Raising animals and thus consuming animal products is ecologically sensible as long as we do not grow crops for animals that could be eaten by humans. They must be part of an integrated agricultural system that raises crops primarily for human consumption. No dedicated crops shall be grown for animals — their diet shall consist mainly of food waste or grass, as well as the surpluses grown in any year. Surpluses are necessary, because in some years crops fail. So when we need to, humans kill the animals and make their withdrawal. This is called "default livestock system".
If this system were to be followed, all the animal products available would be a net surplus. No land would be used up in order to satisfy our appetite for meat. Of course we would have much less animal products available for consumption. But I think it is important to realise that the ecologically optimal amount of animal products to consume is not zero. Far from it. If Switzerland were to not import any animal products and implement a default livestock system, we would have to reduce our meat consumption by only 50% and dairy consumption by a mere 5%. Egg consumption would unfortunately have to be reduced almost entirely.
If you want a more complete picture, please keep reading. But as always, the devil is in the details. I will lay out some of the thoughts and calculations behind the above numbers. This line of thought is of course not only applicable to Switzerland but any place in the world.
Food Waste and Surplus Food
Pigs and chickens are fantastic animals because they can live on the food that we humans throw away. Nobody wants to buy a potato in the supermarket that has a blemish, so it gets distracted. Equally, the bakery does not want to buy grain that is inferior in quality. Additionally, there are a lot of byproducts in food production such as the residue from oil, tofu or grain processing or the whey from cheese production.
A wonderful study from 2013 commissioned by Greenpeace Switzerland has carefully examined these numbers and calculates that in Switzerland the following yearly production can be achieved on food waste:
- pork: 8.8kg per person - consumption today: 23.5kg per person, 21.9kg produced in Switzerland
- eggs: 7 per person - consumption today: 222 eggs per person, 100 produced in Switzerland (to understand the reasons for this, read my previous post)
- poultry: 15 grams per person. consumption today: 11.4kg per person, 6.2kg produced in Switzerland
Optimally, a lot more animal products could be produced from food waste. However, in Switzerland (due to EU policy) some food waste is not allowed be fed to animals. In the latter half of the 20th century industrial animals husbandry went completely crazy and started feeing ground-up slaughterhouse waste to cows. Cows are not designed to eat meat, so they ended up getting sick. They got BSE. Millions of cows had to be slaughtered and disposed of and hundreds of people died due to BSE. Public outrage was rightfully quite severe and the authorities were swift to react. Feeding animal products to animals was completely forbidden. Not just for cows, but pigs and chickens as well. As a result, slaughterhouse waste as well as all food waste on the consumer side (restaurants, supermarkets, households, etc) gets disposed of instead of being fed to animals. As a result, pigs and chickens must live on a vegetarian diet, completely unnatural to them. I estimate that due to this law we lose out on about 8kg of pork and 100 eggs per person per year.
Europe is to my knowledge unique in its policy to forbid the the feeding of waste animal products to pigs and chickens. In Japan, they have absolutely no health problems with feeding their food waste. They first cook all food waste and then ferment it. It is 100% sanitary and healthy food for pigs and chickens. It looks like in the coming years we might be moving in a similar direction in Europe as well.
Because not every year gives us a good harvest, a surplus of about 50kg of grains per person should be produced on average to ensure that we never face a food shortage. This surplus may be fed to chickens to give us 25 kg of meat or to pigs, giving us about 15kg of meat. While this is a reasonable scenario, it is quite contentious because it is not clear who would decide what amount of grain production can really be considered "surplus". Additionally, the question of distribution would raise political questions that would blow the scope of this analysis.
Surplus land: The Alps and Crop Rotation
When we produce food for humans in the form of grains or potatoes, we can not grow that crop on the same patch of land every year. Those crops need lots and lots of nutrients, so the soil needs to recover. From biblical times we know of the rule of seven years. The land is left bare for one year every seven years to let the soil recover. This was the first primitive from of crop rotation. And at the time a good rule of thumb to attain consistent yields. Of course yields in biblical times were much lower than today - about 1 ton per hectare. Today we manage 4-5 tons per hectare in organic agriculture.
We have come to understand crop rotation much better today. For optimal yields on any given patch of land, we grow grains intensively for two years and every third year we grow grass and clover. That builds up soil structure and clover has the fantastic ability to bind atmospheric nitrogen, the most important nutrient for plant growth, into the soil. So at any given time 1/3 of arable land is covered with clover/grass. That is optimal fodder for cows (lets include sheep and goats here for a moment, there are so few of them).
In addition to the clover/grass available from crop rotation, Switzerland has vast amounts of alp lands covered with grass and not suitable for growing any other crops - again ideal fodder for cows.
If cows were to be fed only on this grass/clover available, we would end up with 364 liters of milk per person and year (consumption today: 380 liters, 450 liters produced in Switzerland) and 11.4kg of beef (consumption today: 15.6kg, 12.7kg produced in Switzerland)
Why is it so important that we practice a default livestock system? Because if we let our appetite for animal products dictate the amount we consume, then we end up feeding our cows, pigs and chickens with food that could and should be consumed by humans. We end up with deforestation and rich nations import vast amounts of animal feed from regions where people must starve because it becomes unavailable to them.
In summary, if we exclude the somewhat controversial number of grain surplus, in a default livestock system we would have between 19.4kg and 27.4kg of meat available for consumption, depending on how efficiently we deal with out waste food, compared to the 52kg we consume today. In terms of milk, we in Switzerland would have the privilege to more or less continue our (compared to world average quite excessive) 1 liter of milk per day. Our current laws however would would prohibit us from feeding our laying hens sufficiently and thus egg consumption would have to be reduced drastically. It is more likely however that we would adjust our laws on feeding food waste, giving us 100 eggs per person year, compared to 222 being consumed today.
Considering that Switzerland already imports about 25% of its meat and 60% of its eggs, the numbers achieved in a default livestock system are surprisingly good and should encourage each of us to reduce our consumption of animal products. But of course it is also important to differentiate between sustainable and unsustainable meat.
This is not to say that a hard limit should be set to the amount of meat produced. What is important though, is that all ecological externalities of meat production are internalised in the price the consumer pays. This would result in a higher price and thus a lower market equilibrium of meat production and consumption - something much closer to the ecological optimum than we have today.
For further reading, please check out:
The flawed logic of cows as climate killers. Or: lets get rid of all the trees, they also produce CO2 emissions.
1 kg of Beef takes 100'000 Liters of Water! - no it does not!!
Going one year without beef saves 3,432 trees - no it does not!
The moral case for eating meat
Cattle vs. the Climate
A Vegan couple eats Meat again for the first time in 40 years after operating their own farm. Here is why:
Eating Meat - The ecological and Moral Arguments: My conversation with two Vegans
The Greatest Ecological Cock-up of recent History
Your organic vegetables are all meat eaters!