Let’s face it: when you get to a point where you’re feeding your cattle supplements and discount candy because it’s cheaper and more accessible in times of drought than what cows were meant to eat, it might be time to admit that the animal agriculture industry is facing some major issues. But according to leading water scientists, this may be just the tip of the hardship iceberg: between droughts and rising populations, scientists estimate that we may be looking at a mostly vegetarian diet as a means of survival by 2050.
Here’s the thing: whether it’s chicken or lamb or beef, meat production requires an awful lot of water and other natural resources. That’s fine in certain amounts, but as researchers from the Stockholm International Water Institute explain to The Guardian, it’s going to be difficult to produce enough for the extra billions of people expected to populate the planet over the next 40 years:
Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by some of the world's leading water scientists.
"There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations," the report by Malik Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said.
"There will be just enough water if the proportion of animal-based foods is limited to 5% of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a … reliable system of food trade."
The Guardian also notes that this is pretty much exactly what Oxfam has been saying for years. Indeed, last year Oxfam America released a report warning of rising commodity costs among staples like corn. Today corn costs are skyrocketing thanks to drought, and Oxfam is now warning that we may be on the precipice of a devastating food crisis:
Oxfam has forecast that the price spike will have a devastating impact in developing countries that rely heavily on food imports, including parts of Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. Food shortages in 2008 led to civil unrest in 28 countries.
Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals. Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit.
There’s no question that cutting down on meat consumption as the population rises isn’t the only solution to shortage problems: curbing rampant waste of food resources and finding better ways to trade are crucial, but meat production is a huge part of the puzzle.
Of course, it’s going to be pretty difficult getting people to give up on today’s convenient luxury of dollar cheeseburgers on the regular and chicken breasts priced for everyday dinner consumption. But if worst-case scenarios do come true and lead to shortages and soaring prices, and more sustainable methods of meat production are not found, burgers every day for everyone who wants them may become less and less of a viable option soon enough.