Could Veganism be the answer to food insecurity? Helena Jones examines the global food shortage
Simply getting enough food to survive is a daily struggle for many people globally. In the face of rapid global population growth and a greater demand for cleaner biofuels, which replace crops grown for human consumption, there is less food to go round meaning food prices have risen dramatically.
And this imbalance is also perpetuated by worsening inequality between the richest nations and developing countries, so rising food prices become increasingly problematic for the poorest countries in the world.
So food security is about not just supply-but also access-to food. The World Food Summit in 1996 defined food security as a state when: “All people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”
The scale of this crisis is truly staggering. Between 2012 and 2014, 805 million people were chronically undernourished (with insufficient food for a healthy life), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations. And a report by UNICEF states that a third of all deaths in children aged under five are linked to undernutrition.
In spite of great advances in agricultural technology and productivity, why does this basic necessity increasingly continue to pose food for thought?
What is the current food security crisis? And why is meat an unsustainable option?
The huge environmental impacts of cattle and poultry production, due to the intensive use of water and energy, make the continued farming of livestock environmentally untenable. A conservative estimate by the UN claims 18 per cent of worldwide carbon emissions come from livestock farming, more than all global transport emissions combined. Other estimates go up to a massive 51 per cent.
Crucially, meat production also perpetuates the inequality between the richest and poorest countries in the world. The EU currently imports 70 per cent of its protein used for animal feed. So people go hungry in developing countries because instead of growing grain for their own populations they are growing grain for meat consumption in western countries. Therefore the environmental and social impacts of meat production, along with the huge economic investment required to farm livestock, present an inadequate solution to food security in developing countries.
How can veganism help?
A vegan diet uses significantly less water and land for its production than a meat diet. John Robbins is the author of No Happy Cow-Dispatches from the frontlines of the food revolution. He calculates it takes 60 pounds of water to produce a pound of potatoes and 108 pounds of water to produce a pound of wheat. In comparison he claims it takes around 20,000lbs of water to yield a single pound of beef. Farming uses around 70 per cent of the world’s available water. If meat production increases to keep up with population growth, this can only put a strain on water resources.
In terms of land, it is generally believed that around 30 per cent of the available (and ice-free) area of the planet is used for rearing livestock or growing feed for livestock. While it is not a straightforward equation (for example, low grade agricultural land used for grazing may not be sufficient for arable farming) by using some of this land to grow food for humans directly we would yield more protein from the same amount of land than if it were used for livestock.
A switch to vegan diets would produce more food for more people, from the same amount of natural resources.
So is arable farming a perfect solution?
Whilst a vegan diet certainly uses less energy and provides more protein per acre than the meat industry, it may still create problems. The commercial farming of plant-based proteins, such as the soybean, can lead to intensive mono-cropping, where an extensive area of land is devoted to one crop. Why is this a problem? This fall in biodiversity can reduce a crop’s resistance to disease and harsh conditions, so there may be an increased risk of losing the whole crop.
Another problem with encouraging the consumption of plant-based proteins in developing countries can occur if the same foods become so desirable in more affluent countries that food is no longer affordable in the place where it is made. For instance, the International Monetary Fund encouraged farmers in Peru to grow quinoa, as it is an extremely good source of protein. However, as the food’s popularity grew in Western countries, in some places the global price of quinoa became too high for local people.
So plant-based protein on its own is not a magic bullet in food security and can fall prey to global fluctuations in food prices.
Is a solution to be found in mycoprotein?
Protein-rich fungi (such as the mycoprotein used in Quorn) could provide an extremely environmentally and economically sustainable provision of food in developing countries. Once the initial fungus is grown in a fermenter, it can multiply thousands of times over to produce a very high yield of protein-rich food.
Whilst such a process requires an initial investment, the money required to sustain it is substantially lower than the prolonged investment in agriculture. So this could facilitate greater access to food, not just a greater supply. So mycoprotein can be vegan, with the introduction of a vegan Quorn range this year, and these meat-substitutes grown through fermentation could provide a key solution for food crises in developing countries.
The future for food security?
Food security remains a key concern for people and governments across the globe and is only likely to increase in significance, as populations grow and increasingly turn to meat-based diets. However, vegan diets could feed substantially more people than a meat-based diet, with the same amount of plant mass.
Whilst plant-based proteins are far from environmentally or socially neutral, new technologies in the fermentation of vegan protein sources could lead to the more sustainable and affordable production of plant-based protein in developing countries. This acknowledgement of the unequal distribution of food could help to address not just the supply of food, but also the structural inequality in access to food.
So a vegan diet that recognizes inequality of nutrition and works to improve access to protein-rich foods could provide a more economically and environmentally sustainable future for global food security.