Feeding 10 billion on a hotter planet (Part II)

Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. His previous article on BNC was: Feeding the billions in 2050′s sauna (Part I)


Welcome to Part II of my presumptuously titled series on feeding the world in 2050. Before concluding where we left off with the analysis of the foods which the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) thinks are globally important, we need a short prologue on protein.

Protein prologue

Any suggestion based on Calorie counts that the net contribution of beef or other meats to global food security may be trifling or even negative brings instant feedback about protein. The presumption is that it is adequate protein, particularly animal protein, which is the key requirement for beating malnutrition. This is inevitable for two reasons: first, the absence of medical malnutrition literature from the best seller list, and second, we have all spent our entire lifetime swimming in meat industry propaganda … much of it focused on protein.

We need some historical perspective on protein.

There’s nothing quite like being the first, and protein can lay good claim to being the first critical nutrient discovered in the early days of modern chemistry. Nitrogen is protein’s key chemical component and one of the first to be accurately measured. Consequently, quite precise measurements of protein utilisation in people have been around for almost 200 years.

Early investigators fed dogs pure sugar diets and watched them die. Absence of protein was the explanation they eventually settled on. What else could it have been? In 1815, vitamins (in any measurable sense) were well beyond the knowledge horizon, so there was really only one candidate. By 1842, protein was pronounced the only true nutrient and the sole provider of energy to the muscles. It mattered not that measurements on prison work gangs showed no differences in protein utilisation on rest days and hard treadmill days. The history of protein spin is a picturesque tale of arrogant opinionated people holding fast to beliefs in the face of overwhelming data. Not everyone was fooled. US Yale University researchers in 1907 took athletes and halved their protein intake during a mammoth 5 month piece of live-in research. Over the 5 months, far from fading away, the subjects got stronger by 35%. The protein myth charged on regardless, pushed by the then head of the US Agriculture Department who thought (seriously) that when people could choose food without regard for cost or availability, they would choose an optimal diet. i.e., the rich must know best.

Between about 1950 and the mid 1970s, the protein pushers even subverted the General Assembly of the United Nations which declared war on the global deficiency of protein … the World Protein Gap.

But truth will out … eventually. In 1974, The Lancet published the start of the death knell of the protein gap theory … “The Great Protein Fiasco”. It wasn’t quite a naked emperor moment, but over the next few years, the junkiness of what passed for science on the issue became clear.

Fast forward to 2000. A 124 page paper called “Explaining child malnutrition in developing countries” by acknowledged experts (yes, from IFPRI), has not a single occurence of the word “protein”. The big factors in childhood malnutrition are Calories in the food supply, access to clean water, and levels of female education. The science may be done and dusted, but that won’t of itself stop conglomerates of livestock lobby groups funding researchers to run around Africa telling people to eat more meat. Given the scarcity of good fencing in Africa, what impact will 275 million cattle have on the problems of providing clean water? The tip of the iceberg is clearly visible in Cryptosporidium parvum infections, made even more tragic by the interaction between these infections and high rates of both malnutrition and HIV.

The recent ignorant ravings of some current politicians about our live cattle exports being part of a desperate need for protein in Indonesia show that profitable myths need persistent debunking. Like me, some of these politicians were indoctrinated about the protein gap during their formative school years and it stuck in their brains with the full force of rote learned multiplication tables. Indonesia needs more food and if we didn’t annually feed 12 million tonnes of grain to pigs, chickens and cattle to fuel our vast over consumption of animal protein, we could supply far more food to Indonesia and elsewhere.

The Australian food supply produces 109 grams of protein per person per day. Our National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends a protein intake slightly below that used in the 1907 Yale experiment which makes 109 grams roughly double what is recommended. And even the recommended intake is considerably higher than many people need because it includes a sizable buffer to allow for individual differences. Not only are the official recommendations about half the average intake, there are no separate higher or lower requirements for people eating exclusively plant protein (vegans) or for people eating exclusively animal protein. Oils ain’t oils, but proteins is proteins.

Okay, end of prologue. Back to business. Calories are king.

At the end of the last post I was discussing foods considered critical by IFPRI in a recent report on childhood malnutrition rates in 2050. I dealt with the meats but still need to deal with the plant foods. During that discussion I also produced a table of the relative amounts of meat in the least developed countries. So we need to finish a couple of details, first we need a feel for actual quantities of meat rather than just percentages and second we need to deal with the plant foods.

Then we can finish this piece by putting everything in context by considering IFPRI’s obsession with animal products in the context of the FAO’s monumental lack of vision on how to feed the world in 2050.

Relativities and absolute values

The global average intake of meat is 7.4 percent of daily Calories. How much is this? And how much is the 2.6 percent intake the LDC? These numbers are best understood with reference to research I discussed at length previously on BNC in Brains, Biceps and Baloney. In that research, young (7-9 years old) Kenyan children were given daily 240 Calorie food supplements for a year made from a stew of maize, beans and greens and either 85 grams of meat, 200 mL of milk or vegetable oil. Each supplement provided the same energy, but one group of children got the added meat, another group the milk and the control group just got more stew with a little added vegetable oil.

What percentage of daily Calories is provided by 85 grams of beef mince? For 9 year olds eating 1700 Calories per day, its about 8.5 percent. For an adult, it is even less. In absolute terms, this serving is some 10 times bigger than the average amount of beef currently available in the LDC. It’s more than 3 times the total amount of meat available on average in the LDC.

Oh yes, and it’s close to double the red meat intake of Australian children of the same age.

But did this amount of meat make any significant difference compared to simply giving the kids extra stew? No.

Clearly, even these substantial amounts of meat were no magic bullet for chronically underfed children also frequently fighting infections from poor quality water and sanitation.

The bottom line

What are the implications of the Kenyan research, the production levels of various meats, together with the knowledge that the real needs of the malnourished are more food, clean water and well informed mums?

The implication is that doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the supply of meat is about the worst way to achieve the smallest reductions in malnutrition in the least developed countries but such a path will interfere with attempts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss by ending deforestation and extending reforestation.

Oil’s ain’t just oils

Maize and soy are both interesting additions to the IFPRI’s table. Most of the world’s maize is used as feed (463m tonnes), not as food (110m tonnes). If it were used as food, the global Calorie supply would jump by 585 Calories per person per day minus an amount for reduced meat production. The net increase would be well over 400 Calories per person per day. The story with soy is more complex. Most of the world’s beans (85 percent) are crushed with the oil being used as food and the left over soy meal being further processed for animal feed.

Soy meal is typically about 44 percent protein. The amount of protein in the meal used as feed is over double the entire protein output of the meat industry. If there really was a protein gap, here is a good candidate to fill it. However, the required processing to turn soy into meal is complex and to further process this into food that tastes like something humans know and like is also complex. Whether this is regarded as an impediment or an opportunity depends on your viewpoint, but certainly developing suitable technologies to turn soy meal into food for LDCs could be a valuable contribution to food security. The story is the same with other meals: palm kernel meal and cotton seed meal to name but two. There is a vast mountain of potential food currently being used to feed livestock for people with no food security issues and which could be turned into affordable food with appropriate technology. All that’s missing is a suitable price signal … see below.

Missing foods

As well as containing irrelevant foods which probably earn their place by their popularity at IFPRI staff BBQs, the IFPRI table is missing foods which are critical for large groups of people and can be expected to remain so in the warmer world of 2050. For example, sorghum, pulses, cassava and peanuts, to name a few. Pulses, for example, provide both more protein and more energy than the entire sum of all meats in the countries of the LDC.

Missing collateral damage

Also conspicuously absent from the IFPRI report is any concern with the environmental impact of livestock or the fact that their feed is either food which could provide far more energy if fed directly to people or it is grazed biomass which would otherwise protect the soil from erosion and add to soil carbon. The worst possible combination is having livestock feed on crop residues and with the resulting dung burned as fuel. This combines soil cover losses with nutrient losses and sick or even dead children from smoke mediated infections.

Biomass flows tell the story

A consideration of biomass flows should make the impact of livestock on food production potential obvious:









Harvested Biomass (Gt)









Harvested Residues (Gt)









Grazed Biomass (Gt)









Human Induced Fire (Gt)









This table shows that the major appropriations of plant growth in the countries I’ve selected are by livestock, not people.

The data in the table comes from work on biomass flows by an Austrian team headed by Fridolin Krausmann and was kindly supplied by the author. The fires in the bottom row are almost entirely set by livestock herders to keep land free of woody regrowth. They represent a major nutrient and biomass loss.

While the environmental impacts of 11 million cattle in Queensland (Australia) and Colombia have been well studied, the down side of having 50 million cattle in Ethiopia, a country about half the size of Queensland, hasn’t received much attention. The World Bank Report mentions that:

“Overgrazing and degradation of pastoral areas are widespread in much of the steppe of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, and the Sahel.”

but doesn’t make a connection between its implicit support of large increases in meat production and the consequences. Ethiopia’s 50 million cattle eat over 7 times the weight of harvested food but provide just 3 percent of daily Calories and drive annual conflagrations that further depress soil productivity. Environmental impacts from livestock don’t rate a mention in the IFPRI report I’m considering.

All up, the IFPRI report seems obsessed with meat despite IFPRI having the internal nutritional expertise to know better.

IFPRI and the FAO

The FAO regularly publishes weighty reports on feeding the world. It’s latest has a publication date of 2011 but a writing date of mid-2009. Its title is Looking Ahead in World Food and Agriculture, and it is the outcome of a High Level Expert Meeting on “How to feed the World in 2050″.

IFPRI modelers gets a chapter as do a range of other experts. But if you expect a meeting about “How to feed the World in 2050″ to have any policy vision, then you will be disappointed. There is a total lack of any kind of vision of what should be done. The entire 558 pages are about predicting the future, not planning for it. One gets a clear sense that the FAO doesn’t consider itself a player but merely an observer with a keen interest in accurate forecasting and no interest in constructing policies for a better future.

Also missing is any sense that the climate change causal arrow runs in both direction. Food is a principle cause of deforestation and greenhouse gas production with animal source foods having the lion’s share of responsibility.

Don’t misunderstand me. An obsession with accurate measurement is entirely proper for the FAO and there is plenty of evidence that FAO is indeed properly obsessed. But the climate science is clear that we must change direction, not merely accurately predict our problems. Similarly, I suspect that if the malnourished had a voice they too would rather we change direction than merely predict outcomes.

The only issue on which some consideration of policy is discussed is biofuels which gets numerous mentions along with an entire chapter. The IFPRI authors in their chapter explicitly reject any consideration of policies concerning meat.

“… policies that might affect direct food and feed use of grains would rely on the alteration of consumer preferences for food products (including meat), and are not as straightforward to address within the analytical framework discussed in this chapter. “

This is simply wrong. IFPRI later describes a promising policy tool which could reduce the feed/food ratio and which doesn’t rely on any alteration of consumer preferences:

“Policy interventions include limiting or even avoiding the use of food crops to produce biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.”

Why not use this policy lever on meat production? Why not limit that amount of human quality food used as feed? Why not prohibit it altogether? This doesn’t involve changing consumer preferences, but it certainly sends a price signal. How much of a signal? In the lead article in a special issue of Science last year Charles Godfray asserted:

“… although a substantial fraction of livestock is fed on grain and other plant protein that could feed humans, there remains a very substantial proportion that is grass fed.”

If this is true, then meat consumers won’t mind at all, there will still be substantial amounts of meat. It is the perfect policy for all those meat advocates who claim that meat production just turns stuff we can’t eat into stuff we can.


Climate scientists tell us we must reforest the planet and cease additional deforestation to have a chance at avoiding the worst of climate change. Biodiversity concerns imply likewise. Nutrition experts tell us we don’t need livestock to beat malnutrition and in any event, the amount of livestock required to provide adequate Calories is incompatible with tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. So we need policies to reduce livestock populations globally and such policies are missing from the organisations who should be providing them.

In the concluding article of this series, I’ll look at the Foley and Ramankutty Nature papers that provide data and modeling that can inform policies with teeth. Policies that will make a difference.

Calories and kiloJoules

Sometimes SI units are awkward, so I stick with long established usage and use Calories instead of kilo joules. Dietitians have long used Calories with a capital “C” to name what physicists call a kilo calorie. Journals these days use kiloJoules (kJ) or both. It’s just a unit of energy.

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  1. Your last graphic is wrong. It shows a lot of food in the 2080s under BAU. See:
    “Drought Under Global Warming: a Review”

    See the maps of drought in the 2060s on page 15.



    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series”  by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published. Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].

    Remember the drought last year in Russia and this year in Texas.

    “Ecological Footprints and Bio-Capacity: Essential Elements in Sustainability Assessment”  by William E. Rees, PhD, University of British Columbia and “Living Planet Report 2008″ also by Rees. We went past the Earth’s permanent carrying capacity for humans some time in the 1980s.   We are 20%+ over our limit already. Wells are going dry. Without water, a lot of green on your map goes red.

    Sorry, but there is zero food in the 2080s because the food runs out in the first half of the 2050s due to desertification.

  2. In the last month I have visited fast food outlets belonging to different chains with kJ counters on the menu. If I recall both say the average daily allowance in 8700 kJ which is about 2100 kcal.

    It’s not clear to me that we can even feed 7bn with certainty. Rain appears to be degrading the unharvested east Australian wheat crop. At lot of that wheat may be unsuitable for human food and will be fed to animals. Here in Tassie I’m wearing a parka but it’s officially summer. Some years you can’t grow pumpkins this could be one.

    In my opinion climate change will amplify the difficulties imposed by resource depletion notably oil and phosphate and later on natural gas. Irrigation cutbacks won’t help and there is the spectre of aquifer damage from the relentless quest for coal seam gas. World wide food prices will outgrow incomes perhaps starting about now. Ultimately food production, food distribution and nutrient recycling will have to take place close to where people live as in Havana, Cuba.

  3. John: Ouch, I hope your recollection is wrong. According to NHMRC (see link in article) allowance for a 1.7m 63kg adult is 2966 Calories (12.4 mega joules) at a physical activity level of 1.8 (moderate). This figure is actual intake. I’ve used a lot of “food supply” figures in these articles because they are generally better measured than actual “food intake”. A food supply figure is a production number … how many calories are produced. It’s easy to measure. Measuring actual intake is much tougher but will be lower than the production figure (10-30%). So a food supply needs to produce probably 3200-3300 per day to allow 2966 for everybody. The elderly and infirm can require very much less food and can have far more problems meeting nutritional requirements on reduced calorie diets.

    Edward: Barry chose the graphics and his last is obviously one estimate of what may happen. Regional variation in climate models is much larger than overall variability so different food production estimates is no surprise. I doubt your extreme forecast but will consider your sources further.

  4. GR definitely 8700 kJ for at least two fast food chains, links omitted. They also have recommendations for salt and fat. Perhaps by urging restraint they can answer critics by saying if customers choose to over-eat at least they were counselled.

  5. John: I’ll have to visit my local McDonalds and have a look … ask for the coke and fries vegan meal deal :). The NHMRC recommendations for very active teens top out at about 4000 Calories. Pro cyclists doing daily 5 hour rides can easily top this.

  6. “Climate scientists tell us we must reforest the planet and cease additional deforestation to have a chance at avoiding the worst of climate change.

    No they don’t. But they do tell us that continuing our emissions of fossil carbon will cause continuing climate change.

    It is soil scientists, not climate scientists, who are trying to alert us to the fact that soil is collapsing all around the world. Further, it is the hydrologists who are trying to tell us that the world’s groundwater is almost everywhere being overextracted , and in some regions leading to crisis in the near future. We should be listening to the right experts before seeking the right solutions.

    “… in any event, the amount of livestock required to provide adequate calories is incompatible with tackling climate change …”

    On the contrary, it is very easy to imagine an “event” or scenario in which we get adequate food energy from a synthetic source. Using the criterion of minimum of animal protein would provide a very different figure. And that has nothing to do with climate change.
    (Snide comments deleted)

    However the implication of continuing fossil emissions is scary for our young people, and it is awkward for those who want business to continue as usual. Instead, we depend on the cold, bluntly stated predictions of our climate scientists to decide what solutions we must apply to the threat of climate change.

  7. Geoff Russell: When there is half as much rain, there is not half as much food; there could be none. A desert isn’t a place where it never rains. A desert is a place where there isn’t enough rain to grow crops.

    When there is twice as much rain there is not twice as much food. As John Newlands says, the grain stays wet and gets moldy and unfit. The fields also become too muddy for the harvesting machinery, so the harvest doesn’t happen until the ground freezes. By then the grain is also damaged by being frozen wet.

    I’m not a farmer, but I’ve been in a farming area long enough to pick up a few things. I strongly recommend that you ask some farmers what various amounts of rain do to crops.

    According to Wikipedia, a desert gets less than 10 inches of rain per year or it gets more rain that evaporates too soon. “Savannas are frequently in a transitional zone between forest and desert or prairie.” Which it is depends on rainfall and what happens to the water.

    So the US farm belt doesn’t have that far to go to become a desert. Texas is well on the way.

  8. GR not sure about the Scottish restaurant. Of the two franchises I know of advocating 8700 kJ one claims to have better burgers and the other is similarly named to an underground railway. If nothing else we should be pleased they use the metric system.

  9. I really appreciate the perspective given in these posts on feeding the world. This material should be a basic part of our education, not something overlooked by those who write reports for the international community.

  10. Roger: “No they don’t” … yes they do. See figure 6 and related text
    in Hansen et al.


    I agree that its easy to imagine synthetic food. Just not easy to actually produce it at cost and in sufficient volumes.

    John: McDonalds online info also says 8700 kJ.


    NHMRC considers an activity level of 1.8 (moderate) as required for
    good health so at this activity level, 8700 kJ is the recommended intake for a 9 year old 28kg boy or 10 year old 33 kg girl. I have no
    idea why McDonalds (and obviously others) has chosen this figure. Does anybody else have any ideas about this?

    Edward: I don’t know anybody silly enough to think the food-rainfall
    relation is linear. Everybody in the food business, including the experts at IFPRI and FAO that I’ve been somewhat critical of, understand that the prediction of food production under a changing rainfall regime is complex and not easy to model. Certainly, successful modeling of the future will depend on the areas being
    modeled being similar to some area somewhere in the present. i.e., run a model and find the rainfall and temperature pattern of an area in 2050. Then find an area with that same rainfall and temperature pattern today and see what its food production looks like. Such modeling would give a reasonable idea of what is possible … with many provisos!

  11. If the EROEI of food production is around 0.1 according to some authors (Patzek, Pimental et al) then to make 9 MJ of food requires 90 MJ of energy input plus key materials notably water, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, calcium and phosphorus. Not sure how much of that is direct solar as opposed to indirect. Anyway it’s a kilowatt of continuous power input (9 X 10^7 J) /( 24 X 60 X 60 s) per person. Therefore 10 billion well fed people will need 10 Tw just to maintain the the food system. We’re already using 15- 17 Tw to power vehicles, heat homes, make stuff and produce food.

    Good thing they cut the baby bonus from $5400 to $5000.

  12. @Geoff Russell reasserts that climate scientists do indeed say that “we must reforest the planet”, and provides a link to a figure in a paper by James Hansen et al in proof.

    However, that figure refers to a scenario where coal usage has been phased out by 2030, and other fossil emissions somehow die away. It is those radical assumptions which decelerate the growth of CO2 in his model. Subsequent reduction of CO2 is only achieved by “forestry and soil”, and the text refers to reforestation being able to take up “a substantial fraction of the 60+/-30 ppm net deforestation emission”.

    The graph shows ~50 ppm reduction by forest and soil. That fails to take into account that 50 ppm of CO2 removed from the atmosphere (in near-equilibrium with the sea surface) would be largely off set by perhaps 30 ppm reemerging from the sea, which has until recently been taking up more of our recent emissions than accumulate in the atmosphere.

    Possibly because substantial reforestation would require substantial elimination of human ariculture, he does not assert that “we must reforest the planet”.

  13. I would like to see more information on non-agricultural food sources like synthesized sugars and oil, fungal proteins (Quorn), lab meat, and insect protein. How close are we to successfully engineering crops that can grow in seawater?

  14. Roger: Hansen talks about reforestation in more than one place and he generally assumes that we can’t reforest the places we live on and are required for food production. I apologise if I didn’t spell out these fairly obvious exceptions.

    Sure, the heavy lifting in Hansen’s scenario is done by the fossil fuel phase out … but to get to a low risk position he also requires both a steep reduction in non-carbon forcings and reforestation. The fossil fuel phase out, by itself, isn’t enough. It doesn’t look at present like the fossil fuel phase out will be happening by 2035, which means that non-carbon forcings and reforestation will be more important. The reduction in non-carbon forcings includes methane and black carbon, livestock is a large contributor to both. While “meat grown in a lab” may arrive tomorrow, I’d be betting that won’t happen and that business as usual in food production won’t just prevent reforestation and keep non-carbon forcings hight, but will also make the end of deforestation impossible.

    Deforestation is the cheapest way for cattle and feed production to grow, so, even in Australia, trying to stop deforestation has been very difficult … livestock farmers are actively demanding the right to do as they damn well please. In other parts of the word, they don’t just demand that right, they take it, illegally if necessary with guns, chainsaws and the humble match. That will continue to happen as long as meat demand stays strong which will continue as long as the mythology persists and there is no active price signal.

  15. Hi Geoff,

    I continue to find your work compelling. I do confess to finding this comments thread rather nit-picky in the context of the major and very fundamental issues that your two articles to date have laid out, not much of which anyone seems to see fit to challenge, but maybe that’s just me. Your fundamental thesis seems very sound.

    My substantial change in diet recently came about through much the same process of forced honesty with the data that triggered much changed position on nuclear power. Your writing has been influential in this.

  16. Hi Geoff,
    It’s good to read some sensible commentary on the protein myth. It never ceases to amaze me how this myth has persisted, when even brief scrutiny of readily-available food analysis figures reveal that it is very easy to meet human protein requirements without resorting to meat and other animal products. Clearly there are other forces at play, clouding the simple and farilty obvious truth that producing meat actually requires more protein input (and of course calories too) than the useable amount yielded.

    In addition to the commonly consumed plant sources of protein such as legumes, grains, nuts, seeds etc we are actually surrrounded by another potential source of protein – leaf protein, available from virtually all non-poisonous leaves.

    Protein deficiency is very unlikely in the absence of energy (kcal/kJ) deficiency, but can occur in very poor quality diets where the majority of energy comes from fat/oil, sugar or other low quality carbohydrate source. However consuming meat or other animal products is never necessary to overcome it. In many cases leaves that are currently discarded as part of an existing food crop could be utilised as a protein source. For example, the leaves of the cassava plant, normally discarded, are much richer in protein (21 to 32%) than the cassava roots (0.7 to 2%). http://www.geneconserve.pro.br/cassava_leaves.pdf.

    What humans chose to eat by taste or tradition is unlikely to coincide with what is optimal nutritionally or environmentally, hence the need to inform our food choices and food production plans with both nutrition science and environmental science.

    I couldn’t agree more that we need to not merely look at what will happen if we keep doing what we are doing, we need to look at what we could do differently, and start doing it.
    Amanda Benham (dietitian and nutritionist)

  17. “…A 124 page paper called “Explaining child malnutrition in developing countries” by acknowledged experts (yes, from IFPRI), has not a single occurence of the word ‘protein’…”

    Not sure how relevant that is. Turns out, there are also no instances of the words vitamins, minerals, fats, or even nutrients in that PDF.

    Not that I disagree that livestock needs to be scaled back somehow. I think the FAO and IFPRI are both taking approaches that acknowledge the importance of (ASF) animal source foods to the poor, particularly poor subsistence farmers. And I still think for clarity’s sake, you should refer to cattle when talking about cattle and animal source foods (ASF) instead of just meat, since they are all on par as far as negative ramifications are concerned.

    Nutrition issues involve a lot more than just protein. Some more food for thought:

    “…nutrition programs have shifted their primary emphasis from control of protein deficiency, to energy deficiency, and now to micronutrient deficiencies…

    …1) the most important findings of the CRSP were that faltering in height and weight of children occurs early and was not caught up later in life; and 2) the quality of food (specifically ASF and micronutrient content) was a much stronger determinant of nutritional status than was the quantity of food.

    …1) growth stunting started at birth (or before) and was complete by 18–24 mo; 2) protein intakes and protein quality were adequate in all three locations as were energy intakes except when a famine occurred in Kenya; and 3) ASF intake was the strongest predictor of functional capacity (such as growth, lactation outcome and cognitive function)…”

    See from http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/11/3875S.full.pdf for full quotes in context.

    …Interesting …did anyone else get an audio file over their computer speakers of a woman feeding a steak to a dog while visiting this site?

  18. Really good book on this is “In Defense of Food” by Micheal Pollen

    The first line is “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    He then goes onto explain that this sums up the complicated problem of feeding the worlds population. He also goes on to detail the hijacking of food by nutritionalists and the harm that this has done. Pretty much what the post’s author is saying about protein obsession.

    If we all ate less meat then the 8 kilograms of plants that go to make 1 kg of meat would be available to eat.


    It makes sense that if we at more plants rather than converting them into meat then we could feed a lot more people.

    Mind you we still have to distribute the food the the people which has always been the hard bit.

  19. Russ: I spent a long time chasing down the Kenyan research covered in


    I started with glowing claims in Livestock’s Long Shadow about the value of animal source foods (meat, milk and eggs) as proved by that research … only to find eggs weren’t even used, milk did nothing and the results for meat were of little if any biological significance. Now you are quoting from a paper (Allen) which presents results in general terms and to get to the data you need to trace backwards and I find many a permutation of the same names … Charlotte Neumann and her crew. Last time I went chasing I emailed Neumann about the “missing cohort”, but never got a reply.

    Frankly, I was surprised that the Kenyan animal source food supplementation achieved so little … as I keep saying, the meat
    group got double the meat that Aussie kids got and it did little, if
    anything. Malnutrition isn’t just about food. I found this hard to come to terms with but that’s what the data says.

    Are animals an anchor chain or a lifeline for poor subsistence farmers? An individual with an cow can sell it for real food. See this
    study of the Maasai … they trade 1000 kJ (or Cal) of cattle to buy 8000 kJ of maize flour.


    No argument. The problems is for everybody else. The cattle eat crop residues, they foul drinking water, they destroy ground cover, their dung is burned and kills children. Everybody is worse off except possibly, the people with the cattle who get a small temporary advantage at the expense of everybody else … there can never be enough cattle (or goats) to go around. It’s a system which simply doesn’t work at current scale and cannot scale for the future.

    P.S. Please read the Maasai paper, it shatters another favourite meat myth about long chain omega-3s with actual data.

  20. I have never liked the argument that cattle eat the food that isn’t good enough for humans to eat.

    I ask, why are we wasting time growing food we can’t eat? Why not grow better crops? If it is a matter of location then the ratio of 8 to 1 for cattle input to output means that any field that only makes 13% “edible” food is a better option. Again i ask, why are we wasting time growing food we can’t eat?

    I simply can’t believe that with all our technology that the vast majority of grown crop isn’t fit for humans.

  21. This might sound trite, but a ‘well balanced’ meal with a lot of variety and changing as much as possible over days and seasons is probably a good thing. I’d LOVE to eat grass fed beef (when you’ve had it, it’s hard to go back). It’s most obvious in cheaper cuts like sirloin or flank steak as opposed to ground beef (where I find it’s indistinguishable from feed lot beef).

    I’d like so see us move to the way lamb production is in the US which is mostly grass fed. BTW…while Geoff is not wrong about over grazed areas, establishing what that means is quite hard. He is correct however and this something that needs to be address since the world will be knowing animal protein production despite the logic of not having it. So it’s good we figure it out.

    The worse think that destroyed the worlds largest carbon sink , the US Prairie *initially* was not agriculture, it was the destruction of 30 to 60 million bison in this area. The Prairie evolved with massive bison roaming around, plowing it up and then fertilizing it with seeds and manure. When the bison died, a huge degradation of the Prairie occurred. Then agriculture did it in.

    I don’t have the link but an average square meter of old-growth Prairie had a much higher carbon absorption rate than tropical forests. This might seem odd but old growth tropical forests, while having a lot of carbon in the bio mass of the trees, are generally stagnant once they’ve achieved full growth. They stop processing. In a Prairie the massive roots system is where the carbon is deposited. The root system, made up of carbon obviously, is at it’s full length when the grasses are at its full length. When it’s eaten down, the root system shrinks, leaving the carbon behind. Then it repeats itself very season or after every feeding by the right kind of herd animals.

    I think our answer is to recognize the problem and come up with acceptable social solutions. Meat eating is not going away despite claims to the contrary. We will have to simply find better ways of producing it.

  22. David: I’d quite like the grass fed beef lobby to say exactly where they are going to raise these animals and how many they think are compatible with the kind of reforestation which Hansen and others consider necessary. Quantify please.

    Second. Quoting from “Deforesting the Earth” by Michael Williams,

    From Wisconsin south to Texas repeated firing by the nomadic hunting cultures of the Plains Indians sustained the grassland vegetation against forest encroachment and extended the grassland at the expense of the forest … and as the forests were burned and opened out the buffalo, for example, spread throughout the continent,…

    i.e, Much … (I have no idea how much) of the US grasslands are a
    human creation. I don’t know how much would reforest if left nor if the grasslands sequestered more or less carbon than the forests they replaced (very unlikely), but I see the same claims about buffalo and this huge carbon sink in various blogs without much in the way of evidence. BNC prefers data. Williams has some maps showing forest extent, but they are estimates post dating the time period of the quote above which is describing events happening over hundreds of years prior to European arrival in the US.

  23. Geoff, there is no doubt that soil is a major carbon sink. Second maybe to the oceans themselves.

    Here is one study that shows the gain in carbon in the soil. A random googling of studies for brings up a lot of studies on this.

    A study from Marin Carbon Project is here. The MCP includes *ranchers* who farm organically out in the Pt. Reyes area of California. Everyone who is into organic farming the broader Bay Area supports these ranchers in preserving the land there from development. These are not big commercial beef farmers.

    At any rate, it is the root system that is key to grasslands carbon sequestration. The problem is finding comparable soil or biomass sequestration in in temperate and tropical forests (both are very different, it seems, with more extensive root systems in northern temperate climbs than in tropical hardwood forests).

    There appears to be little evidence for any soil sequestration for temperate climate forests *by way of it’s root system* as these root systems often last as long as the tree above ground does (and sometimes longer!). Grasses are known to be far more dynamic underground than trees even an party-time gardener will tell you.

    The MCP study shows that active human intervention in he form of manure and fertilizer is needed to get the big increase in in carbon sequestration. This is for California grasses which is not at all related to mid-west Plains grasses (and other plants).

    On grasslands in particular the 2004 Carbon Sequestration in Temperate Grassland Ecosystems and the Influence of Management, Climate and Elevated CO2 study (which is not available online yet unfortunately), was used in a recent at a talk on this I went too a year ago on this very issue (the talk based on a slide presentation of the facts inside it).

    There is little debate that grasslands play a major and central role in CO2 sequestration and keeping them healthy is important (and increasingly hard given over grazing in your example of Ethiopia and climate change.).

    You seemed wedded more on the issue of trees. I think it remains unproven that this is superior to grasslands but the issue of latitude is also very important although I haven’t heard at thing on how this is so (assuming it is given the way temperate and tropical forests sequester CO2).

    I think we have to increase both but that’s a concerned layman’s opinion, not based on real study. But I believe still that since animal protein consumption might diminish (and not by choice necessarily) we need to find (an acceptable) way to do this. (Deleted inflammatory remark).


  24. David: See page 274 … data on various eco-systems


    Woody encroachment on grasslands stores more carbon than grasslands … tropical forests store many times more … there are some types of sparse woodland which store less, but in general there is more mass in a tree and its roots than grass and its roots.

    And I noticed you didn’t guesstimate a figure for the amount of grass fed beef compatible with reforestation … it won’t be much.

    (The comment to which you refer has been deleted.)

  25. I’m no expert on these matters but on the basis of the type of arguments put in this article I went vegetarian in 1998. It wasn’t too hard as my wife had been vegetarian since a young age and we already cooked vegetarian at home. Six years later I was quite over weight and feeling unhealthy and I ultimately quit that lifestyle choice and put meat back in my diet. However I did not return to a healthy weight until this year when I adopted a high protein low sugar, low carbohydrate diet. In practice that ment a huge drop in my intake of fruit, bread, rice and pasta a large increase in fish and red meat. My grocery bill costs a lot more now but I lost 16kg in the first 16 weeks and I’m feeling a lot more energetic. I’m still about 5 to 10 kg above what I consider my ideal weight but I’m working to get that down.

    There are many ways to get calories but how they effect the bodies hormone response and hence metabolic rate varies significantly. And metabolism is ultimately what controls weight.

  26. The sad fact about calorie reduction diets is they ALL work when you stick to them. In the research cited as the proof that CSIRO high protein diet (Total Wellbeing) worked better than a high carb diet the experimental and control group lost the SAME amount of weight (despite CSIRO selling a million copies of a book with claims contradicted by the published study)


    In the 12 month follow up, so many people failed to stick to the diet that they abandoned the original randomised grouping to analyse the results (randomised group assignment is done for a reason and when you throw it out, it is useless):


    And, even more importantly, both experimental and control groups were stacking on the weight again.

    BUT some people always succeed and are subsequently used to sell the diet … which is as true for CSIRO’s diet as it is for every other nutter diet. I call it a nutter diet because it exceeds the recommended protein intake as specified by NHMRC which is set precisely because there is no good evidence that high rates of protein intake are safe and reasonable theoretical grounds to indicate that they may not be.

  27. TerjeP, it wasn’t the fact that your diet was vegetarian that was the problem, it was that is was too high in calories/kilojoules for your activity level, most likely due to excessive fat intake (as fat contains about twice as many calories/kJ per gram than protein or carbohydrate). Of course vegetarian diets can be fattening/unhealthy, especially if high in fats and oils, dairy products, eggs and other high fat foods. (Even “healthy” foods such as nuts and avocado can cause weight gain by adding excess calories/kJ to the point that energy intake exceeds energy expenditure.)

    However, in contrast to your study with a sample size of one, the largest study ever on effect of types of diet on health (The Adventist Health Study-2) there is a close correlation between incidence of common health problems (such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol) and animal product consumption. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19351712

    Sadly your high meat diet is unsustainable not only for the planet but for your health as well.

    In any case, one can have a high protein diet (if that is what one seeks, but I would not normally recommend it) consisting entirely of plant-derived foods, so eating meat and other animal products is unnecessary even for those on the current high protein fad. A herbivorous diet can easily supply the protein needs of even those with the highest protein requirements, such as men doing strength training. Check out these guys: http://www.veganstrength.org/
    (And from all accounts elephants are strong too, while consuing only plants.)

    It is of course correct to say that weight loss will inevitably follow if calorie intake is reduced to below calorie expenditure. And the only way to lose weight on an excessive calorie diet is to cause potentially dangerous metabolic disturbances such as ketosis. The harmful side effects of this type of diet (such as kidney damage, osteoporosis and CVD) are well-documented.

    It is true that some people find the level of satiety of their diet can be changed by manipulating the relative amounts of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) but once again this can be achieved without the use of meat or other animal products. Also it is not as simple as this – the type of fat, protein and carbohydrate can make a difference too. In my clinical experience I find that manipulating the amount and timing of carbohydrate, fibre and fluid intake has a more significant effect.

    So, in summary, as far as meat and other animal products go:
    1. Meat and other animal products are not necessary in a human’s diet to obtain enough protein, calories or micronutrients.
    2. It is well-documented that there can be positive health effects if meat and other animal products are excluded from the diet.
    Note: Of course negative health effects CAN occur if needs for calories and nutrients are not met, just as with any type of eating pattern.
    3. It is possible to design a high protein diet without the use of animal products, if desired.
    3. People who do not consume animal produucts are less likely to be overweight than people who do, but this is a general rule and of course exceptions apply. It is not difficult to design a weight gain diet without the use of animal products.
    4. It is definitely unnecessary to include meat or other animal products in a weight loss diet (or any other type of diet).

    I understand that many people enjoy the taste of meat and other animal products, find eating them convenient or simply cannot imagine life without them, but their consumption cannot be justified on any other grounds, especially health / nutritional reasons. We have the knowledge, the technology and other resources to live perfectly healthy lives without consuming animal products.

    Amanda Benham
    Dietitian & Nutritionist

  28. Amanda – Thanks. I eat out a lot and often in unfamiliar places. It is an occupational hazard. So what works in theory and what is conveniently available in practice doesn’t always correlate. Although obviously the article was talking about macro changes in diet not the sort of micro personal experience that I refered to.

  29. I agree with Amanda…we in the “West” have a sedentary life style…carbs go right into fat. I did a modified Atkin’s diet about 3 years ago and dropped 1 lbs a week for 3 months. I slowly *raised* my carbs but kept too completely complex carbs not simple white flour/patato ones that are still off my diet because of diabetes (mild hyper glysemic).

    At my power plant there were two guys who ate anything they wanted but were close to professional level cyclists. Blood sugar, fats, cholesterol, blood pressure, all were perfect for them. Controlling things strictly through diet is not a good idea. One need some serious manual labor thrown in there via the job or via excise.

    In underdeveloped countries (the focus of the essay here) the issue is *increasing* carbs, not reducing them. I think this is a good point.

    Anyway, individual and cultural choices will *remain* the dominant market criteria for what we eat.
    There was an amazing discussion on Al Jazeera yesterday about all the problems Africa is running into in terms of maintaining and planting forests as carbon abatement gets more popular. I think it’s a great idea but problematical if it’s the solution to *increasing* carbon emissions by developing and developed countries. The program focused on the social tensions arising from fencing off areas of forests, planting trees on what has historically been open free grasslands, etc.

  30. Hi Daivid,
    Good of you to say you agree with me but I’m not sure what with… I am NOT an advocate of restridting carbs as a method of weight control. I would always recommend restricting fat first, as a low fat diet is one that can be adopted long-term with positive health benefits, unlike a low carb diet. (And unless a weight loss regime is adopted permanently the results will be short-lived.) High fibre COMPLEX (as opposed to simple) carbs eaten throughout the day help control hunger and blood sugar levels and thereby assist with weight control.
    As we in the “west” are so sedentary it is not easy for us to meet our micronutrient requirements while eating the appropriate amount of kJj/calories. Hence the need to consumet a high nutrient density (green vegetables being the most nutrient dense foods) diet, fortified foods and/or micronutrient supplements. Our high consumption of high fat foods, oils and other empty-calorie foods like soft drinks is resulting in an overweight yet malnourished population. It is excess calories from poor quality foods that is the problem, not excess carbs. A low fat, minimally-processed plant-based diet would be higher in carbs than the current typical western diet, but would result in a slimmer, healthier population. (And of course be better able to support the world’s population.)
    The thread is drifting off topic to a discussion on optimal diets for various purposes. Interesting and informative but tending to de-rail the thread.

  31. David: There certainly will be conflicts between herders and planters and not just in Africa … in Australia we have various people, like
    Peter Spencer in this story


    who want to continue knocking down trees. One rational I’ve heard in news interviews with some of these farmers is that “We want to provide protein to the world” … the sad part is they probably believe this.

  32. Pingback: Feeding 10 billion in 2050′s sauna (Part III) « BraveNewClimate

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