THE LATEST REPORT FROM THE UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a 2% drop in the world's agricultural crop yield every 10 years until the end of the century. There are dire warnings of food shortages.
If the threat of food insecurity concerns us then consider the part meat production plays. The majority of the world's farm animals are now intensively reared. 70% of the world's soya, a third of all cereal and about one quarter of the global fish catch is used to feed them. It takes 4 kg of feed to make 1 kg of pig meat. Lamb and beef need between 7 and 9 kg of feed to make 1kg of meat. For broiler chickens the ratio is 1.6 kg of feed to 1 kg of body weight. In short: rearing animals in intensive systems wastes more food than it produces.
It is obvious that the land used to grow fodder for animals could be used to grow food for humans and that the fish currently used as animal feed could be used for human consumption. Add to this the manure which pollutes on a massive scale; that intensively reared animals - which are kept alive with antibiotics - are intrinsically unhealthy and make unhealthy food; and that any claim to humane animal welfare standards is a travesty, then it seems the only winners in this production process are the agribusiness conglomerates.
That is not to say that all meat production is profligate. On extensive systems farm animals can be reared on land that is unsuitable for arable crops. And on rotation systems crops and grazing are alternated, the animals put out on land where crops have grown. Their manure fertilises the land and helps recondition the soil so that water and nutrients are retained - a cycle that is natural and sustainable, its long term viability assured. The antithesis to rotation is monoculture, the system that is used to grow animal feed for intensively reared animals. In mono-cropping the same crop is grown on the same land year after year and on a massive scale. Growth depends on chemicals - pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers. The run-off from agrochemicals - together with the nitrogen leached from intensively farmed animal manures - have become a major source of freshwater pollution. Meanwhile nutrients in the land are depleted. The soil structure is destroyed making it vulnerable to erosion. And the natural ecology is ruined.
By 2050 the world's population is predicted to increase by 20% to 9.1 billion; the global demand for meat is predicted to increase by 50%.
Given this enormous impending growth; the waste involved in rearing animals intensively; the wreaking of havoc on the environment (further complicated by prodigious demands on water and the threat of water shortages); add the expected crop failures due to climate change - then the prospect of a looming food shortage seems more a certainty than a probability. And reducing meat consumption seems obligatory rather than optional.
But eating meat is embodied in our culture: fast food outlets, celebrity chefs, high protein diets, the main religions, the supermarket shelves, government subsidies. They make it seem we cannot survive without it.
Even vegetarians eat food that has been processed to resemble meat - burgers, sausages and mince made from vegetable protein for instance. This is puzzling to many people. But is it any less peculiar to eat meat that is so heavily processed that the only recognisable part seems to be the words that describe it - beef burgers, chicken Kiev, lamb kebab, scampi fries, fish cakes, pork sausages. More often than not these are of dubious quality; the meat mechanically recovered or 'reformed'; plumped up with cereal, water and soya; with countless e-numbers; supplemented with salt, sugar, fats and flavours; and the origin of the meat content often untraceable. We seem to be more in thrall to the vast corporations that push the sales rather than taking any interest in our long term future.
What if we cut down on meat, eating only animals that have been reared outside in a natural way? What if Macdonald's and all the other fast food outlets produced burgers, or poultry pieces, or kebabs based on plant protein but which were a perfect imitation of their real meat counterparts? What if we changed to sandwiches and pies that had the whole range of meat flavours but were based on vegetables, grains or pulses? Would not this be the way to a future in which natural resources would be revitalised and the food supply considerably more likely to be secure for a world population 25% greater than it is now?