Ultimate consequences cannot be ignored

Elimination of animal agriculture might reduce GHG emissions to some extent but would ultimately end up with more people going hungry.

Dr. Nevil Speer

November 27, 2018

4 Min Read
Ultimate consequences cannot be ignored

Every family has their inside jokes and humorous phrases they use regularly. None of them really makes sense to anyone outside of the household (no matter how hard you try explaining it). Best of all, many of those sayings often stem from something their kids blurted out when they were small - especially during the magical years of pretending.

One of our favorites stems from when my daughter was about 4-years-old. The broader circumstances don’t matter (you had to be there), but she was in the middle of an important (pretend) demonstration and with great authority she said, “You just go like that.” The phrase has stuck ever since.

Of course, she didn’t fully understand what she was telling us –- but that’s the great fun of those early years. For us, that phrase now gets applied whenever people begin making proclamations without really thinking about the consequences or understanding the complexities of what they’re saying.

I share that story because it reminds me of the pessimists who seemingly think we will solve global warming simply by removing meat, milk and eggs from our diets. I cited an example of that in last month’s column. One media source noted that, “In order to ‘feed the world’ we must stop factory farming our animals.” The article piled on by asserting: “Worldwide, animal agriculture is responsible for 90% of methane emissions and the U.S. habit of raising animals for food contributes more than half of our carbon footprint.”

I guess to them, solving climate change is nothing more than: “You just go like that.” But is it really that simple? Before we switch the planet over to an all-plant diet, there’s probably some other considerations along the way.

To that end, Drs. Robin White (Virginia Tech University) and Mary Beth Hall (U.S. Department of Agriculture) fully acknowledge the suggestion of doing away with animal agriculture. Their research, published in a 2017 National Academy of Sciences paper, addresses it from a comprehensive perspective: “…it has been suggested that reducing animal agriculture or consumption of animal-derived foods may reduce GHGs and enhance food security.”

Based on their findings, though, the authors warn of some important unintended consequences of going down the plant-only path: “Although modeled plants-only agriculture produced 23% more food, it met fewer of the U.S. population’s requirements for essential nutrients… This assessment suggests that removing animals from U.S. agriculture would reduce agricultural GHG emissions but would also create a food supply incapable of supporting the U.S. population’s nutritional requirements.”

In other words, eliminating animal agriculture might reduce GHG emissions to some extent but would ultimately end up with more people going hungry. That is, eliminating animal agriculture will not both reduce GHGs and enhance food security (as many activists like to proclaim).

Of course, along the way, ruminants get the most focus when it comes to climate change. In line with the findings by White and Hall, the late Dr. Eric Bradford led the landmark work, “Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply,” Bradford and his colleagues aptly explained that:“…ruminants return more human food per unit of human-edible feed consumed because most of their feed is obtained from materials that cannot be consumed directly by humans. ”Turning forages into protein is truly a remarkable thing.

Similarly, Dr. Jude Capper explained that: “…livestock diets include a considerable quantity of by-products from human food, fiber and fuel production that are inedible by humans because of safety, quality, cultural or digestibility considerations.”

There’s an intangible component to all this, too. Several years ago I wrote about a plaque at the New Mexico History Museum. It read, “The first winter of 1933 was definitely the hardest one…. Our diet was red beans and corn bread for lunch and supper and watery gravy and biscuits for breakfast.” No meat, milk or eggs? I don’t think any of us want to go back to that type of imbalanced, monotonous diet.

So, while many good-intentioned people believe Meatless Mondays should become a daily affair, that matter isn’t that simple. If that were to occur, there’d be some hard decisions along the way. In the end, the world would actually be worse off -- not better. Animal agriculture is fundamental to feeding the world -- we can’t simply “just go like that.”

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Feedstuffs is the news source for animal agriculture

You May Also Like