This argument claims that since there is not enough land or water for the whole world to go vegan, going vegan is in some way pointless, impractical or even harmful. This in turn is used as a justification for consuming animals since doing otherwise would be unsustainable or a waste of resources. This argument is easy to dismiss, as it is contrary to the facts under any authoritative measurement of land and water use.
When calculating the land use required for farmed animals, we need to take into account two factors, the land animals require to graze or be housed on, and the land it takes to grow the crops which feed them. At present a full 1/3 of the planet’s land surface and 2/3 of available agricultural land is used for farming animals. If we look at cows, for example, it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. That’s 94% more land, and 94% more pesticides than just eating that grain directly. All told, livestock consume 70% of all the grain we produce, 75% of all soy, and a fifth of all water consumed globally. Farmed animals take in far more calories in crop feed than they will ever give out in meat, meaning that they are literally detracting from the global food supply. If the world went vegan, we would add an addition 70% to the world’s global food supply, enough to comfortably feed everyone if it were equally distributed. Even considering the fact that global market forces and capitalism means that distribution would never be equal, 70% more food in the world means significantly less people go hungry.
These kinds of vast numbers can be difficult to make sense of, but using a more concrete example, if we take a 2.5 acre piece of farmland the number of people whose food energy needs can be met by this land would be 23 people if producing cabbage, 22 for potatoes, 19 for rice, 17 for corn, 15 for wheat, 2 for chicken, and just 1 for eggs and beef. It is undeniable that by any reasonable measurement we could feed far more people using far less land if the world moved towards a vegan diet. This is why even the United Nations is advocating a global shift towards plant based eating. When we consider the massive deforestation required to create grazing land for farmed animals and to grow the crops to feed them, and that 91% of formerly forested amazon cleared since 1971 has been used for cattle grazing, the impact that this would have not only on humans but the environment and endangered species cannot be overstated.
In terms of water use, water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually. Approximately a fifth of that water consumption is from animal agriculture alone. It has been conclusively demonstrated that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value. To demonstrate this, 1L of soya milk produced in Belgium has a water footprint of about 300 L, whereas the water footprint of 1L of cow’s milk from the same country is more than three times bigger. The water footprint of a 150g soya burger produced in the Netherlands appears to be about 160L, while the water footprint of an average 150-g beef burger produced in the same place is nearly fifteen times bigger.
It could be argued at this point that this is only the statistics from one country who happens to measure these factors fairly stringently. So instead, let us look at the figures for California, which is often cited as an example when condemning vegan diets, with respect to the water use of growing almonds. This is a rather unfair example, since California grows 80% of the world’s almonds, but even here, the average person uses 1500 gallons of water per person per day, but close to half of that is associated with meat and dairy products. This is because, while almonds are notoriously water intensive at1,929 gallons per pound, even the most conservative estimates for beef place water consumption at 2,500 gallons per pound, and dairy is 2044 gallons per pound. This is when compared with some of the most water intensive plant foods, but when compared with rice at 299 gallons and potatoes at 34 gallons, the comparison isn’t even close.
It is clear then, that the data overwhelmingly demonstrates that it takes significantly more land and water to cater for an omnivorous diet when compared with a vegan one. If this argument comes from a place of genuine concern about water and land use, then those holding it are forced to acknowledge that the best way they can live by their own principles is to adopt a vegan diet.