If Australia goes vegan, will there be enough land to feed everyone?

For some people one of the barriers to going vegan is the concern that the environment and the economy will not be able to support a vegan world.
apple orchard farm

This is a talk given by Greg McFarlane at the Animal Activists Forum in October 2019.

Good afternoon. In this talk I will look at some of the objections people might have to moving towards a vegan world, in particular, how a fully vegan agricultural system in Australia might impact jobs, the economy and whether there will be enough food to feed everyone.

For some people one of the barriers to going vegan is the concern that the environment and the economy will not be able to support a vegan world.

In this talk I will look at the facts behind these objections and I hope it will provide you with the knowledge and confidence to respond to these sorts of questions in your advocacy work.

One of the steps towards a vegan world is a vegan agricultural system. Of course, there are other crucial changes that need to be made, such as changes in attitude and behaviour and the non-food uses of animals. But in this talk, I will concentrate on the transition to a vegan agricultural system and look at questions about food supply, employment, economic impacts and how land use might change and how society as a whole should bear the costs of making these changes. I will also look at some of the impacts on the environment of a vegan agricultural system.

When I use the term vegan agricultural system, I mean a farming system where no animals are used in any way, including fish. No animals would be bred, raised, caught or slaughtered. No animal products would be used, including manure, blood and bone, fish meal, etc. It would cover all of Australia as well as imports.

This talk focusses on food. There are other products of animal agriculture, but food is, by far, the main product.

This talk has a lot of statistics, so I thought I'd give you the take away points first:

Yes, there will be enough land to feed everyone, even if we all go vegan. In fact there will be far more than enough land.

Despite what the animal agriculture industry would have you believe, animal agriculture is a fairly small part of the modern Australian economy, around 1.2%.

Animal agriculture does not provide much employment, again around 1.2%. So it shouldn't be too hard to find alternative work for people in the animal agriculture industry.

Animal agriculture uses about 54% of the Australian landmass and contributes about 50% of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

In transitioning to a world where animals are no longer used or exploited, we should also try to maintain reasonable living conditions for humans as much as possible. We should make sure that we have enough food to eat so everyone can be healthy. We should ensure the standard of living is not reduced. We should protect the environment for future generations. And we should minimise disruption to the economy and especially to employment.

While there will be many benefits of a vegan world, there will also be costs involved in this transition and so it is important that these cost be shared by society as a whole. In particular, workers in the former animal agriculture industry should be assisted to move into other work. We all have a shared responsibility to bear the costs of ending animal agriculture.

These guidelines will motivate our recommendations for change.

To drill down further into some of these points, we will first look at how much land is currently being used for animal agriculture and then how much land we would need if everyone only ate plants.

The Australian government provides a lot of detailed information about how land is used in Australia. This map summarises some of this data. The bright coloured areas show the strip of highly productive land known as the "intensive zone". This runs along eastern and southern Australia and part of the south west of Western Australia. Much of this land was originally forested, with the orange and yellow areas now used for intensive agriculture.

The rest of Australia, known as the "extensive zone" is too dry for cropping, but about half of it can support animal grazing as shown in the pale coloured areas.

Currently, 54% of the Australian continent is used for animal farming. Most of this is land used for grazing, along with some land used for growing food for farmed animals.

In other words, over half of the Australian landmass is used to produce animals as food, as shown in the large red area of this pie graph.

In contrast, only 4% is used to grow plant foods and about a quarter of that is used to grow grains and fodder for feeding farmed animals.

You might be wondering about the kale, avocados, tomatoes and other vegetables. What about the peaches and almonds and other fruits and nuts. How much land does growing all the fruits, vegetables and nuts use?

The answer is only 0.1%. Cotton is another 0.1% and sugar another 0.1%. These are shown as the very small blue segment.

The differences are astounding, with a huge amount of land dedicated to raising animals for food, a much smaller part growing crops like wheat and barley, and a tiny amount growing all the fruit and vegetables doctors say we need to eat more of.

As you can see, growing plants for food is an incredibly efficient use of land.

Now we'll move from how land is used today, to how land might be used when Australia goes vegan. We'll look at how much land that is currently being used for animal farming, could be used to grow plant foods.

First there is the land used to grow the huge amounts of grain and fodder that is fed to farmed animals. 90% of food for chickens and pigs are grains. 30% of cattle are fed on grains when they are 'finished' in feedlots. Amazingly, twice as much grain is fed to animals than humans in Australia. Nearly all of this land could be used to grow food for humans.

Then there is dairying, which is usually on very good land. There are some good cases of dairy farms being converted to macadamia farms and producing macadamia milk instead.

And with dairy farmers' income going down and more consumers moving toward plant-based options, there will be even more reason to move out of dairying.

There is also a lot of irrigated land that is used as pasture for farmed animals. This could easily be converted to human use.

Finally there is non-irrigated land in the intensive zone that is used for grazing. Some of this would be suitable for growing plant foods.

In total this means there would be at least 3% of the Australian landmass that could be converted from animal production to plant production. This figure may be much higher than 3%, possibly closer to 10%. Remember that 54% of Australia is currently used for animal farming.

So if we all stop eating animals, we will clearly need to consume more plant foods. How much would this be? Again, the government gives us good statistics on this. On average, each person in Australia consumes about 70 grams of animal protein per day, which equals about 640,000 tonnes per year for all Australians.

In terms of protein plants, this equates to about 3 million tonnes of beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc. So, how much land would it take to grow this much extra plant food?

To grow an extra 3 million tonnes of plant food we would require about 0.3% of the Australian landmass. To make sure Australia continued to provide food for people overseas, we would need another 0.2% to grow plant foods that would replace current exports of animal products.

This means we have between 6 times and 20 times more land than we need to feed everyone if we converted from animal production to plant production. Even using the most conservative figure we have much more land than required.

So, luckily, we won't all starve if everyone goes vegan, a prediction I am sure you have heard from people looking for excuses not to go vegan.

You may also hear people claim that breeding, raising and killing animals is the backbone of Australia. They say that Australia "rides on the sheep's back".

While historically animal agriculture played a dominant role in the economy, it is definitely not the case now. Depending on how you measure it, animal agriculture contributes around 1.2% to the economy and provides around 1.2% of jobs. So ending the animal agriculture industry and transitioning to a vegan agricultural system should not have a serious impact on the economy or jobs. If we handle it right, it could have a very positive effect.

This graph shows the relative sizes of various industries in Australia. The red section represents the primary industries, with agriculture being the narrow sliver at the top. Animal agriculture is about half of this, at about 1%. Apart from the Arts, animal agriculture is the smallest contributor to the Australian economy.

The education sector is 4 times bigger, manufacturing 5 times bigger and construction 7 times bigger.

This graph summarises the dollar value of all agricultural production. While it changes a little from year to year, it shows that the total value of animal farming is usually slightly smaller than plant farming.

It is interesting to note that the reddish section, representing animal products, takes about 54% of Australia's land to produce, whereas the orange cropping section takes about 4% and the blue section, representing vegetables, fruits and nuts takes only 0.1% of the land.

Also note that this entire circle represents only about 2% of the Australian economy. If we look at the poultry section, we have an industry that makes up less than one thousandth of the Australian economy and yet kills over half a billion animals every year.

As well as the contribution to the Australian domestic economy, we should also look at exports. Around two-thirds of Australia's agricultural production is exported. However, compared to other export industries, animal agriculture is one of the smallest, making up only about 7% of all exports.

As can be seen in this graph, total agriculture has declined in importance as an export industry, going from almost 50% 50 years ago to its current level of around 14%, with animal agriculture about half of that.

But we must ensure that Australia continues to provide food for people around the world, and so we would need to increase production and export of plant foods. As we have seen, this is entirely feasible and under a vegan agricultural system, Australia has the potential to export even more food.

The proportion of people employed in agriculture has been going down for decades, as shown in this graph. Agricultural employment is only one quarter of what it was 50 years ago. Animal agriculture now contributes around 1.2% to national employment. The economy is still strong even after this rapid decline and there is no reason to believe that it would not be able to handle a further decline to 0%. This is similar to the decline and eventual closure of the Australian car industry. Except we should handle it much better to ensure workers have jobs.

As I am sure you are aware, a vegan agricultural system would have many positive impacts on the environment. Regarding land use, the main benefits are the first two listed here: the reduction and possible reversal of greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in biodiversity along with a reduction of species extinctions.

Along with fossil fuels, animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. When measured over a 20 year time scale and including short lived gases, it is responsible for emitting about 50% of greenhouse gases in both Australia and worldwide.

This figure of 50% is higher than that usually reported because it uses a different way of measuring emissions. It is equally valid and possibly more useful, because a 20 year time scale is more relevant to the current climate crisis.

Studies carried out by researchers in Australia show that over 20 times more fresh water is required to produce animal products compared to the same amount of plant products. Animal agriculture puts a huge strain on our water resources and compromises our water security.

As the graph shows for Australia, producing beef, lamb, pork and other animal products takes many times more water than growing an equivalent amount of plant foods, like grains, beans, fruit and vegetables.

Moving to a vegan agricultural system would help our rivers recover.

As we have seen, growing plants for food is very efficient. This means we will need a lot less land in a plant based farming system. In fact, over one half of Australia will be freed up for other uses. What are some of the things we can do with this land that was previously used for animal agriculture?

This is an area where we need to do a lot more research. There are many regions in Australia with different types of land and climate and each one would have to be handled differently. However, we can make some predictions.

Since we won't be able to grow crops on much of this land, an excellent use of it would be to use it to regrow native vegetation. This will have two major benefits. Firstly it will draw down carbon from the atmosphere, thus helping reverse greenhouse gas emissions and secondly it will increase biodiversity and reduce the risk of species extinctions.

Other uses of the land would be to convert the large wheat/sheep zone to crop growing only. There could also be a small increase in forestry.

Much of the land in the intensive zone is multi-use, where crops such as wheat, barley, oats and rice are grown in alternation with sheep and cattle grazing. The area of multi-use land is shown as the grey "Wheat-Sheep Zone" in this image. This land should continue to be used for cropping only. Further research needs to be done on whether the manure from the grazing animals contributes to the fertility of the soil and how this can be handled in a stock-free farming system, such as by planting alternative crops to generate green manure.

There is also good scope for carbon farming in the wheat belt, by planting trees in less productive parts of the area. This may make up the possible loss of income of about 20% when removing animals from this zone.

Emissions reductions and carbon sequestration in the agriculture sector is one of the lowest cost methods to address the climate crisis. By permanently revegetating the land, atmospheric carbon will by captured in vegetation and the soil.

It is encouraging that carbon farming is already happening in Australia, with farmers planting millions of trees on their land and getting paid under the government's Emissions Reduction Fund. This image is an example from a farm in the Western Australian wheat belt.

While the government's Emissions Reduction Fund supports a number of carbon farming techniques, it is disappointing to note that it specifically excludes permanent destocking as an approved activity. In other words, the government does not support removing animals from agriculture, even though this will go a long way to help Australia quickly reach its greenhouse gas targets. Clearly, an emissions reduction scheme that supports a vegan agricultural system is required.

By allowing much of the land that has been cleared for animals to return to forest, the land use sector would then become a sink for emissions from other sectors, such as power generation and transport.

The Australian government is encouraging farmers to create permanent mallee tree plantings in areas of low rainfall, as part of the Carbon Farming Initiative.

Mallee trees grow quickly and can thrive even in marginal areas. They have a large root system capable of storing carbon underground. They have a long lifespan of over 100 years.

Investment in mallee plantings for carbon sequestration has been going on in Australia since 2003.

Due mainly to grazing animals, there has been a massive loss of soil carbon in Australia's agricultural soils since the 1800s.

One way to reverse this is biochar, which is charcoal made from plant matter that is put back into soil. It consists of around 75% carbon and is produced by partly burning plant matter in an oxygen-limited environment. Its production can produce clean energy and when in soil it can be used to sequester carbon, increase crop yields and improve water quality in run off.

The use of biochar has the potential to achieve continuous draw-down of carbon dioxide, particularly when using woody plants like mallee that grow multiple stems which quickly regrow after harvesting. A single mallee tree can be harvested and re-harvested for over 100 years.

Using trees in this way can have a far greater potential to provide ongoing carbon sequestration than permanent plantations. Biochar is very stable and the carbon in the soil will remain there long term, with current estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands of years.

Biochar contains essential plant nutrients such as potassium and magnesium and is alkaline and so can improve the fertility of poor and acidic soils. Biochar can be applied to cropping land to improve yields, such as in the West Australian wheat belt.

Just to show that biochar is serious business, there happens to be a six day Biochar Conference starting today in Melbourne.

This is another example of how land can be repurposed. Runoff caused by animal agriculture is devastating the Great Barrier Reef. The Queensland Government has bought and destocked Springvale cattle station in Far North Queensland to protect the Reef. All cattle have been removed and degraded grazing land is being restored to help protect the Reef from silt. Cattle grazing on the property generated 460,000 tonnes of sediment runoff every year. It has now been declared a nature refuge.

The rangelands are the tropical savannas, woodlands, shrublands and grasslands that cover about 80% of Australia. They have low rainfall and are not very suitable for the more economic uses we have already discussed.

However, if the areas damaged by animal agricultural are rehabilitated and allowed to regrow, they will have similar positive benefits as in other areas: sequestering carbon in soil and vegetation, providing native habitat for endangered species, increasing biodiversity, reducing wind and water erosion and soil loss, reducing salinisation and improving water quality.

One claim we often hear from farmers is that they 'look after the land'. So one issue that needs further research is the question what will happen to the land if farmers can't make any money farming animals? We say "let the rangelands regrow", but is it that simple? Will weeds take over, will fires increase, will there be other negative consequences if the land is left alone? Further research is needed.

This is what grazing can do to the rangelands.

One interesting example of a change in land use in line with a vegan agricultural system is the destocking and regeneration of the rangelands at Wooleen Station in Western Australia. This land had been over-grazed for over 100 years resulting in most of the prime land being in poor or very poor condition with some of it being badly eroded and degraded to the point where it was never expected to recover. The situation at Wooleen is typical of neighbouring areas and in fact of much of the Australian rangelands.

Some years ago, the leaseholders of the station decided to completely destock the entire property for a number of years. As they said, re-establishment of the vegetation "has progressed much better than expected".

A multitude of plants re-appeared, including the slow growing, but sturdy, saltbush. This regrowth occurred because cattle were no longer grazing and despite a long drought. Some plants returned to areas where they were never expected to grow. Plant and animal species threatened with extinction also began to return. Perennial plants, crucial to restoring the land, were among those re-established.

During the time when no farmed animals grazed, grasses were planted along the river and infrastructure was changed to replicate the natural systems that had been lost, culminating in the river flowing through the station running clear of eroded sediment for the first time in living memory. In just four years, a red river had been turned clear by removing farmed animals from the land and restoring some of the natural systems. As the leaseholders said, "Nature is bouncing back."

In Australia, most grazing land is owned by the state and leased to farmers. It is interesting to note that a condition of the lease is that the land must be stocked with farmed animals. The majority of income must come from grazing. Other uses, such as tourism, are not encouraged. In fact, the leaseholders of Wooleen had to wait one year for permission from the Pastoral Lands Board to remove stock from the property.

The success of this case study in such a short time suggests that it may be possible to restore land quickly and without great expense in many parts of Australia.

There are many other examples of reusing land once used for animal farming. These examples are good case studies for the future.

A new macadamia cheese-making facility has been started in the NSW Northern Rivers, an area known for dairy farming, but also good for producing macadamia nuts.

A cattle station in the Simpson Desert was destocked of cattle in 2004 and has seen a rise in the number and variety of native animals and plants. Researchers have also found a compassionate way of dealing with "feral" species.

In the Clarence Valley, beef farming is being replaced by blueberry farms, and the abattoir is being converted to a fruit packing plant.

Many tree species are flourishing in the Arid Zone Botanical Garden in Port Augusta after livestock was removed.

You can find more details on the Vegan Australia website.

There is no single answer to what we should do with land currently used for animal agriculture. It will depend on the rainfall, landscape, soils, etc. While some people might imagine that all land currently used has to be farmed, in many areas, farming of any sort should be abandoned, allowing the land to recover. We don't have to transition all current animal farms to plant food farms. There will also not be a one-to-one transfer of jobs. In some areas, where carbon farming is indicated, jobs may increase. In other areas, especially in marginal land in the extensive zone, jobs may decrease.

So, after all this exploration of economics and agriculture, what is the plan to remove animals from farming?

By this I don't mean how do we convince everyone to go vegan, I mean once we have the will to do it, how long will it take to switch over the agriculture industry.

One encouraging factor is that farmers are very adaptable. The history of farming in Australia is one of continual change responding to changes in technology, the value of commodities, shifts in consumer demand, changes in government policies and the changing climate and environment.

As this graph shows, in the last 50 years, the number of sheep used in agriculture has halved and the number of chickens gone up 5 fold. There are many other examples of massive changes in what is grown and how.

This shows that rural landholders are capable of adapting to changes in conditions and suggests that they will also be able to adapt to a vegan agricultural system.

Every now and then people phone Vegan Australia and go on a rant. This person was very concerned that if we didn't eat farmed animals they would all go extinct. But in the very same sentence, she worried that they would all go wild and breed out of control!

With a little planning, I don't think either of these scenarios will occur.

A reasonable time scale to phase out animal agriculture would be 10 years. Over this time, farmers would breed 10% less animals each year, so that after 10 years there would be no remaining farmed animals, apart from those being cared for in sanctuaries.

With a 10 year time scale, phasing out animal agriculture would affect about 0.1 per cent of the economy and jobs per year. While this is a still a large task, if responsibility for the costs are shared by the community as a whole, this is enough time for economic adjustments to be made to minimise disruption.

To give this figure some perspective, over the last few years, more than this number of new jobs were created in almost every *month*.

These are some suggestions of where the new jobs will come from in a vegan Australia.

We will need people to make vegan milk, cheese, sausages, etc. This has already started with new large scale plant protein factories being opened.

Many of these new jobs will require assistance from society as a whole.

Since these changes will bring benefits to all of society, the costs of providing these ecological and other services should be met by all of society. In other words we should pay farmers to restore land so that we can all benefit from a healthier environment.

This slide is to remind us why we are doing all this, why we are researching land use, the economy, jobs, etc. We are doing it for these residents of Edgar's Mission and for millions of other animals.

Thank you.

Vegan Australia is an animal rights organisation that campaigns nationally for veganism. 
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