Are We All Going to Be Vegetarians by 2050?

Global food shortages may force the world's population to adopt a meat-free diet, according to a new report.

Would you frown at forced vegetarianism? (Photo: Image Source/Getty Images)

Aug 28, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Juicy burgers, smoky barbeque brisket, and savory short ribs may all become just fond memories by 2050, warn leading water scientists from the Stockholm International Water Institute. A new report says the world may need to adopt a vegetarian diet to avoid severe food shortages brought on by a booming world population.

“Humans derive about 20 percent of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5 percent to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050,” writes John Vidal in The Guardian.

This isn’t the same old drum beat.

Looming price spikes for commodity crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat, created by this summer’s severe drought, may foreshadow a much more serious reality: one where water usage becomes a tug-of-war between agricultural usage to feed the planet and critical energy production, which is expected to increase 60 percent.

“The analysis showed that there will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected population in 2050 if we follow current trends,” says the report. “There will, however, be just enough water, if the proportion of animal based foods is limited to 5 per cent of total calories.”

This isn’t just about a cow needing a cool sip of water. Irrigation for crops is responsible for 70 percent of the world’s water withdrawals. The reason animals are tied with water usage is because they’re eating concentrated crops.

“Chicken and pork are far more efficient,” Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, tells TakePart. “And big gains can be made by altering the diet. Not all beef is created equal. If you want to eliminate the water use for beef, choose grass-fed and you’re done. And switching from beef to chicken, poultry, eggs, and dairy—while not as efficient as being vegetarian—is three to five times more efficient than beef.”

As many environmentalists say, we’re at “peak everything,” which means that in order to avoid a future of catastrophic shortages, it is imperative that we change.

“I think this warning [about forced vegetarianism] is the future if we do nothing to adapt,” says Foley. “But it’s a warning, not a prediction. I think a lot of change can be made by switching our diet. Irrigation technology can be greatly improved. Yes, water is a huge pressure, but we still have tricks up our sleeve to make change. I do agree change is necessary. The current status quo is not sustainable at all.”