Thursday, April 18, 2024

Alternatives to Animal Agriculture

James O'Donovan looks at the reasons why we need to move away from animal-based agriculture, and lists some alternatives for those who want to move away from animal farming.

Here are some of the reasons why we need to move away from animal agriculture:

1. Economic Costs:

Image: FOE Europe

If farmers producing animal products had no subsidies and had to internalise all the negative impacts they cause then most would have to shut down.  Animal agriculture is viable in the EU principally because it is propped up by massive direct subsidies in the form of direct payments as well as subsidies for feed.

2. Loss of Biodiversity:

Agriculture and fishing are the two main drivers of species extinction through predation and conversion of natural habitats.  Agriculture occupies sixty six times more land than all the built up areas on the planet.  75% of this land is for animal agriculture.  When a natural grassland is converted to pasture for grazing or to tillage to grow grain or oilseed (the majority of which is to feed animals) then, according to the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency, 90% of the biodiversity is lost.

3. Deforestation:

Agricultural expansion is responsible for 80% of deforestation worldwide.

4. Environmental Pollution:

The production of meat and dairy produces many different pollutant streams. These include billions of tons of animal wastes, pesticides and insecticides for animal feeds, nitrates and phosphates from fertilisers, and greenhouse gases.

5. CO2 Emissions:

According to the IPCC Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use Changes (AFOLU) are responsible for 25% of green house gas (GHG) emissions.

Agriculture contributes to GHG increases in four main ways:

  • CO2 releases linked to deforestation and draining of wetlands
  • Methane releases from enteric fermentation in cattle
  • Nitrous oxide releases from fertilizer application
  • Methane releases from rice cultivation

Together, these agricultural processes comprise 54% of methane emissions, roughly 80% of nitrous oxide emissions, and virtually all carbon dioxide emissions tied to land use changes.

6. Efficiency:

Meat production and in particular beef production are incredibly inefficient.  Looking at the average yields for Ireland we see that a plant based diet produces enough grain and vegetables from a hectare to feed 30 people for one year or enough beans and peas to feed twenty people for a year.  But not even enough beef for one person.

ItemYield / hectare  kgKCal/ KgMillion Cal/hecPerson fed/ hec/yrProtein Kcal /KgProtein MCal /hecProtein /p/hec/yr
Wheat – total10,0003,39033.9465605.677
Oats – total8,0003,89031.1436805.475
Barley – total8,0003,54028.3394803.853
Beans and peas5,7003,47019.8278404.866

Protein and fat content from google and USDA.
I assumed stocking density of two cows per hectare raised for two years weighing 500 kg with 250 kg waste.
I assumed 4 Kcal per gram of protein and carbohydrates and 9 Kcal per gram of fat.
Assumed 2,000 kcal per person per day and 50g or 200 kcal of protein per person per day.

7. Antibiotic and Antimicrobial Resistance:

In the US and the EU up to 70% of antibiotics are fed to animals primarily to prevent disease and to encourage weight gain.  50-75% of the antibiotics pass through the animals unmetabolised where they enter the local soil or waters.  Natural bacteria are then exposed to these compounds at reduced concentrations and so are more easily able to develop resistance.  The genes in the bacteria that confer drug resistance then spread through the host bacteria population eventually making the antibiotic useless.  The antibiotics also kill micro-organisms in the soils that play a vital role as intermediaries in micro-nutrient uptake by plant root systems.

8. Water Use:

Fresh water ecosystems are among the most stressed on the planet with 85% of the fresh water that we use consumed by agriculture and food processing.

9. Social Justice and World Hunger:

The FAO estimates that around 795 million people were chronically under-nourished in the period 2014-2016.  A 2013 paper from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, stated: “The world’s croplands could feed 4 billion more people than they do now just by shifting from producing animal feed and biofuels to producing exclusively food for human consumption”.  Animal feed crops represent 90% of that figure (in turn representing 3.6 billion people).  This is the worlds largest social justice issue and Emily Cassidy, the lead author of the paper, commented:

“We essentially have uncovered an astoundingly abundant supply of food for a hungry world, hidden in plain sight in the farmlands we already cultivate.  Depending on the extent to which farmers and consumers are willing to change current practices, existing croplands could feed millions or even billions more people.”

10.  Affordability:

In 2009 the PBL Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency published its study into Climate Benefits of Changing Diet.  This important study found that apart from a reduction in methane and Nitrogen Oxide emissions, vast agricultural areas would become unused, mostly as a result of reduced cattle grazing, and these areas could take up large amounts of carbon.  They concluded that “Shifting worldwide to a healthy low-meat diet would reduce the costs of stabilising greenhouse gases at 450 ppm CO2 eq. by more than 50%.”

Making the switch to plant based farming

Globally, the world must solve three food problems simultaneously: end hunger, feed a growing population, and do both while drastically reducing agriculture’s damage to the environment.  According to Jonathan Foley five solutions, pursued together, can achieve these goals:

  • Massively reduce per capita meat consumption;
  • Prevent agriculture from consuming more forests and draining more wetlands;
  • Boost the productivity of farms that have the lowest yields;
  • Raise the efficiency of water and fertilizer use worldwide;
  • Reduce waste in food production and distribution.

What alternatives are available to farmers who want to move away from animal-based farming:

1. Afforestation:

A paper from researchers at the Institute for Social Ecology, Vienna, published in April 2016, reported on the potential to avoid further deforestation while feeding a growing global population.  They considered 500 food supply scenarios using forecasts for crop yields, agricultural area, livestock feed and human diet supplied by the UN FAO.  The lead author, Karl-Heinz Erb, has stated: “The only diet found to work with all future possible scenarios of yield and cropland area, including 100% organic agriculture, was a plant-based one.” 

This article also points out that if we all woke up vegan in 2050, we would require less cropland than we did in the year 2000.  This could allow us to “reforest” an area around the size of the entire Amazon Rainforest.

Image: Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna
Image: Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna

2. Rewilding – Payment for Ecosystem services and Indigenous Afforestation:

The land area farmed intensively needs to be massively reduced if we are to make any progress in protecting the remaining wildlife and reversing the effects of climate change.  Instead of farmers being subsidised to produce unhealthy milk and meat they can be paid for rewilding their land holding, restoring biodiversity and flood and drought mitigation.  Afforestation is important in terms of mitigating the effects of CO2 emissions but it is necessary to change from monocultures to indigenous longer term forests.  These may have a lower financial return on investment but they provide a much greater biodiversity and ecosystem services return on investment.

3. Plant Power:

Farmers need to significantly increase the land area used to grow fruits and vegetables suited to the local climate.  Grains including Rice, Wheat, Corn, Barley, Oats, Rye, and Millet should be consumed directly by people and not fed to animals.  You can produce 36,000 kg of potatoes and 10,000 kg of grain on the same land area that produces 250 kg of beef.

4. Plant Proteins – Legumes, Oilseeds, and Nuts:

There are hundreds of high protein plant foods that can be used to make plant milks and cheeses, vegetable oils and many other food products.  Examples include fava beans, black beans, kidney beans, soya beans, chickpeas and lentils, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, rape seed, olives, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, etc.

5. Alternative Crops – Hemp and Flax/Linseed:

Hemp and flax seed are highly versatile crops.  They can be easily grown organically and can be used for food, clothing, oil, fuel, and even building insulation.  They need little water or maintenance and grow across a wide range of latitudes.

6. Electricity Generation and Biofuels:

Some countries provide financial incentives for people to erect wind turbines and large scale solar power installations on their land –  China, Denmark, Germany and the US being global leaders.  Biofuels are often presented as an ecological alternative to fossil fuels and they will play a role in fuel supply in the future.  However, given the amount of fossil fuels we currently use the land area needed would be enormous, so wind and solar are better options with biofuels used only in some situations when their impact on biodiversity and food production is carefully examined.


The 2015 Frontiers in Nutrition study, for example, estimated that a vegan menu has a climate, land, and water footprint that is 74, 64, and 70 percent smaller than the omnivore diet respectively.

Globally switching to plant based agriculture has the potential to return millions of acres of land to wild habitat, to reverse rainforest destruction, to restore the health and volume of our freshwater rivers and lakes, to reduce species extinctions, to eliminate billions of tons of pollutants and to make a major contribution to stabilising and reversing climate change.  Lets make the change today.

For Further Reading I would recommend the UK Vegan Society Grow Green Report and the Jonathan Foley TED talk.  For a brilliant summary of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture check out this Bite Size Vegan nugget.



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