan 18 '12 at 2:44
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Meat production is highly resource intensive. A non-vegetarian meal will use several times more land, water and labour to produce than its vegetarian counterpart.

To produce 1kg of Beef approx 16,000 litres of water is needed. Compare that to 130 litres of water needed to produce 1kg of lettuce. Agriculture uses 60% of all the freshwater on the planet. So water is quite a scarce resource and meat production uses a LOT of it.

For every 1kg of meat produced several kilograms of grain have to be fed to the slaughtered animal. The land used for producing those several kilograms of grain can satisfy far more vegetarian people than non-vegetarians. Meat production is causing deforestation as we have not enough land to satisfy our needs.

If these resources were diverted to vegetable and fruit production, we could be feeding many billions of people better than we are right now.

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Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims that agriculture uses 60% of all freshwater on the planter and that we could be feeding many billions of people better than now. –  Oddthinking Mar 4 '13 at 1:59
The numbers are probably true but irrelevant: for humans, 1kg of grain doesn’t have the same caloric and nutritional value as 1kg of beef. Furthermore, livestock can be fed with plants cultivated on soil that wouldn’t be usable for human-consumable grain. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 4 '13 at 10:21
in fact we can raise lifestock on land that is unsuitable for any other form of agriculture. That's what happens in for example south America, where large herds of cattle roam semi-free, feeding on naturally occurring vegetation, and are herded together every few weeks or months when the animals to be slaughtered, sold, or bred are selected and removed from the population. Those areas are unsuitable for the intensive agriculture that would be needed to grow crops yielding close to the same yield in calories when fed to human beings. –  jwenting Aug 22 '13 at 12:28
Insects are more efficient than cattle, and probably not as fussy as humans, either. Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security –  Cees Timmerman Jan 18 at 1:40
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