As a strong sustainability activist, I feel quite embarrassed admitting that I derive nearly all my dietary protein from animal sources (eggs and fish). Explaining why I do so is even more embarrassing, a 20-year chronic intestinal infection that makes it virtually impossible to digest plant protein, in the form of nuts and legumes (peas, dried beans, lentils, etc.).
Will Global Population Drop Without Fossil Fuels?
In The End of Growth, post-carbon activist Richard Heinberg predicts that without fossil fuels, the Earth could feed at most two billion people. Organic farmers in the biointensive movement (an amalgamation of the eighty-year-old Biodynamic and the French intensive movements) dispute this figure, pointing to studies showing that Biointensive methods actually increase crop yields by 150-200%. Given current data (see Population and Sustainability: the Elephant in the Room) that our current system of industrial agriculture feeds only 84% of the world, we could guesstimate that a switch from industrial to biointensive agriculture could potentially feed a global population of 7.8 billion.
Now here’s the rub: nearly all biointensive research focuses concerns yields of grains and vegetable crops. Preliminary research applying biointensive methods to livestock production suggests we could only provide a meat-based diet for 2-3 billion people without fossil fuels.
The average fossil fuel input required to produce meat protein is eleven times greater than for equivalent grain protein production. A meat-based diet also requires ten times more land and 100 times more water. In the US alone, the amount of energy, land and water we invest in livestock is sufficient to feed an additional 840 million vegetarians.
The Privilege of Eating Meat
At the moment approximately 1/3 of the planet (those in the privileged industrialized world) consume meat. The high cost of land, fresh water and energy compels the other 2/3 (4.7 billion) to survive on a plant-based diet. With rapid industrial development, in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, these ratios are changing rapidly. In all five countries, a growing middle class seems to be developing an insatiable demand for meat, dairy and other animal-based products. In New Zealand this is a daily news item, as China purchases the bulk of Australian and Kiwi meat and dairy exports.
Hard Choices for Activists
It seems to me that sustainability and social justice activists face some hard choices. It we are genuine in our commitment to replace capitalism with a more egalitarian society, we need to acknowledge that no society is truly egalitarian if only rich people eat meat. In other words, a truly equal distribution of land and water resources will either require a commitment to reduce global population to 2-3 billion – or a commitment by 1/3 of the planet to give up their meat-based diet.
If we fail to make this choice – and do nothing – we will be left with a scenario in which Malthusian forces (war, famine and disease) drastically reduce global population for us.
In celebration of read an ebook week, there are special offers on all my ebooks (in all formats) this week: they are free.
This includes my new novel A Rebel Comes of Age and my memoir The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee
Offer ends Sat. Mar 8.