P G Wodehouse was an English author and one of the most read humorists of the 20th century. His book ‘Pigs have Wings’ was a classic and in a hilarious set of plots, his pet pig named ‘Empress of Blandings’ wins the first prize in the ‘Fat Pigs’ category and was a much loved and an adored pig …………..Moving from fiction to reality, the world’s farmers now annually raise roughly 1.7 billion cows and buffalo, 1 billion pigs, 2.2 billion sheep and goats, and 61 billion chickens, and use more than 3 billion hectares of pastureland and hundreds of millions of hectares of cropland to do so.
Indeed, cows, pigs and chickens have no wings to fly away from slaughter!
The real food-gap:
As our population crosses 9 billion by 2050, overall food demand is expected to increase by more than 50%. Simply increasing land usage to produce additional food is not sustainable as deforestation is most destructive to the environment. Most of the land cleared for agriculture (in the tropics) does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats), timber, and palm oil. Another important factor is the increased prosperity of people across the world especially India and China increasing the demand for higher meat, eggs, and dairy consumption.
We are in a catch-22 situation to close the food-gap we need to achieve the almost impossible :
- increase food production without increasing agricultural land and
- reduce growth in demand for food and other agricultural products
Shifting to more sustainable diets :
Around the world and in India, diets are increasingly more processed foods, refined carbohydrates, added sugars, fats, and animal-based foods. As people become richer, they are looking to eat more dairy and meat and convenient access to food outside the home encourages ‘fast food’. The per capita consumption of beans and other pulses, vegetables, coarse grains, and fiber is declining.
This is creating the following challenges:
- Consumption of meat, poultry, pork, farmed fish, and dairy are by far the most resource intensive food requiring more land, water and generating more green-house gas emissions when compared to pulses, staple crops, fruits, vegetables, and vegetable oils.
- Most people also consume more protein than they need, while the average daily protein requirement is around 50 grams per day, its consumption is around 71 grams/day and expected to increase resulting in an over consumption of protein from animal-based foods
Meat from beef, sheep, and goat is by far the most resource-intensive food (needs more land and water to grow). Meat requires over 20 times more land and generates over 20 times more GHG emissions than pulses per gram of protein. Relative to dairy, it requires four to six times more land and generates four to six times more GHG emissions per calorie or gram of protein ultimately consumed by people.
Water-footprint of plant and animal based foods:
The table below shows the water consumption between diary,animal and plant based foods . Beef,fish,sheep and goat consume highest water . Nuts (Pistachios,almonds,walnuts,cashews) require more water and deplete ground water fast and dairy,pork and poultry need a lot of water not only for feeding and growing ,but clean-up of facilities and handling of waste water.
Social concerns on treatment of animals :
The livestock sector in India has grown over 8% in the last five years with dairy the single largest agri-commodity in India contributing to 5% of GDP employing around 80 million dairy farmers directly . Industrial beef, pig and poultry farming is one of the most profitable livestock business and a lot has been written around the poor treatment of farm animals that are reared for slaughter. More recently McDonalds, the fast food giant was sued for sourcing bacon and pork products from suppliers who continue with a practice of using crates to house pregnant pigs so they cannot move.
Factory farming is the main cause of animal suffering and government supported meat-reduction strategies are required that enable farmers reduce animal stocking densities and move to free-range organic farming such as cage-free pigs, hens, grass-fed cows and avoiding use of antibiotics for their growth and disease prevention.
Gold Rush in Cow manure and poultry droppings :
Old-fashioned animal manure is now a hot commodity due to a global shortage of commercial fertilizers made worse by the Russia-Ukraine war (with Russia being a major Potash producer- a key ingredient in producing nitrogen fertilizer). Apart from being used as fertilizer, usage of cow manure for biogas is gaining popularity.
Cow manure is flushed out from the cow farms into a covered lagoon called as a digester, and the emitted raw biogas which has over 60% of methane is collected and piped to a central facility that collects biogas from all dairy farms in that area and purified, sent to the local utility pipelines. India is planning to build 5000 bio-plants by early next year to offset demand for natural gas.
Agricultural waste from poultry, cow and pig farms result in too much of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the environment and damaging the quality of groundwater , reducing oxygen in the water, killing aquatic life as well as causing gastrointestinal illnesses , skin reactions and neurological effects in people.
Even if India and the developing world were to reduce meat consumption in the coming decade, the demand for global meat consumption is expected to grow 32% by 2050 due to the sheer growing population. Hence several strategies can be tried out by consumers : Consciously balance protein and meat consumption with plant-based foods , explore alternate plant-based protein foods and be aware of the health risks associated with red meat. Strict guidelines around industrial farming with animal waste management plans and usage of biofuels such as biogas from decomposing animal manure can go a long way in making our food more sustainable from the farm to our plate and saving water for our thirsty population.