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If Americans adopted a vegan diet, an additional 350 or more million people could be fed, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.
This is because the land used to raise cattle, pigs and chickens could produce enough food to sustain double the number of people if it were used to grow crops.
According to the report, titled The opportunity cost of animal-based diets exceeds all food losses: “With a third of all food production lost via leaky supply chains or spoilage, food loss is a key contributor to global food insecurity.
“Demand for resource-intensive animal-based food further limits food availability.
“In this paper, we show that plant-based replacements for each of the major animal categories in the United States (beef, pork, dairy, poultry, and eggs) can produce twofold to 20-fold more nutritionally similar food per unit cropland.
“Replacing all animal-based items with plant-based replacement diets can add enough food to feed 350 million additional people, more than the expected benefits of eliminating all supply chain food loss.”
The researchers – Alon Shepon, Gidon Eshel, Elad Noor and Ron Milo – used a computer program to work out how to remove animal foods like beef, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs from the American diet and replace them with ‘nutritionally comparable’ plant foods.
The plant-foods had to provide parity of calories, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals without increasing fat or cholesterol.
In addition, the plant foods had to do this while using the smallest amount of land possible.
When looking at how much food can be provided by an area of land, the researchers worked out that food loss was higher when it came to creating animal foods.
For example, the amount of land required to produce 100 grams of edible plant protein, only yields 60 grams of edible protein if used to produce eggs.
And the results were worse for other animal foods: rearing chickens resulted in 50 grams of edible protein, dairy cows yielded 25 grams, pigs yielded 10 grams, and cows just four grams of edible protein in the form of beef.
Scaling up the results, researchers concluded that if all animal foods – beef, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs – were replaced with plant protein (including potatoes, peanuts, soybeans) – the total edible food available would increase by 120 percent.
US food loss – which is a result of factors including poilage and inefficient production – is around 30-40 percent of farmers’ total yields.
As the researchers noted: “The effect of recovering the opportunity food loss is larger than completely eliminating all conventional food losses in the United States.”
According to the researchers: “Although conventional and opportunity food losses are both targets for improvement, the high opportunity food losses highlight the large potential savings beyond conventionally defined food losses.
“Concurrently replacing all animal-based items in the US diet with plant-based alternatives will add enough food to feed, in full, 350 million additional people, well above the expected benefits of eliminating all supply chain food waste.
“These results highlight the importance of dietary shifts to improving food availability and security.”
They noted that although a plant-based diet would provide more nutrients overall, some micronutrient intakes – including vitamin B12 – would dip.