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The Cost of What You Eat

Food (and land) security has become a major issue in the last years. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one in nine people are chronically undernourished. With the world’s population expected to increase up to 9-11 billion by 2050, an urgent question has risen: how will we feed ourselves in the 21st century?

Current situation

I ask myself how have we arrived to this situation. We must first consider the economic forces that ultimately cause an unfair allocation of resources. Approximately 1/3 of the food produced in the world for human consumption (around 1.3 billion tonnes) is wasted every year. This food wastage is not only responsible for notable economic losses, but also for severe damages to our environment. However, even if we could equalise the allocation of these wasted resource all around the world, we would probably have to overcome a bigger issue: land availability. The Earth has only a limited area of viable agricultural land; how this land is used is central to our ability to feed the world. Of the world’s approximately five billion hectares of agricultural land, 68% is used for livestock. Also, consuming animal products is incredibly resource-intensive (most of the protein from vegetable feed is used for the animal’s bodily functions), and farming uses about 70% of the planet’s accessible freshwater.

In 2009, the United Nations Environment Program affirmed that impacts from agriculture were expected to rise due to population growth. A substantial reduction of these impacts, they said, would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.

Alternatives to meat production

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the demand for meat will increase by more than two-thirds in the next 40 years. Because of the rising concerns about the negative effects of animal-based food consumption, several alternatives and measures have been discussed to face the issue.

The most popular shift away from consumption of meat is veganism, an extreme form of vegetarianism defined as: “Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.”

This way of living and eating is carving a niche in the market of developed countries, with an increasing popularity and acceptance, especially in Western societies. However, not everyone is willing switch completely from a meat-based diet, and therefore some other alternatives have to be researched.

Cultured meat is one of the most discussed alternatives. Cultured Beef is created by painlessly harvesting muscle cells from a living cow. Cells are multiplied in a laboratory to create muscle tissue, which is the main component of the meat we eat. It is biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow. The benefits? Cultured Beef could use as much as 99% less space than what is needed for current livestock farming methods, and greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts would be lower.

A second measure proposed has been the taxation of meat. Cigarettes, alcohol, and gasoline; many of these products are taxed through the so called “sin taxes” to balance out the health or environmental costs they cause. According to some analysts, “sin taxes” on meat seem inevitable to reduce its impact on climate change and human health, and they estimate that some form of meat tax will potentially emerge within 5 to 10 years. In fact, meat taxes have already been discussed in parliaments in Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Also, China’s government cut its recommended maximum meat consumption by 45% in 2016.

One variable of these meat taxes would be some form of emission tax. Presently, the global livestock industry causes around 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, especially CO2 and methane (this last one is one of the most polluting greenhouse gases), which given the scope of the industry, has a considerable impact on the environment.

Would these excise taxes help cover the health and environmental costs resulting from animal farming? Maybe they would. For example, in 2014, Berkeley, California, passed a soda tax. Researchers of the tax found that just one year after the tax started, sales of sugar-sweetened drinks fell by nearly 10 percent, while sales of water increased by about 16 percent. If set high enough, taxes could become powerful monetary disincentives to consume meat (or at least to consume it less often).


Nevertheless, all big changes come with a price. These kind of measures, if successfully implemented, would have an important impact in the economy and society. Either way, a worldwide diet change away from animal products represents major challenges:

First of all, meat is an important part of history, tradition and cultural identity in almost every part of the world. Meat is a symbol of wealth and richness. In poverty periods, you would only consume animal food if you have enough resources to first feed those animals. Especially in developing countries where meat may be considered a luxury food, a dietary change away from meat consumption should not be expected any time soon.

Second, around 1/3 of the total world’s land is composed of arid and semi-arid rangeland that can only support animal agriculture. For example, it has been attempted to convert some parts of the Sahara Desert from livestock pasture to croplands in the past, with no success; these attempts have resulted in reinforced desertification and loss of productivity. Thus, without livestock, life in certain environments would likely become impossible for some people, especially nomadic groups.

It is difficult to know the economic costs and benefits of a shift away from meat consumption; some hypothesise significantly lower prices in corn and other grains. Also, there would be a need for jobs readjustments, since people working on the meat industry would have to be reallocated.

In any case, we should be aware of the cost of what we eat. The rate at which we consume animal-based products today has a very damaging impact on our environment. I myself wold not go vegan right now, but I think a more conscious choice of our food is necessary to help sustaining our environment.


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