Solving the Problem

According to current statistics, there are approximately seven billion persons on earth.  The World Bank shares statistics about global poverty, which can be found at http://data.worldbank.org/topic/poverty. According to these figures, almost seventy percent of South Asia and seventy percent of Sub-Saharan Africa are populated by those who live on less than two U.S. dollars per day.  In the Middle East and North Africa, the number is twelve percent, in Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s ten percent.  In East Asia and the Pacific, almost thirty percent live with this “income,” and in Europe and Central Asia, it’s just over two percent.  These percentages represent billions of human beings. These “numbers” live in poverty, of which aching hunger is a part, and they signify a staggering percentage of the human population.

It can be frustrating to want to help those in need, but feel that there simply isn’t enough to give.  The majority of us have difficulty contributing financially, finding ourselves strapped to make our own ends meet.  Interestingly enough, all that is required is a shift in mindset.  We’re conditioned to believe that the only way to make a difference is to sign a cheque, but I’d contend that this is actually the least effective way to generate change.  Global hunger is so great that an individual donation might carry the same weight as a drop of water dispersed in the ocean.  The best way to become a global citizen of clout and positive influence is to make personal choices that discourage reckless waste.  Selecting foods that make the most effective use of natural resources is a definite way to do this.

Consider these statistics (watch out for the math!):

A cow of average market size provides just over four-hundred pounds of meat, some of which is “suet” and other materials which can be used as part of meals, but cannot constitute “stand-alone” food (http://www.oda.state.ok.us/food/fs-cowweight.pdf, http://www.cattletoday.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=43995).  Given a recommended portion size of meat per person (seventy-five grams), one cow – at a yield of four-hundred pounds of edible meat – would feed just about 2419 persons one meal.  According to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, a cow will generally require an average of thirty-seven pounds of hay per day (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/beef/facts/roundbales.htm) (this figure is a very rough estimate – factors like foraging, hydration, etc. hugely influence hay intake).  Purdue University indicates that one acre will (again, roughly) yield just under one-hundred, ninety-six pounds of hay in a harvest (http://www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/forages/rotational/articles/PDFs-articles/calculating-hay-yields.pdf). Thus, one acre will feed five cows for a day.  Also according to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, a cow must be no less than thirty months old if it is to be slaughtered for meat.  If the general rule of weaning at seven to eight months old is followed, then for approximately twenty-three months, a cow will be eating close to those thirty-seven pounds of hay per day (barring other food systems, which also require land).  Five cows per acre per day means that five cows will require thirty acres per month, and three-hundred sixty acres per year.  If they aren’t sold for meat prior to thirty months of age, and begin to eat hay at seven months old, then nearly seven-hundred twenty acres are used to raise five cows for slaughter.  That’s one-hundred forty-four acres for one cow in order to get it ready to feed 2419 persons one meal.

Let’s look at a vegetarian source of protein now. There are roughly two and a half acres in a hectare. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian yield for lentils in 2007 was 1.26 tonnes per hectare (http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/pulses-and-special-crops-canadian-industry/lentil/lentil-statistics/?id=1174496962952), which is one half tonne per acre. Thus, in 2007, in Canada, a half tonne of lentils was produced per acre.  Let’s avoid further eye-strain and make these numbers “digestible.”

One-hundred, seventy five millilitres of lentils, cooked, is the same as just under one-hundred fifty grams, using 0.85 g/ml as the measure of density (http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/ap815e/ap815e.pdf). Assuming that the Agriculture and Agri-Food document listed above is measuring weight by metric ton, then a single tonne of lentils is the same as 1000000 grams, which is (very roughly) 850000 millilitres.

Let’s keep going. We saw above that a half tonne of lentils can be grown in one acre, which is the same as 425000 millilitres. This yields, at a serving size of one-hundred seventy-five millilitres per person, 2429 meals. Think about it this way.  One cow, over roughly the two years that it requires to mature to “marketable” age, will require one-hundred, forty-four acres of land (assuming that it is only hay-fed, and doesn’t require additional land for forage).  Overall, this one cow will feed 2419 persons one meal. That same acreage, planted with lentils, would yield seventy-two tonnes, the same as 72000000 grams.  That’s 61200000 millilitres.  At our handy serving size of 175 millilitres, that’s 349714 persons fed one meal.  These numbers are astonishing. We understand that crop rotation, the type of food mix that livestock eat, weather patterns, and other variables can influence these figures.  But given a very rough appraisal of the above statistics, which were valid for the years from which they were taken, planting a given amount of land with vegetarian protein sources would feed almost one-hundred fifty times (150x) more human beings than using that same amount of land for animal production.

There is also the consideration of water use.  An article featured on the Stanford Alumni page states that “[p]roducing one pound of animal protein requires 100 times more water than producing one pound of grain protein” (http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=29892) and an excellent paper written by David and Marcia Pimentel, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, confirms that a “meat-based diet requires more energy, land, and water resources than the lacto ovo vegetarian diet” (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full.pdf+html).

Now, let’s look at the nutritional profile on a serving size of beef (using a popular cut, t-bone steak, as a reference) and a serving size of legumes. According to the Canada Food Guide, which can be found here: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/basics-base/serving-portion-eng.php, a serving size of meat is seventy-five grams.  According to the same guide, a serving size of beans or lentils is one-hundred seventy five millilitres.

Please note that the information in bold has been drawn from the following sources:

http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/beef-products/3608/2

http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4338/2

https://www.google.ca/search?q=calories+of+75+grams+of+t-bone+steak&rlz=1C1LENN_enCA549CA549&oq=calories+of+75+grams+of+t-bone+steak&aqs=chrome..69i57.7410j0&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

http://www.lesliebeck.com/ingredients/lentils

Let’s begin with macronutrients.  A serving size of t-bone steak contains approximately fifteen grams of fat (of which approximately twenty-five percent is saturated), just under twenty grams of protein, and zero carbohydrates. 

With regard to micronutrients, it provides no vitamin C, A, D, or calcium. It has a small amount of magnesium, but significant amounts of B-12 and zinc.  It has just over two-hundred milligrams of potassium and roughly fifty milligrams of sodium.  Thus, the nutrients that are most heavily represented in a serving of this kind of meat are protein, B-12, and zinc.

Looking at a serving of lentils, there is less than one gram of fat, roughly one percent of which is saturated.  There are forty grams of carbohydrate and close to twenty grams of protein, depending on variety.  This last figure may be quite surprising to those who believe that meat contains significantly greater amounts of protein than plant-foods. 

In terms of micronutrients, vitamins C, A, and D are not highly represented, though lentils contains more vitamin C than does the serving of beef.  Nearly twenty percent of the recommended daily allowance of magnesium is present (roughly seventy milligrams).  There is little to no B-12, but there is twenty-two percent of the RDA of thiamine, another B vitamin, and almost ninety percent of the RDA of folate.  Vitamin B6 is also highly represented.  There is just over twenty percent of the RDA for potassium, and trace amounts of sodium.  Interestingly, there is significantly more iron in lentils than in t-bone steak, and the overall mineral profile on lentils is greater than that for this cut of meat.  Bioavailability influences the absorption rates of these micronutrients, but research concerning bioavailability is sometimes suspect.

Overall, the vegetarian option contains decidedly less fat, and no saturated fat, which the beef contains in considerable amounts.  The vitamin and mineral profile on the legumes is also greater than that of the beef.  A serving of legumes provides more water content than the beef, and the difference in fibre content is vast.  While the lentils contain almost sixty-five percent of the RDA for fibre, the meat contains none at all. These are the basic figures, but why are they important?

The University of Maryland provides a concise overview of the roles of various vitamins, which can be found here: http://umm.edu/health/medical/ency/articles/vitamins  As well, Deakin University has a good overview of the B-family of vitamins, found here: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Vitamin_B

Have a look, also, at http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/pulses-and-special-crops-canadian-industry/lentil/?id=1174596720488. While these nutritional facts might belong to the “sustainable health” category, I think that it’s important to consider the nutritional density of foods in comparison to the amount of land “equity” required to produce them.  Given the proportion of the global human population that subsists without decent nourishment, and dies for want of it, it seems to me that the only responsible choice is to raise those products that make the best and most effective use of land, and produce sufficient food to feed all those who are hungry.

The impact of growing “x” amount of legumes is much less than raising a cow, specifically in terms of water, land, and energy use.  Given considerations of space, it is almost criminal, to my way of thinking, to raise cattle for the benefit of a select, comparatively wealthy few. Billions of men, women, and children live in conditions of entirely preventable near-starvation.  Economists and politicians will have to forgive my naïveté – I understand that endeavours of human welfare often require the blessings of free-trade agreements, sanctions, export costs, and taxes – but the numbers related to land-use per crop, per head are simple.

And so, it is for reasons like these that I support vegetarian and vegan diets.  I would highly recommend reading John Robbin’s Diet for a New America. There are many books that have been published since about similar topics, and many would have updated statistics, but Robbins presents his findings in a very elegant and comprehensible way.  As always, it is important to determine for yourself, on the basis of your own investigation, what the most appropriate path is for you.

Namaste.