John Quiggin suggests that we could feed everyone a high-meat diet and reduce climate change to boot by shifting from livestock to chickens:

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands [fn1].

Each kg of grain-fed beef requires about 8kg of grain, compared to 2kg for chicken, and the trade-off similar when cattle are pastured on land that could be used for grain. So, 5kg of beef could be replaced by 20 kg of chicken.

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year.

That would give an average of 62kg [meat consumption] per person per year, not far below the Dutch average. To fill the remaining gap, I’ll call on the usual suspects, reductions in inefficiency and waste.

But a large part of my reason for doing exercises like this one is to consider the feasibility of a better world, even if it might be considered utopian at present.

This may all be correct, but far from being an unachievable utopian vision it sends a shiver down my spine. Brian Tomasik has crunched some numbers and estimated that the direct animal suffering caused by each kg of chicken meat produced is probably an order of magnitude greater than the suffering per kg of beef produced. This is because chickens are much smaller than cows and because their lives on factory farms are worse, being confined to tiny cages as they are.

If we were looking to paint utopian food scenarios, I could do better than envisage an explosion in the number of broiler chickens. We could see a shift towards vegetarianism, which the article implicitly observes requires fewer resources than meat-based diets. We could learn to grow meat or other meat substitutes the same way we grow plants, removing the need for all the suffering and inefficiency of incarcerating actual animals. Or at least we could develop the conscience not to torture chickens in this way in order to save small amounts of money.

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