In this week’s special issue devoted to food security, Science asks what it will take to feed 9 billion people by mid century.
Food insecurity—the inability of people to feed themselves—may rise if food supply cannot keep pace with population. This is a concern that goes back over 200 years to Thomas Malthus.
One theme shows up in a few articles: Can reducing meat consumption help in the battle to feed more people?
Erik Stokstad’s news feature (subscription required)1 provides a nice lead:
The United States, for instance, has just 4.5% of the world’s population but accounts for about 15% of global meat consumption. Americans consume about 330 grams of meat a day on average—the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that most people consume just 142 to 184 grams of meat and beans daily. In the developing world, daily meat consumption averages just 80 grams. Those numbers suggest that people living in the United States and other wealthy nations could increase world grain supplies simply by forgoing that extra burger or chop.
However, he interviews researchers and cites studies that raise a number of issues potentially complicating this story…
Surprisingly, however, when the rich halved their meat habit, the poor didn’t necessarily get that much more grain—their largest source of calories. According to the model, per capita cereal consumption in developing nations rose by just 1.5%. That’s enough grain to ease hunger for 3.6 million malnourished children—but nowhere near the kinds of gains many expect from curbing meat consumption.
Stokstad argues the reason for this is a mismatch in grain fed to cattle vs. people. In the developed world, for instance, farmers feed soybeans and corn to livestock, whereas people in developing nations in Asia eat more rice and wheat. The gains in soybeans and corn therefore don’t necessarily translate into more food for people.
Following these assessments, Stokstad suggests
When all the pluses and minuses are added up, Rosegrant is confident that cutting meat consumption could ultimately help improve global food security. But “it’s a small contribution, like changing to fluorescent light bulbs” to fight global warming, he says.
While it’s important to consider unexpected twists and surprises, I’m not completely convinced by these arguments for a number of reasons, many of which Stokstad offers as caveats to the above assessment:
It’s true that as demand for corn drops, some farmers might start growing wheat instead. In general, however, climate, soil, or water availability often limit a farmer’s ability to switch crops easily. Iowa soybean growers, for instance, can’t start growing rice, which requires heavy irrigation.)
Yeah, that’s true for rice, but Stokstad solves his own dilemma because Iowans and most of the rest of the American Midwest COULD grow wheat in areas where surplus corn is currently grown and fed to livestock (if the relative price of wheat vs corn incentivizes the substitution). Now we have increased core staples (corn, soybeans, wheat) to all developing regions.
Godfray also adds a few points why reducing meat consumption may not be a complete salvation:
There’s something to be said about the first point. As the last post shows, eating beef is more energy intensive than poultry. The second point is irrelevant— just because some animals are raised on marginal lands doesn’t change the fact that we still feed one third of global grain supply to the remaining livestock. Again, the point is not to say that we need to eliminate meat consumption just for the sake of it. We are saying that we can recoup 33% of the grains fed to livestock not fed on grass. That’s the issue.
Bottom line: I applaud the search for factors that could potentially complicate simple explanations. That’s a good thing for anticipating unexpected surprises that could appear during a big shift like dramatically reducing meat consumption. And to be fair, all of these articles acknowledge that reducing meat can be part of an overall strategy to feed more people.
However, the Science articles err on the side of being too dismissive of the impacts that reducing meat consumption can have.
Is this a dose of reality considering that people won’t reduce meat consumption that much? Maybe. But I’d rather see Science address what is possible in addition to what is probable. What we mainly get is the latter.
1Stokstad, E. (2010) Could Less Meat Mean More Food? Science 327: 810 – 811.
2Godfray, H.C. et al. (2010) Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science 327: 812 – 818. DOI: 10.1126/science.1185383
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