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Agenda for a New America
a-usa2.gif (3271 bytes)a-usa2.gif (3271 bytes)Part One
The Politics of Vegetarianism

By: Vasu Murti
Chapter 15 - Not Enough Land for Meat

Within the next two to four decades, if present trends continue, vast quantities of land will be lost to soil erosion; forests in most parts of the world will be greatly decimated or entirely gone; U.S. cropland reserves will be gone; the Ogallala Aquifer will be largely gone; and many parts of the Third World will be reduced to desert.   We face a serious crisis.  Our supplies of agricultural resources is dwindling just as the demand on them is increasing.  The human race is on a major collision course with reality.

"And there are ideas of the future, of which some are already approaching realization and are obliging people to change their way of life and to struggle against the former ways: such ideas in our world as those of freeing the laborers, of giving equality to women, of ceasing to use flesh food, and so on."

---Leo Tolstoy

Using grasslands for livestock agriculture creates great environmental problems, which greatly limit its usefulness.  Grazing systems require ten times more land than feedlot agriculture, in which animals are simply given feed grown on cropland.  Grazing systems have to be extensive in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of overgrazing--which renders a piece of land unsuitable for any purpose.  Overgrazing and the consequent soil erosion are extremely serious problems worldwide.  By the most conservative estimates, 60% of all U. S. rangelands are overgrazed, with billions of tons of soil lost each year. Overgrazing has also been the greatest cause of man-made deserts. 

Even if we grant grazing a role in a resource-efficient, ecologically stable agriculture, milk should be the end result, not beef.  Milk provides over 50% of the protein and nearly four times the calories of beef, per unit of forage resources from grazing.

"When only forage is available, then egg, broiler and pork production are eliminated and only milk, beef, and lamb production are viable systems," state David and Marcia Pimentel, scientists and authors of Food, Energy and Society.  "Of these three, milk production is the most efficient. 

An ecologically stable, resource-efficient system of grazing animals for human food could not be anything faintly resembling today's livestock agriculture.  It would be a smaller, decentralized, less intensive system of animal husbandry devoted to milk production.

The American way of life requires about 2 acres of cropland and 4.4 acres of grazing land per capita.  What if we tried to "raise" the entire world to our standard of living?

A world population of 4 billion implies a land requirement of 8 billion acres of cropland and 17.5 billion acres of grazing land.  Only 3.7 billion acres of cropland and 7.5 billion acres of grassland pasture presently exist in the world, less than half the land that would be needed.

Much of the land considered potentially arable in South America has low-quality soils and is very difficult to get to.  Moreover, any expansion would almost certainly be at the expense of the already rapidly depleting forest areas.   The same is true of Africa, where nonforested areas are already experiencing severe competition between grazing and cultivation.  In Asia, the Far East, the Near East and northern Africa, most of the potentially arable land is already under cultivation.   So bringing additional land under cultivation is terribly difficult.

The fact is, most of the easily available land has already been cultivated, and much of the uncultivated remainder could only be brought into cultivation by clearing forest areas, which should be protected.  The best land is already taken; why would people cultivate the worst land first?

Moreover, crop yields in the United States and other Western countries are much higher than in the Soviet Union, Asia and Africa.  The "Green Revolution," high-yielding crop varieties, and advanced agricultural techniques require a great deal of supporting technology and natural resources which only an industrialized society can provide, or even afford: tractors, irrigation, fertilizers, etc.

Suppose even these difficulties were overcome.  Suppose all this additional land were brought into production, and the technology and fertilizers were provided to bring crop yields up to Western standards.  Such an agricultural system would hardly survive more than a few years.

Energy consumption would skyrocket, more than tripling in the less developed countries.  Irrigated land presently comprises only 15% of the world's total cropland; but of the new land at least 50% would have to be irrigated.  So the demand for water supplies, already overwhelming in much of the world, would increase dramatically.

Nor can fish provide any help here.  There are signs that the fishing industry (which is quite energy-intensive) has already overfished the oceans in several areas.  And fish could never play a major role in the worlds diet anyway: the entire global fish catch of the world, if divided among all the world's inhabitants would amount to only a few ounces of fish per person per week.

The American Dietetic Association reports that throughout history, the human race has lived on "vegetarian or near vegetarian diets," and meat has traditionally been a luxury.  Studies show the healthiest human populations on the globe live almost entirely on plant foods--useful data, given our skyrocketing healthcare costs.  Dr. Nathan Pritikin, author of The Pritikin Plan, recommended no more than three ounces of meat per day; three ounces per week for his patients who had already suffered a heart attack. 

Obviously, then, the idea of providing the entire world with a Western diet is quite absurd.  But what about satisfying today's demand for meat--which provides only a fraction of the population with a Western-style diet?  If the world population triples in the next 100 years, then meat production would have to triple as well.  Instead of 3.7 billion acres of cropland and 7.5 billion acres of grazing land, we would require 11.1 billion acres of cropland and 22.5 billion acres of grazing land. 

But this is slightly more than the total land area of the six inhabited continents!  We are desperately short of forests, water and energy already.   Even if we resort to extreme methods of population control: abortion, infanticide, genocide, etc...modest increases in the world population during the next generation would make it impossible to maintain current levels of meat consumption.  On a vegetarian diet, however, the world could easily support a population several times its present size.  Vegetarianism is inevitable.

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