In order to feed a growing global population, the United Nations has projected we will need to produce at least 50% more food by 2050 without using any more land. At the same time, we will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by two-thirds in order to meet the minimum climate targets to stay within livable planetary boundaries, the same experts say.
But how can we possibly increase food production so drastically while simultaneously reducing the amount of land used for agriculture, as well as the associated emissions? By eating more plants, scientists urge.
Plant-based foods feed far more people using far fewer resources including land, water and energy. A whopping 80% of all agricultural land is used for livestock production, making it the single greatest driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss globally. 1g of protein from beef or lamb requires nearly 100x more land than is needed to produce 1g of protein from peas or tofu.
Why the disproportionate land use? Well, in order to eat farmed animals, we have to grow the crops or forage necessary to feed them; this amounts to vastly more crops (or pasture, if the animals are grazed) than it would take to feed humans directly. Consider that in 2023, we need to feed a global population of 8 billion humans, but in order to feed them animal-based foods, we currently feed (and slaughter) an additional 92+ billion land animals every year.
Compounding this inefficiency is the fact that only a small fraction of the plant energy consumed by an animal is converted into edible protein. Most of the energy from crops fed to farmed animals is used to fuel their own metabolism, with only a fraction of those grains and other plants being turned into meat. To give one example, it takes 25 pounds of grain to yield just one pound of beef — while crops such as soy and lentils produce, pound for pound, as much protein as beef, and sometimes more.
Feeding all of these animals means that currently less than half the world’s cereal grains— including wheat, rice, rye, oats, barley, corn, and sorghum— are consumed by humans. Livestock are fed a staggering 41% of all the world’s cereal grains. To put this in greater perspective, the United Nations estimates we could feed an additional 3.5 billion more people simply by growing crops for human consumption on the land that is currently used to grow feed crops for farmed animals.
The end result of such an inefficient system is that farmed animals take drastically more food from the global food supply than they provide; according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), livestock consume five times more food than the entire human population. A plant-based food system, on the other hand, could feed billions more people while reducing global farmland use by up to 75%, and emissions from the food system by up to 70%. Increased consumption of diverse plant-based foods can also prevent forms of malnutrition including undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, and obesity.