In a Meat-Free Future, What Would Happen to All the Cows, Pigs and Chickens?

As more and more of us switch to plant-based protein, real meat seems increasingly obsolete — but the demise of animal agriculture comes with some serious global side effects

The rise of faux-meats has seemingly solved a few, but not all, of the conundrums we face when it comes to eating real meat: It tastes good; it’s normally better for us; it produces a smaller carbon footprint; and most significantly, it correlates with fewer animals experiencing pain for our benefit. Some experts posit that the cost component could be lessened soon too, as investments from major food producers and infrastructure growth make the production of faux-meats more affordable

But what then, will come of all the cows, pigs and chickens we’ve raised for food when plant-based proteins become the more sustainable option? According to Alison L. Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotechnology expert at the University of California, Davis, they’d simply all die out (barring those that might be kept in zoos as a reminder, perhaps). “If suddenly there was zero demand for animals, we just wouldn’t produce them anymore,” she says. 

Thing is, a ton of people would also die. “The land that’s currently grazed by ruminants would no longer serve a food purpose, and we’d have to produce that food somewhere else,” explains Van Eenennaam. “There’s a limited amount of arable land on earth, and somehow that would have to produce everything. Our population would have to dramatically decrease in size.”

It turns out, ruminant animals, like cows, primarily eat plants that humans can’t digest — only about 10 percent of their diet is edible for us. Further, much of the land utilized for cattle farming isn’t much good for anything else. “You can’t grow crops because there’s no water, or it’s too rugged. Where it’s appropriate to grow crops, we grow crops,” says Van Eenennaam. “The Midwest doesn’t have that luxury. Everybody grows the highest profitable crop they can. Land that’s used for ruminant animals is a very low-return enterprise — cattle ranches don’t make much money. The reason the land is used for that purpose is because there’s no better use for it.”

Currently, Van Eenennaam estimates that animal agriculture represents 63 percent of farming in the U.S. Were that to end, rural areas with few other economic opportunities would risk financial collapse. To an extent, we’ve seen the impacts of these changes in animal agriculture with dairy. 

“These types of seismic shifts have been happening: The dairy cow population is about 9 million in the U.S. now; in 1944, there were 26 million,” says Van Eenennaam. “This is mostly because the cows are way more productive, about four times more, so we’re able to produce more with less animals. A whole bunch of farmers have gone out of business: Dairy prices are low, so many more farmers are going bankrupt. It has huge impacts on rural economies and land use. These farmers sell the land to get developed into houses, so pasture land capturing carbon is now a block of apartments.”

Hypothetically, then, land previously used for beef cattle could end up used for housing, which could introduce its own set of negative environmental impacts. The statistics regarding climate change and animal agriculture vary: In a 2017 op-ed in The Guardian, film director James Cameron and his wife, environmental activist Suzy Amis Cameron, wrote, “Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. It also uses about 70 percent of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution.” 

According to Van Eenennaam, however, statistics regarding the environmental impact of animal agriculture tend to be exaggerated or narrow-sighted. In one major study of plant-based meats published by the National Academy of Sciences, complete removal of animals from U.S. agriculture was projected to only reduce greenhouse gasses by 2.6 percent, as imports and food processing would need to increase in order to support nutritional needs. 

Further, countries like India and Brazil have far larger cattle populations than the U.S., largely because cattle offers more affordable, nutrient-dense foods (dairy in India, beef in Brazil) than would otherwise be feasible to grow. Without these cattle populations, many countries would have a serious food and nutrient shortage. Vitamin B12, in particular, is challenging to source without animal products.

There are numerous other issues that would need to be accounted for, too, were there to be a drastic decline in global animal agriculture. Fertilizer, for example, most sustainably comes from manure. Chemical-based fertilizers are, of course, inorganic, and can have potentially adverse side-effects on water and soil

None of this is to say that increasing the consumption of plant-based foods is a bad thing per se –– it just won’t solve all our environmental and dietary issues in the way many of us probably hope. “[Plant-based foods] will have a place — they’ll complement proteins produced through animal agriculture, but I don’t think they will replace it,” says Van Eenennaam. “The way it would replace it, quite frankly, is if it became less expensive, and provided the same nutrients. Those two things haven’t happened yet.”

As it stands, plant-based meats like Beyond Burgers are more expensive than their real counterparts. They also aren’t necessarily “good” for you, as the fat content makes them comparable to beef burgers. However, Beyond Burgers do indeed contain a complete amino acid profile, rivaling that of beef, which is something that other plant-based foods previously couldn’t accomplish. 

Nevertheless, for much of the country (and more so, much of the world), real meat is more affordable and readily available, so where does this leave those of us in the privileged position to eat well, do less harm and reduce our carbon footprint? In Van Eenennaam’s estimation, it remains to be seen what the “best” way of eating will be, although she personally subscribes to the traditional ideology of “everything in moderation.” 

“Given projected increases in population, particularly in Africa and Asia, we’re going to need all hands on deck to get the projected population satiated. We’re going to need both meat and plant-based foods.”

Ultimately, there’s no perfect solution: even increasing the number of fruits and vegetables in our diets would be detrimental to the environment, not to mention the ethical implications of low-wage, hazardous farm work. High-fat foods like corn and soy-based oils, meanwhile, are both cheap and have less of an environmental impact than fruits, vegetables or meat, but aren’t very healthy. 

“If you’re concerned about human health, you’re going to have a higher environmental impact than if you were trying to minimize costs or benefit the environment,” says Van Eenennaam. “There are all these competing goals. Whatever your objective, being healthy, helping the environment, helping animals… there’s no ‘get out of jail free’ card.” 

All of which means, it’s going to be a while — if ever — before we see cows, pigs and chickens get their own special section at the zoo.