August 31, 2012

Should the world go vegetarian? Scientists say “no”

Official statement from the American Society of Animal Science Board of Directors

Limiting animal agriculture is not a healthy, sustainable way to save water. In a recent paper, the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) recommends that the world population save water by reducing the consumption of animal products by 75 percent. This recommendation is based on flawed data.

Meat, milk and eggs are important sources of protein and other nutrients. Apart from dietary necessity, animal agriculture also promotes environmental sustainability and the quality of cropland through the use of manure as a soil nutrient for pastures and rangelands through grazing.

The SIWI paper assumes that livestock are raised on land where rainfall could water crops instead. In reality, much of the land used for livestock grazing is too hilly or dry to support crops. According to Dr. Steve Washburn, animal science professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University, grazing animals on pasture allows farmers to make the most of marginal land.

Data from the USDA Economic Research Service show that in 2007, less than nine percent of pastureland was productive enough to be classified as cropland. In countries like Ireland and New Zealand, even more farmers rely on non-crop land for livestock grazing.

Many farmers have good reasons when they do raise livestock on cropland.

“It is part of a rotation so you are not continually cropping the same crop on the same land,” Washburn said.

Rotating animals between fields helps protect crop health. Manure from grazing animals also improves soil quality. Dr. Jude Capper, an adjunct professor of animal sciences at Washington State University and independent sustainability consultant, disagrees with the SIWI report. Capper said raising fewer animals would make it harder to fertilize crops.

“The fewer animals we have, the less fertilizer we have,” said Capper.

Management of livestock and crops in a sustainable, responsible fashion means more food for the growing world population.

There are many ways to save water in agriculture. Scientists today are working to reduce food wastage and develop more drought-tolerant crops. Reducing water use is vital, but the world cannot afford to go without animal agriculture.

Media contacts

Dr. Steve Washburn
North Carolina State University
Department of Animal Science
(919) 515-7726 / Steve_Washburn@ncsu.edu

Dr. Jude Capper
Washington State University
Department of Animal Science
509-335-6192 / capper@wsu.edu

Madeline McCurry-Schmidt
American Society of Animal Science
Scientific Communications Associate
217-689-2435 / madelinems@asas.org