Land is just one of the resources that animal agriculture industries are using more than their fair share of. Despite the common claims from animal farmers about ‘feeding the world,’ the truth is that farmed animals generally take in far more calories in crop feed than they will ever give out in meat or milk, meaning that in many cases they are quite literally detracting from the global food supply, rather than adding to it.

It is widely believed that food production must increase by 70% to feed the growing world
population. We already produce more than enough food to feed our population of
approximately 7.8 billion, yet we feed 36% of our crop production to farmed animals, a full three-quarters of which is wasted due to how inefficiently animals convert crops into meat and dairy. Beef is perhaps the starkest example, with 1 pound of beef requiring 6-8 pounds of feed. An estimated 86% of the grain used to feed cattle is unfit for human consumption, but 14% alone represents enough food to feed millions of people.

Despite how often it is claimed, it is untrue that farmed animals only consume crops that are inedible to humans, since it is estimated that 1kg of meat requires at least 2.8kg of human-edible crops. The land use of livestock is so large because it takes around 100 times as much land to produce a kilocalorie of beef or lamb versus plant-based alternatives. Similarly, it takes almost 100 times as much land to produce a gram of protein from beef or lamb, versus peas or tofu. Much of the land devoted to growing crops like alfalfa exclusively for animal feed, could also be far better used to feed millions of humans. Indeed, it is estimated that because of these factors and the impact of animal products on food security, global health, and climate change, the world going vegan would save approximately 8.1 million human lives per year.

Alongside this food waste, animal agriculture uses an unconscionable amount of water. Global water consumption ranges from 34 to 76 trillion gallons annually, approximately one-fifth of that water is consumed by animal agriculture alone. Most water is not used for consumers but for agriculture, and 29% of the total water footprint of global agriculture is related to the production of animal products. One-third of the global water footprint of animal production is related to beef cattle alone.

We often hear about the water consumption of rice or almonds, but studies comparative studies demonstrate that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value. The example explained in this study is how one liter of soya milk has a water footprint of around 300 liters, whereas the water footprint of one liter of cow’s milk is more than three times larger, and soy milk is not even the least water-intensive plant milk. This is also the case for food, the water footprint of a 150g soya burger is 15 times less than that of an equivalent-sized beef burger. With water scarcity becoming an increasingly prevalent global problem, the sheer scale of this waste is simply inexcusable.

The inefficiency of animal product production also comes at a significant energy cost, too. It takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce one pound of grain-fed beef in the US. On average, it takes approximately 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of meat protein, whereas crops grown for human consumption require only 3.3 calories of fuel energy per one calorie of food produced. The energy cost for crops grown directly for human consumption involves only the growing process itself, the transportation, and in some cases packaging of the product for sale.

Animal products, however, require energy use to fertilise the feed grain used to grow the animal to slaughter weight, to house and feed the animal at the feedlot, to transport the animal to slaughter, and finally to transport and cold-store the meat to get it to the consumer. Eating crops directly cuts out most of these processes, as well as their associated energy costs. Plants are in many ways the original source of all dietary protein, so the closer your diet is to that source, the less work that has gone into the final product, which generally means that less energy, water, food, and land is required to produce it.

In a world where scarcity is increasingly striking the world’s poorest, that a plant-based diet requires considerably fewer resources to sustain is no small thing. This in and of itself is a very strong argument for adopting a plant-based diet, especially for anyone concerned with food security, resource inequality, and global poverty.