The world will need to double animal products within the next three decades in order to feed a rapidly growing and increasingly affluent population. A United Nations report says reaching that goal will require major increases in intensive, high-efficiency livestock operations for both meat and dairy production.
The report concedes that intensive livestock operations can pose serious ecological risks. And that's why environmental critics are calling instead for reductions in global livestock production, and urging people to consume less, not more, meat in their diets.
Feeding today’s population is a challenge for an already-stressed environment.
Experts project that the world's population will grow from 7 billion people today to 9 billion over the next 30 years.
Nancy Morgan is the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) liaison to the World Bank.
“Basically, meat production and consumption will both need to double by the year 2050,” said Morgan.
The FAO says there are currently 1.5 billion head of cattle, 1 billion pigs and 6 billion chickens in the world.
In the U.S. alone, millions of these and other animals are killed every year for food.
Morgan says over the past decade, worldwide consumption and production of meat grew faster than any other commodity.
“The challenge is how [do] you ensure food without increasing animal numbers and having an impact on fragile lands and our resource base?” Morgan asked.
More than half of the agricultural land in the world is used to raise and feed livestock. Those farm animals are also responsible for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere every year, methane emissions that scientists say are warming the earth's climate.
The World Preservation Foundation (WPF), a private environmental group, recently published a report on ways to slow that climate change. It focuses on reducing livestock populations.
The group says it is especially concerned about widespread forest-burning to clear land for cattle operations, as seen in these fires in Brazil's Amazon forest region.
“Fire for pasture maintenance and fire for deforestation are our targets," said Gerard Wedderburn-Bisshop, the WPF's executive director. "For methane, by far the greatest source is livestock agriculture.”
The WPF wants governments to stop subsidizing meat and dairy production.
“Meat and dairy consumption has helped to push global warming to tipping points," added Wedderburn-Bisshop. "It is driving massive environmental destruction and pollution and is killing us with diabetes, heart disease and cancers.”
But in many rural areas, people depend on animals for food and income.
A reduction in global livestock production is improbable, says Jerry Hatfield, director of Agriculture and the Environment at the US Department of Agriculture.
“We actually have more pasture and ranch land than we do arable land or land we put into cultivation,” said Hatfield.
He says research centers are looking at ways to make food animal operations more efficient while also protecting the environment.
“I think it’s all about balance, and I don’t think we have done a very good job,” added Hatfield.
Experts agree that the next few decades will present a puzzle, how to feed nine billion people without wrecking the planet in the process.