By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

A world forced into vegetarianism?

When I saw that headline on a story in The Guardian, it was like I’d been waiting for it. It struck me as both amusing, in its implication that vegetarianism would be a tough fate even though we’d likely be healthier for it, and also as an inevitability, with which I’d already come to terms.

But the story itself is not funny.

Here was the lead paragraph:

Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.

That’s right, water may soon dictate how, what and whether we can eat. And one sensible path to the future would take us toward a more plant-based diet, and away from water- inefficient meat production.

We’ve been hearing about the inefficiencies of our meat-based diet for several years now, but have taken little heed. The coming, much-warned of water crisis, like climate change, has failed to win concerted global action.

But it’s not difficult to see that reducing the water used in agriculture needs to be on top of the agenda. Food production requires a lot of water, and animal agriculture requires the most water, five to 10 times that needed for an all-vegetarian system, according to the report cited in The Guardian article, Feeding a Thirsty World: Challenges and Opportunities for a Water and Food Secure Future.

Feeding cattle (or pigs and chickens) takes mountains of grain, and that grain requires a tons of water often from man-made irrigation that increasingly taps aquifers and reservoirs as climate change produces crop-busting droughts and heat waves. The picture of where this all ends up doesn’t involve stranded polar bears, but billions of starving people. And we already have nearly a billion in food and water “insecure” situations.

But back to our livestock. They’re also consuming volumes of water directly, as well as indirectly from their grain, though they’re certainly entitled and thirsty standing around those crowded feedlots.

Compared to the plant foods (grains, produce, fruits) that can be moved from field to fork, as they say, animal agriculture requires many more steps, requiring more energy and more water. The grain is transported to the animals, and later the animals are moved to the slaughterhouse, and then the meat is moved into refrigerated storage, and possibly somewhere else for additional processing etc., until it’s slapped onto a grill somewhere in the world.

Suffice it to say, a lot of energy, and water are devoted to those steaks and hamburgers that we eat so much of in America, Europe, Australia and to a lesser extent, around the world. (Beef consumption has declined slightly in the last couple years. But will that decline continue as McDs and others export water-intensive dining to the rest of the globe?)

So that’s the old news. We know that, though we’re not paying much attention. What the scientists in the study did was to look at how global demand for water will grow over the coming decades as the world population rises to an expected 9 billion humans, eating an increasingly “Westernized” diet.

One way humans could survive on the planet, they concluded, would be to cut back on meat protein by about 75 percent.

Right now, we humans get about 20 percent of our protein from animals. If we could drop that to around 5 percent we may be able to sustain the human population and cope with regional water shortages, according to the scientists’ calibrations.

In their words:

The analysis showed that there will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in Western
nations (3,000 kcal produced per capita, including 20 per cent of calories produced coming from animal proteins). There will, however, be just enough water, if the proportion of animal based foods is limited to
5 per cent of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a well organised and reliable system of food trade.

In addition to saving water, a wholesale switch to a more plant-based diet would free up arable land, about a third of which is dedicated to animal agriculture across the globe.

The report, put out by the Stockholm International Water Institute, was released as the annual world water conference in Stockholm, Sweden, opens. The forum will include politicians, non-profits and researchers from 120 countries.
In addition to a vegetarian diet, the report highlighted the need to reduce consumer food waste and capture all the food from harvests; and to reuse wastewater and use fecal waste as a resource in agriculture.

The report, part of a series of articles on water issues, also discussed how those people who live in a “culture of abundance” could help by valuing food.

With an abundance of food, consumers are accustomed to choose from shelves burgeoning with subsidised food items, accessible around the clock. This makes it easier and less costly to
waste and overeat, and provides less incentive to cut down on waste and to enjoy a sustainable diet. Few realise that the price on the tag of the items in the shop is only part of the real price. Another part is paid
by taxes (to cover subsidies), and the environmental costs are left invisible to the consumer.

The kicker? Eating a more mindful, mostly vegetarian diet would not only be better for the planet, providing for more equitable distribution of wealth, it would, by many accounts, be better for our health. It may also soon be a prescription for peace.

Copyright © 2012 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network