As the world’s population increases and the planet’s temperature rises, many are pointing to animal agriculture as a leading cause of climate change, said Dr Robin White from the Virginia State University.
White said animal agriculture can and must become a significantly more sustainable industry. Much of her research focuses on sustainable beef production that considers human and animal nutrition as well as climate change, social justice, animal welfare and the impact of emerging ag-tech.
“We are expected to reach over nine billion people within 30 years and the estimates for the 2100 population are as high as 11 billion people or perhaps higher,” said White. “However, we’re also expecting changes in the demographics of that population.
”Economies in developing countries are beginning to mature, and incomes are rising, said White. “Historically, as people’s incomes rise, their demand for animal products also rises. The projections suggest that we’re looking at something like a 70 per cent increase in demand for animal protein products on a global scale.”
Though this growth in demand will allow people the opportunity to grow markets and expand their businesses, the issue is that there is only so much land and water that the planet can provide. Beyond that, many countries are making commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and White said livestock products are often associated with high emissions of greenhouse gases.
“It’s really our population that’s causing our environmental problems — it’s not necessarily the food production system,” said White. “If animal agriculture was the major driver of increasing environmental impact over the last several years, we would expect to see their numbers to be much higher, which is just not supported by the data.
” A lot of White’s work deals with the environmental impacts of having global plant-based diets in order to understand whether the benefits of stopping the production of animal products outweigh the potential health risks to populations.
In one of her charts, White estimates that if animals were eliminated from agriculture, the production of legumes would need to triple, and there would need to be five times the production of nuts. There would also be a large increase in grain production.
“The question then arises whether the planet can sustain so much more nut and plant production,” said White.
This change in diet could pose a health risk for the population, especially those who are already vulnerable, like the elderly, growing children, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
White said the population’s intake of important micronutrients, like B12, calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin D, would be greatly decreased.
Another issue is that many plants and non-animal foods can’t be grown just anywhere, so the possibility of having a global plant-based diet is simply not feasible due to these limitations.
White said there would not be that much of a decrease in greenhouse gases, especially when because the population would also be losing a great deal of micronutrients.
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