When Julius Caesar made his triumphal entrance into Rome in 45 B.C., he celebrated by giving a feast at which thousands of guests gorged on poultry, seafood and game. Similar celebrations featuring exorbitant consumption of animal flesh have marked human victories--in war, sport, politics and commerce--since our species learned to control fire. Throughout the developing world today, one of the first things people do as they climb out of poverty is to shift from their peasant diet of mainly grains and beans to one that is rich in pork or beef. Since 1950, per capita consumption of meat around the globe has more than doubled.
Meat, it seems, is not just food but reward as well. But in the coming century, that will change. Much as we have awakened to the full economic and social costs of cigarettes, we will find we can no longer subsidize or ignore the costs of mass-producing cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep and fish to feed our growing population. These costs include hugely inefficient use of freshwater and land, heavy pollution from livestock feces, rising rates of heart disease and other degenerative illnesses, and spreading destruction of the forests on which much of our planet's life depends.
First, consider the impact on supplies of freshwater. To produce 1 lb. of feedlot beef requires 7 lbs. of feed grain, which takes 7,000 lbs. of water to grow. Pass up one hamburger, and you'll save as much water as you save by taking 40 showers with a low-flow nozzle. Yet in the U.S., 70% of all the wheat, corn and other grain produced goes to feeding herds of livestock. Around the world, as more water is diverted to raising pigs and chickens instead of producing crops for direct consumption, millions of wells are going dry. India, China, North Africa and the U.S. are all running freshwater deficits, pumping more from their aquifers than rain can replenish. As populations in water-scarce regions continue to expand, governments will inevitably act to cut these deficits by shifting water to grow food, not feed. The new policies will raise the price of meat to levels unaffordable for any but the rich.
That prospect will doubtless provoke protests that direct consumption of grain can't provide the same protein that meat provides. Indeed, it can't. But nutritionists will attest that most people in the richest countries don't need nearly as much protein as we're currently getting from meat, and there are plenty of vegetable sources--including the grains now squandered on feed--that can provide the protein we need.