Will we be restricted to a vegetarian diet by 2050?

With our population expected to grow by two billion by 2050, a vegetarian diet may be our only option. Image: Shutterstock.

Too much water required to ‘grow’ a steak.

Bad news for barbecue buffs: scientists predict that by mid-century there won’t be enough water to accommodate the water-intensive practices used in meat production. The 2012 World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, closed last week with a haunting vision of what our resources, or lack of, will look like in 2050.

Based on current trends in Western food consumption and population growth, researchers suggest that a drastic reduction in the consumption of animal-based products will be needed to secure food for an extra 2 billion people on the planet. According to water scientists at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), we currently derive about 20 per cent of our protein from animal-based products, but this may need to drop to just 5 per cent,

“Feeding everyone well is a primary challenge for this century. Overeating, undernourishment and waste are all on the rise and increased food production may face future constraints from water scarcity,” said SIWI director of knowledge services Anders Jägerskog. “We will need a new recipe to feed the world in the future.” Anders is the co-author of the new SIWI report: “Feeding a thirsty world: Challenges and opportunities for a water and food secure world.“

Today, nearly one billion people still suffer from hunger and malnourishment, despite the fact that food production has been steadily increasing on a per capita basis for decades (SIWI). However, researchers the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded that we will have to increase food production by 70 per cent by mid-century, placing additional pressure on our already stressed water resources.

“Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world,” Jägerskog claimed. “Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet, and one third of the world’s arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.” For instance, according to Waterfootprint, one kilogram of beef requires over 15,000 litres of water to be produced (much of that water is used to irrigate livestock feed). To put this into perspective, making a 150-grams beef burger requieres about 1,000 litres of water, but a 150-gram soy burger only requieres about 160 litres.

According to researchers, we’ll be forced to eat less meat in the years to come, not by government intervention, but for the impact it will have on our wallet. Already meat eating is on the decline in Australia, with the price of beef reaching 16 dollars in 2007, compared to just over 10 dollars in 2000 (Australia’s Chicken Meat Federation).

A vegetarian diet could be the best solution to the increasing water scarcity problem the world is facing. It would mean that the crops grown would be used to feed people instead of feeding livestock. Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit.

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