A report has been released by the U.N., in which it is urged that we reduce consumption of meat and dairy products as a means to mitigate climate change, hunger and fuel poverty It is stressed that food, transportation and housing must be made more sustainable if we seriously intend to ameliorate biodiversity loss and climate change, and as a matter of urgency. Some 30% of global CO2 emissions is a result of internationally traded goods, while the mining sector uses 7% of the world's energy: a fraction that is expected to increase in line with "growth", which has serious connotations regarding international policy. A doubling of income is predicted to cause an 81% increase in CO2 emissions, which is an alarming prospect in the context of the rising population, predicted to be over 9 billion by 2050. 70% of all the world's freshwater consumption is taken by agriculture, which also accounts for 38% of the total use of land, and 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These figures may in fact be optimistically low, since another study reports that some 85% of freshwater is used for agriculture, which either directly or indirectly, is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions. It has been estimated that it will be necessary to increase food production by 70% in 2050 if the population of the world is to be fed, but its expected increase from 7.3 billion now to perhaps 9.6 billion in 2050 will overwhelm any efficiency gains in agriculture. The production of animal products is particularly demanding in terms of land for grazing animals, and water, and a rising global middle class which is increasingly meat-hungry.
The above 70% increase in food production assumes that the western diet will spread to the Global South, with no reduction in consumption by the northern nations. 30-40% of cereals are presently fed to animals, which could rise to 50% if levels of meat and dairy consumption increase as predicted. It has been reckoned that 3.5 billion additional people could be fed if all cereals were given over for human consumption. Some 400 million tonnes of cereals could be made available for human diets, if meat and dairy were restricted to the levels being consumed in the year 2000, and this is sufficient to feed an extra 1.2 billion people. Moreover, it would be a better option to take meat into our diet from animals not fed on cereals, but grazed on grass, which is not a viable food source for humans. This would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially of nitrous oxide, primarily from nitrogen fertilizers: 74% of N2O emissions in the U.S. are from agricultural soils.
It has been concluded that it is possible to provide a healthy and sustainable diet for 9
billion people in 2050, giving each person a daily 3,000 kcal, of which
500 kcal is from animals. This would require less meat and dairy being
eaten by wealthier consumers, while allowing those in Asia and
sub-Saharan Africa more such protein sources. Food waste is another critical issue, since in the U.K. we import 40% of the food we eat, and yet half of what is made available to us is discarded. Typically 280-380 kg of food goes to waste in the U.S. and Europe, but a more modest 125-165 kg in poorer parts of the Global South. It is thought that global demand for food could be cut by 25% through measures to curb food waste, while across the world, more varied and healthful diets could be provided.
The soil itself has been described as being our "silent ally" in the "2015 International Year of Soils" programme, launched by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which emphasises that healthy soil is essential and underpinning in providing food, fuel fibre, and even medicine. As the FAO stresses: 'soils are also essential to our ecosystems, playing a key role in the
carbon cycle, storing and filtering water, and improving resilience to
floods and droughts, and yet we are not paying enough attention to this
important “silent ally”.' In regard to climate change, soils provide the largest pool of organic carbon, and hence it is vital not to degrade soil organic matter through unsustainable agricultural practices; soils are furthermore essential in the storage and distribution of water, meaning that degradation of the soils can only exacerbate the problems of heavily water stressed regions such as the Middle East.
It is reckoned that some 33% of all soil resources are degraded, and that "Unless
new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive
land per person will in 2050 be only one-fourth of the level in 1960." This level of degradation is a combined result of erosion, compaction, soil sealing, salinization, depletion of soil organic
matter and nutrients, acidification, and pollution, which are mainly caused by land management practices that are patently non-maintainable.
Soil degradation also threatens biodiversity, since the soil food web contains perhaps one quarter of all the biodiversity on Earth - within the earth, which covers its surface as a "fragile, living skin". The living organisms that make up the soil food web, including earthworms, "the tractors of the soil"; bacteria, nematodes and other microbes; the plant roots, and their associated mycorrhizal fungi, are the vanguard for the recycling of nutrients, and enhance the growth of plants through their greater absorption of nutrients. By supporting this hidden biodiversity below the ground, the more visible biodiversity above the ground is further buttressed. If we avoid treating the soil "like dirt", we may nurture the essential organisms that are critical in the ability of soil to absorb carbon and water, and attenuate the acceleration of climate change.