By Brian Machovina, Ph.D
Agriculture expansion is the leading driver of natural habitat loss worldwide, but most of this growth is not to produce vegetables, fruits, or grains to be eaten by people. Ecosystems are destroyed overwhelmingly to feed livestock. Livestock production uses a staggering 75% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of earth, making it the largest use of land by mankind. In the Amazon, 70% of the previously forested land is occupied by cattle pasture, and a majority of the remaining deforested portion is utilized to grow crops, like soy, for livestock feed. In Costa Rica, a country heralded for its biodiversity protection, nearly half of the country’s land produces livestock, carved from biodiverse tropical forests.
For generations most the world has eaten diets largely filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains, and a smattering of meat or fish. But the animal-product centered diet of the modern western nations is spreading among cultures around the world. In a recent publication in Science of the Total Environment, Dr. Ken Feeley, Dr. Bill Ripple and I investigated the potential effects of increasing rates of per capita meat consumption on biodiversity. Of the seventeen megadiverse countries – a group of countries that collectively harbor the majority of the Earth's species – fifteen are developing tropical countries and eleven of these have increasing rates of per capita meat production. The results indicate that, in order to meet livestock production demands, the developing tropical megadiverse countries could expand their agricultural areas by an area equivalent to about one-third of the size of the entire United States or 20 times the size of Florida. This expansion will come at a great cost of biodiversity, soil erosion, and pollution.
China will especially have a strong impact as it contains one in five people on Earth and has a relatively-low but rapidly-rising rate of per capita animal product consumption (10% of diet in 1989; 20% in 2009; on trajectory to reach 30% by 2030). If their consumption levels of animal products reach that of the United States (45% of diets), the impact on global ecosystems will be massive.
A rise in meat consumption is not necessary nor is it inevitable. Along with increasing rates of animal product consumption come increased rates of many “diseases of affluence” like heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers. Heart disease is the top killer of Americans and people worldwide, and is largely avoidable by avoiding animal products. Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and plant-based protein sources are much healthier. Eliminating livestock and growing crops only for direct human consumption could increase the amount of calories that can be produced by an estimated 70%. This could feed an additional 4 billion people – significantly more than the projected global population growth of 2–3 billion – all done on existing agricultural lands.
In order to improve human health and decrease the ecological footprint of food, we argue for a goal of significantly reducing the contribution of animal products in the human diet, ideally from a current global average of 20% down to 10% or less. This is roughly equivalent to limiting daily consumption of meat to a portion that is approximately the size of a deck of playing cards or smaller. This would also greatly reduce other environmental impacts of livestock production related to use of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels and biocides. It will also have a major positive impact on climate change as livestock production is a leading contributor of greenhouse gases. As part of my career-long pursuit to help the world make these improvements, my wife and I co-invented Yonanas, which went from obscurity to a hero plant-based kitchen appliance that churns out a dessert with the taste and consistency of ice cream using only frozen fruit. With the right exposure and demand, Yonanas is now available widely in over 50 countries and is gaining more and more popularity each day.
The take home message is this: the single most powerful thing you can do to better your and your family’s health, reduce your environmental footprint, and help save forests and endangered species is to make a simple choice:
Eat more plants. And inspire the rest of the world to do the same.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Machovina, Ph.D is a professor at Florida International University Dept. of Biological Sciences and the Co-Inventor of Yonanas.