If indeed the world’s human population does exceed nine billion by 2050, food production methods will have to be much more efficient than they are today, or millions of people are going to starve to death. Producing more meat using today’s cruel and clumsy methods, or minor improvements upon them, won’t provide a viable solution especially when plant foods of equivalent nutritional and energetic value can be produced much more efficiently. xlviii

There will, of course, be many food production innovations over the next thirty years. It is a relatively young and certainly vibrant industry riding on a wave of both increasing ethical awareness and increasing need, and fully able to exploit new scientific and technological advances. Crowding the horizon of possibility are a host of new approaches, among them: cellular agriculture—which will include growing animal tissue in laboratory-type conditions; synthetic biology—where efficiencies will be engineered at a genetic level; marine permaculture—which may include growing seaweed in the open oceans; growing nutritious algae, such as spirulina, in controlled environments, as well as growing today’s better-known plant foods, hydroponically. None of them will involve animal agriculture as we know it today.

The question as to whether advances in food production will be developed in time, and then scaled up to a level where they are able to make planet-saving impacts, is moot. Time is not on our side and the noose of catastrophic climate change continues to tighten around our necks. (Despite this, some of the world’s most powerful political leaders and wealthiest individuals, have calmly taken out their fiddles and strolled to the front deck of the Titanic, secure in the belief that if the ship goes belly-up the first-class passengers will all hop into their magnificent life boats and sail away. The only problem with this logic is: they will have nowhere to go.)

When we talk about increasing efficiency being of such critical importance, here are some points worth considering:

  • Six pounds of grain, fed to one bovine, produces one pound of beef. The (grain) feed conversion ratio (FCR) for beef is therefore: six. Another way of looking at this: around 83% of the grain’s food value is used to support the animal’s life processes such as maintaining body temperature, digestion, thinking, growing inedible body parts such as horns and hooves, and providing the energy that enables the animal to breed, move and moo. You can’t eat any of that—so only 17% of the grain’s potential is converted to muscle tissue, otherwise known as beef. In the case of pork, the FCR is about three or four, and for poultry it is about two; although commercial chicken food is supplemented with meat, which pushes the FCR much higher. xlix If we eat plant foods only, much of the intermediary inefficiency, that is the 83% ‘wasted’ on cattle, is cut out.

  • It takes about 112 litres of water to produce one gram of protein from beef, 63 litres to produce one gram from sheep or goat meat, 57 litres for pork and 34 litres for chicken. In contrast, cereals and pulses require 21 and 19 litres respectively.l Disparities such as these must be considered against a background of shrinking water resources. The UN estimates that an additional 2.3 billion people will be living in areas with severe water stress by 2050. li Currently, there are thought to be about 1.8 billion people without access to a reliable supply of water safe for human consumption. And here we are, wasting or polluting enormous quantities of fresh water in animal agriculture in pursuit of something we don’t need.

  • In a report by the Humane Society International India, it was documented that according to the FAO…

The livestock sector…is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, ‘dead’ zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others. lii

Lack of clean fresh water could easily be a reason for future wars and we need to use our global stocks with the utmost care. Wasting huge volumes producing meat is untenable, unethical and plainly just stupid.

  • Monocultures, permaculture and true costs

The agricultural companies which produce most of the plant food consumed in the developed world today, bring cheap food to the supermarket shelves from large land areas growing just one genetically identical crop. These are known as monocultures. Some of the food crops often grown in this way are: maize, wheat, barley, soy, sorghum, rice, and numerous types of fruits and vegetables. As demand for plant food increases, as it must surely do, the scale and geographic spread of monocultures can be expected to increase because this form of agriculture is currently the only way we have, to produce the huge amounts required. But monocultures also bring with them serious environmental concerns, among them:

A monoculture, by definition, lacks genetic diversity, meaning the biological controls that are intrinsic to a diverse ecosystem are also missing. As a result, weeds and insects that favour that crop accrue in great numbers and need to be controlled by ever-increasing amounts of synthetic herbicides and insecticides. Over time, these insects and weeds develop resistance to the poisons, and much stronger chemical solutions must be found. Increasingly larger amounts of synthetic fertilisers are also needed, because the species grown with these fertilisers eventually deplete the soil of important nutrients. The residual material from these synthetic products, which is not broken down by soil bacteria because it is not organic, eventually leaches out of the soil and flows into the water table and waterways causing further problems, such as algal blooms. Furthermore, the removal of ground-cover plants in monocultures results in increased run-off, drying of the soil and reduced bacterial activity; all of which contribute to soil degradation and increased water use. Insecticides, which kill indiscriminately, wreak enormous environmental damage. Bees, crucial in their role as pollinators, have become the well-known face of the insect species whose survival is now threatened by insecticides. liii The wild bird population in France has fallen by 30% in the last 15 years, believed to be the result of insecticides wiping out the insects they eat. Insecticides continue to create huge problems globally and there is an urgent need to rein them in, but monocultures can’t survive without them, and in larger and more potent amounts.

This leads to an important question: Can smaller, more diverse, ecologically sustainable ventures secure a substantial foothold in the plant food supply chain, beyond the niche markets they currently serve? The answer will, in part, depend on who is prepared to spend how much, and on what. I believe there is a strong case for the application of permaculture principles (as outlined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978) in large areas of our most fertile land so we can determine just how successful this method of food production can be. Already, it has been demonstrated that permaculture is less reliant on insecticides and herbicides than are monocultures; uses fertiliser and water more efficiently; employs more people; produces a greater variety of food with improved taste and nutrition; allows the land to be managed in more sustainable ways through the use of crop rotation, companion-planting, animal grazing (for fertiliser and weed control); and other environmentally friendly practices. liv With so many advantages there is surely a strong argument to trial permaculture more broadly.

The increased numbers of people needed for permaculture farming could also mean a positive expansion of the numbers of people living in dwindling rural communities. It is an ideal opportunity for government involvement by securing the land and providing both infrastructure and affordable loans to initiate a large-scale permaculture experiment. Displaced animal farmers could well be the people to make a success of commercial plant-based permaculture operations if given adequate training and financial support. But as it stands, it’s difficult to imagine a government which supports something as profoundly immoral as the live export trade, having the nous to support an initiative such as wide-scale permaculture, so once again it will have to be the collective actions of inspired people that make it happen. It is the sort of cooperative venture that some of today’s richest people could be throwing their billions behind instead of indulging in ego-massaging space programs and really make a difference down here on earth.

Some ‘economies-of-scale’ acolytes— including agricultural economists who foolishly believe they have mastered their dark art—become enraged by ideas such as permaculture, furiously pointing out that the food produced by such means could only ever be in small amounts and would cost more than that produced by massive monoculture operations. And while that is almost certainly true according to the definitions they apply, any ‘dollar only’ view of the world fails to acknowledge that the true cost of anything is only partially measured in monetary terms.

Most of us are attracted to the option with the lowest price tag, differences in quality notwithstanding, because comparing the dollar cost of A to that of B is a simple numerical process, and, quite sensibly, we do not like to waste our money. But what is deliberately hidden from us most of the time, is the extent to which production costs of what we buy have been ‘externalised’—that is, have not being borne by the producer as they ought to have been. When we can estimate what those externalised costs are, we get a much better idea of what the true cost of a product is. For example, how is one to compare a tomato from a permaculture farm with one grown in a monoculture other than by the dollars per kilogram (or per pound) price tag? The tasteless, thick-skinned supermarket tomato may cost less in terms of dollars, but does it really cost less if we consider the higher levels of environmental damage that underpin its production?

Determining, and then making publicly available, the true cost of food, is a new challenge in the ‘informed decision-making’ arena. And even if we don’t yet have all the data we need there is nothing to stop us making estimates based on common sense and those data that are available. Perhaps more importantly, we need decide what value we put on a healthier environment, more sustainable communities, and better food; and whether we are prepared to reflect those values in the way we spend our money?

As far as the meat and dairy industries go, their externalised costs include those paid, in terms of pain, suffering and loss of life, by their animal victims. This is something which, although we cannot put a dollar figure on, is a massive real cost that should dominate our equation. Other major costs which the meat and dairy industries have dumped on the rest of us fall into two main categories: (i) environmental—reflected in huge piles of animal waste, polluted waterways, dangerous amounts of methane released to the atmosphere; land degradation; the loss of both animal and plant species; and (ii) human health—reflected in the increasing numbers of drug-resistant pathogens their industries incubate and the high medical costs that result from the consumption of their unhealthy products.

If the environmental and human health costs, which total billions of dollars in a country like Australia, were borne by the industries that create them, animal products would be much more expensive than they are today—unaffordable in the main. Instead, these costs are either ignored, as is the case with methane gas production, destruction of habit and water pollution; or spread across society where they inevitably fall on the ordinary citizen who funds through their taxes the extra burden on the public health system imposed by the diseases and disability caused by the consumption of animal products.