Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff 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: The Swiss army nuclear knife
During the past few years, all the world’s major science journals have had a steady stream of papers on the challenge of feeding 9 to 10 billion people on a warming planet in 2050. They have been joined by reports from bodies with varying prestige and influence likeInternational Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), The World Bank and the Royal Society. CSIRO has a long history of interest in the issue and even billionaire packager Anthony Pratt is getting in on the act telling Australia that since it can produce food for 200 million people, it has a responsibility to do so.
All these reports pay swollen lip service to the food security issues of the poor. All rightly regard the current global levels of stunting and malnutrition … running at 30 percent or more in many poor populations … as unconscionable.
Do we simply need more of the same?
Most of these papers and reports fall into two groups. The first looks at population and food intake trends and guesstimates that adding 2 to 3 billion people by 2050 will require between 70 percent and 100 percent more food. They typically then suggest places where large buckets of money might be deposited to fund research directed at meeting these projections.
Meanwhile, at least some planners focused on decarbonising developed countries have understood that agriculture as usual is not an option. The European Profetas project tabulated and measured a range of indices showing that the total transformation of European agriculture away from producing animal protein was a general ecological as well as a specifically climate driven imperative. Similarly, in the UK, plans by Zero Carbon Britain for reducing climate forcings and environmental damage involve reducing all livestock numbers with the steepest cuts being in beef cattle, to be cut by 90 percent, and dairy cattle, by 80 percent. They see the accompanying major dietary shift as inevitable and a source of colateral health advantages. In 2010, a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science established that trend line increases in meat consumption would, all by themselves, dominate or exceed the long-term sustainable level for greenhouse gas emissions, biomass usage and reactive nitrogen mobilisation … leaving little or no space for any other human activity which relied on these eco-system services.
The contrast between visions like these and “more of the same” from food policy bodies couldn’t be more stark. The “trend line” approach is rather like weighing a chubby teenager and preparing a financial plan to pay for the lap-band surgery they’ll obviously need by age 25. The failure to consider alternatives falls somewhere between tragic and incompetent. It’s as if the food policy bodies are locked away in a little bubble and isolated from the findings of climate and environmental scientists.
Happily, there is now a second group of scientific papers on food in 2050 which is more realistic and will hopefully inform the policy bodies. It’s a tiny group … so far just a single headline paper, but with a suite of supporting studies. The headline paper, recently published inNature, is by Jonathan Foley, Navin Ramankutty and 18 co-authors.
The key supporting work is a detailed modeling of the global amount of land that can be cropped as a function of key climate variables. This makes use of slowly but inexorably improving geocoded (“geographically coded”) datasets. A geocoded dataset gives a set of attributes in a small region around a GPS location. Relevant attributes might be the kind of soil, the temperature and rainfall regimes, the soil carbon content, the livestock population by species, the human population, and so on. As the datasets improve, the estimate of croppable land will become more accurate.
In scientific journals, geocoded datasets can make for evocative images, like the following:
In the hands of policy makers, the fine grained details behind such maps should eventually turn into working tools.
Such global geocoded datasets also allow the arbitration of claims like: “a very substantial portion [of livestock] is grass fed” (Godfray, Science 2010), and “most of the land devoted to livestock is not viable for crop production” (Eckard, The Conversation, 2011). Geocoded datasets allow the testing of such claims. Back in 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow (LLS) authors used geocoded datasets in conjunction with other information to estimate that only 8.4 percent of meat is produced from pure grazing systems and that a third of all crop land is used to produce feed instead of food. Godfray and Eckard seem unconcerned by contradictions between their claims and the available data and feel no need to support their assertions with evidence. In any event, the latest Foley-Ramankutty work provides more detail and a framework for incorporating climate data in an on-going fashion as it comes to hand.
This series of BNC posts on feeding the planet in 2050 will have that Foley paper as its final destination, but first we need to set the context with more detailed commentary on the “agriculture as usual” status-quo which still dominates major food policy organisations.
These are a few of IFPRI’s favourite foods
Let’s start with IFPRI which runs a global chain of policy and analysis research centres with money ultimately derived from all of the biggest Governments on the planet. IFPRI does plenty of modeling, but there is nothing in the food policy world to match CMIP, the climate science process which allows the best of the world’s climate models to be independently compared against reality and each other. So it’s hard to judge the quality of IFPRI modeling. In 1999, IFPRI’s main agricultural model predicted that India’s annual per capita beef consumption would rise from 2.6 kg in 1993 to 4.02 kg in 2020. The latest FAO data from 2007 shows that Indian per capita beef consumption has actually fallen and is now down to 1.5 kg. This is despite 70 percent of Indians not being vegetarian. One anomaly may not demolish a model, but the failure to predict the sign of the trend in a population of over a billion people is a worry.
The mindset of IFPRI’s recent offering on food security in 2050 can be illustrated by a table (Table 2 in the report) describing predicted changes in the availability of 4 crops (wheat, rice, maize and soybeans) and 4 meats (called interestingly beef, pork, lamb and poultry) under future climate predictions using modeling from CSIRO and NCAR.
Remember, IFPRI puts food security front and centre of their food supply concerns for 2050. The rich rarely have food security issues, regardless of where they live. But, at a rough guess, at least a few billion of the 9 to 10 billion people in 2050 will be poor and shouldn’t, in my view, be further disadvantaged in access to healthy food by food choices of the wealthy. Nor should they be disadvantaged by the livestock keeping habits of other poor people. For example, farmers who want to maintain or improve their productivity using crop residue mulches to protect their soils are frequently impeded by customs which allow livestock free access to crop residues. More on this later in the series.
IFPRI’s choice of important foods is very revealing. Just how important to global food security are its chosen foods?
|% Cal||% Cal|
The table (built from the FAO Food Balance Sheets) shows the current percentage of global food Calories provided by each of the chosen IFPRI foods. The first column is the global average, and the second is the percentage in the diets of the 0.7 billion people in the least developed countries (LDC) on the planet. I have, of course, assumed that by Lamb, IFPRI meant all sheep or goat meat and not really just lamb. Even with this interpretation, lamb is an irrelevancy in the global food system providing just a third of one percent of daily calories.
Sheep tails can’t wag elephants
Sheep and goat meat has provided less than half a percent of global calories for the past 40 years. Julia Gillard may have fed lamb to the Queen, but even in the country which once rode on the sheep’s back, sheep meat has dropped from 10 percent of Australian calories in the 1960s to just 3 percent now. So even in Australia, where we eat (in absolute terms) 7.5 times the global average, calories from sheep meat are considerably behind those obtained from alcohol, palm oil, or sugar and the protein provided by sheep meat is one quarter that of wheat.
It is certainly possible to find nomadic herders to whom sheep meat is an important food, but such exceptions shouldn’t be the tail wagging the elephant of global food security policy.
At 1.4 percent of global food calories, and far less for the poor, it’s not even clear that cattle meat should be considered relevant. Even in Australia, where beef consumption is 4.5 times the global average, wheat provides more protein. It may be that cattle’s primary role in global food security isn’t just as an irrelevancy but negative by degrading the productive capacity of land to produce foods which actually matter to people with food security problems. Beef should perhaps appear on a list of foods which are enemies of global food security. Far less speculative is the role of pigs and chickens. On average globally, these animals compete directly with humans for food. This is because the majority of meat globally from both species is produced in factory farms or in irrigated mixed farms in both the developed and developing worlds. From this and the Livestock’s Long Shadow assessment that livestock’s overall contribution to the net human edible protein supply is negative (p.271), it follows that pig and chicken production will have an even stronger than average negative impact on both net food calories and protein.
And next time …
I haven’t quite finished with IFPRI and this table. Despite the redundant or negative role of meat in the global food supply, it clearly dominates IFPRI’s thinking. In the next post in the series I’ll finish off the analysis by considering the choice of plant food items: rice, wheat, maize and soy. These four are indeed giants of global agriculture, but the last two, maize and soy, as can be guessed from the table above, are primarily feed … not food. In particular, both are mostly used as feed for the livestock of people to whom food shortages are events in other people’s lives.
41 replies on “Feeding the billions in 2050’s sauna (Part I)”
“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. And the US no longer has excess biocapacity. We are feeding on imports. 4 Billion people will die because we are 2 Billion over the carrying capacity. An overshoot must be followed by an undershoot.”
GW is reducing agricultural production. Wells are running dry.
Feeding 9 to 10 billion people on a warming planet in 2050 is not going to happen. IFPRI is dreaming. There is going to be a population crash.
And yet…we eat meat. One aspect of development…as opposed to just giving people enough of something to eat, is that as a county develops, the people try to eat more meat. Animal protein goes up. Thus the numbers given in the tables provided don’t show the dynamic of increased animal proteins in the diet as a function of relative prosperity. Also…what happened to fish? It’s generally not farmed, but it’s a major source of calories for people living near the coasts.
The big question is, when are we going to invent a way to grow beef without the cow?
I’m joking, but I’m also serious.
Its mad science, a bit freaky to think about, but then again do you really want to think about the system we have in place now?
I don’t think we can assume cereal based gluten protein can be relied upon to fill our bellies. If the the rain doesn’t stop in areas that haven’t yet harvested the crop could be mouldy or physically damaged. On top of weather issues there are other major problems for grain belt farming. These include global depletion of concentrated phosphate, expensive NG based fertilisers like urea and hybrids like diammonium phosphate DAP and not least diesel fuel to run tractors, harvesters and trucks. In short there will be more mouths to feed but dwindllng farm inputs combined with unhelpful weather.
If things get really bad we may have to bulldoze suburbs to grow root vegetables in raised beds fertilised with ‘night soil’ that the abandoned sewer system can no longer cope with. There won’t be enough hectares or enough muck to grow conventional cereals. Thus I’m suggesting that not only animal protein but average cereal protein will also decline over time. The spud economy may prevail with the odd Irish type famine here and there. The wheel of history turns full circle.
I don’t buy the Malthusian gloom and doom “predictions”. They never materialized in the past and my conclusion is that they will not materialize in the future. We have not exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity. There is enough food available on our planet today to allow every single human to go to bed with a full belly at night. Food shortages in the developing world are always a consequence of political instability. Regions affected by political instability see less or no economic development at all and are often not connected to the world market*.
The amount of land needed to feed a large number of people is often overestimated. China has less arable land than the US and is managing to feed its entire population of 1.3 Billion. They do import food, but they are not dependent on those imports.
*excluding the market for weaponry of course
Regarding climate change … I don’t think it will negatively impact the carrying capacity of our planet.
Yes, the American Midwest could turn in to a dust bowl, but the Sahara turning green again is just as likely. It’s difficult to predict the exact effects of a warmer climate on weather patterns.
We can indeed “easily” feed the current population, but instead we are making a mess of it, wiping out other species and generally trashing the planet instead of just using what we need.
With ocean acidification and dissolution of coral reefs, as well as chronic overfishing, I doubt the ocean will be providing as much in 2050 as it currently does – unless we turn the ice free Arctic into a giant fish-farm. If we don’t stop or slow global warming – which I doubt we will – industrial farming which will probably falter, except perhaps in Canada. In the Oxford 4 degree conference Hans Schellnhuber and Kevin Trenberth predict carrying capacity will be under 500 million.
Max – “I don’t buy the Malthusian gloom and doom “predictions. They never materialized in the past and my conclusion is that they will not materialize in the future. ”
Like the stock market, past success does not imply future success. A 99 year old man may decide that because he’s recovered from many sicknesses and not died yet, he is invincible – but in fact he is closer than ever to death. If history has taught us anything, its that feast precedes famine.
I am with James Lovelock – we need to synthesize foods using atmospheric gases and tissue culture.
Fish and seafood, in total, is about 1% of global calories (FAOSTAT) with most of those calories going to the people who least need them. Yes, you can find poor coastal communities dependent on fish, but it’s the big factory fleets that take the vast majority of that 1% and deliver it to markets for gourmet well heeled consumers.
High income countries have 18% of the world’s population but
consume 63% of the oceans fish … http://www.pnas.org/content/105/5/1768.abstract … again fish, like sheep, are red herrings :) in the
500 Million. That sounds like a ridiculously low number. On the contrary, I’d expect the carrying capacity to increase on a warmer world because of increasing rainfall, heat transfer and so on.
I agree what we have to farm in a more sustainable way. Reduce nitrogen use and carbon emissions. Stop clearing tropical rainforests, reduce the amount of land needed for energy crops.
Max: “reduce the amount of land needed for energy crops” … Livestock’s Long Shadow calculated that 33 percent of all arable land is used to grow feed … I don’t have a figure for biofuels but it will
be very small in comparison.
Maybe I have to wait for part II, I don’t know. “We” don’t decide what’s grown or not, it’s what people want to eat. I might be true what Geoff says about total caloric intake…fish being at 1% (of course say that to some sea side communities in Vietnam, China and the Philippines I’ve seen). I think we need to save the oceans because it produces a vast amount of *protein* (not always congruent with caloric intake). Of course if it’s just calories from protein, we call just eat a lot of pork: easy to raise, eats anything, and you can eat entire animal. Also not a bad feed-in-to-meat-out ration either.
I think the point is that like any development aspect of the planet, we need more energy *to start* with. With serious nuclear desal and better water management we can grow a lot more food. With energy we produce vast, truly vast quantities of water for food…of any kind.
With *every* increase in development has come a higher animal protein %. So we have to figure how to meet this without destroying the land. But this is true with a lot things, not just meat. There is no real “we ought to less meat” any more than there is no “we ought not to go to war”. It’s not about sentiment or morality or even ethics, it’s about the interests and (often artificially created) scarcity created by today’s modes of production.
But not amount of ‘discussion’ is going to get even single digit percentages of us to stop eating animal protein. Just not happening.
Geoff…just curious but “beef consumption in India, a country that is 70% non-Indian”. Trick question? They are mostly Hindu and don’t eat beef, right? They a eat huge amounts of chicken, yes?
Also…we discussed this briefly but the Polyface Farm example is good to parse, again, because it seems like an outstanding way to far with very high per-acre output of animal protein.
Also, when you are talking policies…in the US and I gather in your country, or most developed countries any policy that will drive up the price of meat is going to fail. Must I remind all of us that one of the greatest workers revolution in the world, the Polish revolution of the 1980s started due to a reduction of pork sausage by the gov’t to Selisian coal miners and Baltic ship yard workers. Just a thought…
As you know David, I’ve also commented positively on the Polyface Farm example but it’s also worth noting that that is an example of a policy that would sharply increase the price of meat. So while I would regard Polyface Farm as an excellent example of what can be done both to reduce the footprint of meat and also the inherent cruelty of commercial meat production, it’s not really at odds with a very sharp decline in global meat production. Polyface Farm has a delivery limit of about 50km.
It’s something that shoul;d probably sold in part as both a health benefit and something of immediate (as well as longterm) value to the global environment. In this case though you get local biome advantages as well.
Thanks once again Geoff for your efforts
Good article, nice and short too.
Some, er…. interesting comments.
High-tech, high energy farming could certainly help us to produce more food, but ultimately it’s trophic efficiency (i.e. energy transfer) that matters most when you’re talking about the amount of food you can produce per area of land.
The biggest problem with agricultural expansion certainly isn’t water availability (though of course this is a problem) – it’s land availability. How do you expand agricultural systems without destroying ecosystems? Let’s remember that habitat loss is the primary driver of species loss, and agricultural expansion is the primary driver of habitat loss. Loss of ecosystem services from species loss can then also affect agricultural production, e.g. through loss of pollinators. Somewhat of a positive feedback.
I’m sure there will still be niche production of beef in a 9 billion + world, for example in central Australia where land is not fertile enough to produce crops, but I think ultimately the world will be forced to eat much less meat. Otherwise it’s highly likely that there will be mass malnutrition/starvation epidemics, which will not only be intolerable (I don’t know why they’re tolerated now actually), they’d be a huge threat to global security.
David: Wikipedia cites a survey on the proportion of vegetarians in India at 30% and FAOstat puts total meat at 3.3kg per person per year in 2007 with beef being the MOST popular at 1.5 kg.
Meat consumption is all about branding (pun!) and marketing. Nothing
Tom: we can produce more food while releasing cropland and pasture for wildlife … this will be obvious later on in the series. All kinds of problems (like loss of pollinators) might get in the way … but
predicting this is way more than I can do!
Thanks Fran. There will be lots of polyfaces in the future, but this
series is about feeding the billions, not the millions :)
Yes, I agree. When I referred to agricultural expansion, I meant spatially. I agree that we can produce more food while also having more land to put aside for wildlife. Less meat consumption (the big one), genetic engineering and perhaps (eventually) vertical farming could all play a part in this.
One of things to do is to establish a form of permanent, semi-grazable American Prairie land. The US prairie (where the buffalo roamed…) was an amazingly dense form of vegetation. It has the most extensive root system of any area.
The root system of the American Prairie was perhaps the largest natural carbon sink known outside the oceans. Part of the ability of the Prairie to do this was its wide heterogeneous grasses and shrubs along with extremely well concentrated interplay between it and the 30 or more million bison that feed on it in highly concentrated numbers.
I do NOT advocate a return to this, however, their are places that can be returned to this natural state AND be highly productive meat centers as well.
I think we may be forced to eat less meat as Fran noted, Polyface is *expensive* meat, but a lot of that is based on the rarity of the way in which it’s raised and thus the owners can charge more for their eggs, chickens, pork and meat. And their limit of how far they ‘export’ it is also a good thing. The land is *better* for it than if left follow.
It is a misnomer that people necessarily eat more animal protein when they get richer. This is an extrapolation of what happened in the 19th century Europe.
On the other hand, there are many cultures where vegetarianism is preferred amongst the higher sections of the society. A good example is India, where historically several groups have shunned eating meat to climb up the social ladder. Meat, especially red meat, is not considered a rich man’s privilege but rather necessary for poor man’s nourishment. The arguments about non-vegetarian food still follow similar lines in modern India.
This is not an isolated case. There are many societies in the modern age where vegetarianism is more fashionable amongst the socially updward classes. Even in western Europe and USA, this can be observed. This is probably due to the relative abundance of meat products that are within the reach of even the poorest people. Eating meat has stopped becoming the rich man’s prerogative. Upper middle class people across many societies in the world have leapfrogged the urge to eat more meat, and are instead getting worried about eating healthy foods. It is rather the lower middle class and poor people (not the chronically poor people in India and Africa) that eat more meat, but these people generally aspire to graduate to higher economic and social status : which generally does not mean eating more meat but rather less.
Kiran, I think it’s a lot more mixed than that. In Indonesia and Vietnam, both developing countries, the overall consumption of meat has crept up (in Indonesia, lamb and beef). It is likely to continue to do so. Actual stats are VERY hard to come by, and that includes in India which tends to be regionalized, especially if you look at the different classes in each region. In almost *every* region of the world, it’s the more prosperous that eat more animal protein and the lack of eating animal protein is not so much tradition but often, not always, often a function of not having a enough money, plain and simple.
In Africa, *depending on the country* wealth has indicated a higher meat intake, especially among the poor when they get a hold of an higher income.
This issue is one that shows a general increase in meat consumption, especially in developing countries.
the point about china is a very good one, 4 times the US population with half or less he arable land.
BNC no longer posts or discusses comments on the scepticism of the scientific consensus of AGW/CC.
Kiran and David: FAO Food balance sheets are a reasonable source of data on what is happening to food supplies in almost all countries over the past 50 years … data run from 1961 to 2007 (latest).
The notion that meat is magically viewed as good food is tough to
investigate but the Kenyan research I discussed in “Brains, Biceps and Baloney” is interesting. The families generally had cattle but they don’t consider meat a high quality food and have to be told this and encouraged to eat it. The researchers involved (with grants from the National Cattlemen’s association and USAID) regard this as an “attitude problem” needing rectification.
There’s a growing literature on food and branding … e.g.,
And I’d be pretty sure that meat could be made as unattractive as tobacco with similar campaigns. Growing up, I liked meat and the smell of BBQs. I now find BBQ smells quite repulsive. I used to smoke also and now find that smell repulsive. Humans are extremely
David, I agree that lower income & poor sections of the society eat more meat when they get into the middle income bracket. But from then on, I would like to argue that increase in income would not necessarily mean an increase in meat-intake. The upper-middle classes in the world are increasingly moving towards healthier foods.
So I think it makes sense to advertise this trend and let poorer sections leapfrog the meat-eating part. This is a matter of how accessible and fashionable vegetarian food alternatives are.
In a country like India (owing to its tropical location and historical cultural antecedents) both the accessibility and fashionablity quotients are very high. I think it makes sense for the governments to raise these quotients (by subsidizing veggie foods, or rather by removing the hidden subsidies on meat production) so as to accelerate the trend in the reduction of meat intake. But this is not always in the interest of established business practices of the food industry. So we have a tussle, as Geoff said, not quite different from what we have seen with the tobacco industry.
The global sauna is already threatening the dominance of gluten as a protein source if cereal crops are ruined for several harvests in succession
World population got big in a Goldilocks period when climatic zones were distinct. For example alpine, Mediterranean, rangeland, tundra and so on. Now those zones are becoming blurred so it is a gamble growing a crop not knowing if the season will run true to assumed type. Were not quite at hauling bananas by ski lift yet but we’re inching towards it,
I think this article is counting angels on the head of a pin. We all know animal products consume a great deal more energy and resources than cereals and grains. Maybe it is time to stop counting beans and start looking for solutions.
Some means of capturing animal protein are worse than others:
The problem boils down to this; How do you get billions of humans to eat fewer animal products?
The market could force the issue with higher prices but we all know that means starving the tail of the bell curve. Laws preventing habitat from becoming farm land would force the issue, save habitat, and of course starve people in the same way that protecting an African game park starves people who could use some elephant protein or the land for farming or grazing.
Marketing can convince people to do the darnedest things, but who pays for $trillions of dollars of marketing?
Russ: “We all know …” … no, more than a few people don’t. I heard Peter Clifton (CSIRO Total Well being Diet co-author) at Adelaide’s Festival of Ideas a couple of years back seriously suggesting that he didn’t know if the environmental cost of meat was higher if all nutrients were taken into account … and he’s a very smart guy. Similarly, every time I write an article about food on “The Punch” I get comments about how much extra land we would need to grow crops if people were all vegan.
But you are quite right about the problem. I’d start by stopping the meat industry’s misleading advertising and impose a meat tax to pay for honest information campaigns … I reckon the tobacco model is a good one. That campaign replaced the “More doctors smoke camel” model of campaigns from tobacco companies with real information.
I’ll reply about the bush meat issue when I have more time, its a very important point.
“We all know …more than few people don’t … and he’s a very smart guy”
Well, let me put it this way, everyone I know knows it. Not sure what smart means, but you can have a high IQ and still be ignorant.
We evolved to enjoy honey, meat, and other animal products as part of our natural diet. That proclivity evolved because these sources were rare but highly valuable for survival and procreation. This is just one place where the tobacco analogy breaks down. Tobacco is a highly addictive drug. An attraction to sweets and animal products is natural, and in natural quantities, healthy. Telling them to eat less animal products is analogous to telling them to eat less cake, candy, whatever.
The Livestock’s Long Shadow report also made it clear that livestock is very important to the well-being of a lot of very poor people.
Another commenter questioned the use of calories to compare animal products to other foods. Meat is typically a source of minerals and proteins not not readily available in plants (thus the Madagascan eating a lemur). It isn’t usually the optimum source of calories (although the Inuit ate a lot of animal fat to obtain calories).
Here in the states, ads for food containing animal products make no discernible attempt to be particularly misleading. All they have to do is show happy people chowing down on a delicious meal.
Your ideas to reduce animal product consumption (education and a tax) don’t sound particularly innovative, novel, or effective.
LLS and elsewhere claim that livestock is important to many poor people, but they provide little data that they are important in any nutritional sense. The data I have provided above from the FAO Food Balance Sheets shows that livestock cannot be important to very many people as a food source. My contention, in other BNC posts (https://bravenewclimate.com/2010/01/05/boverty-blues-p1/ and https://bravenewclimate.com/2010/02/04/boverty-blues-p2/) is that livestock is an anchor chain for the poor.
We evolved from fructivores into omnivores … meaning unspecialised eaters. Hence the astonishing diversity of traditional diets around the planet. It’s of no relevance whether or not meat is natural … walking is natural but most of us prefer other modes of transport … rape is natural (meaning common in all societies for as long as anybody has records), but we now sanction it because most societies now
consider the impacts on the victim as relevant. This is actually a quite modern phenomenon. Similarly it is natural to let one’s cattle drink from and defecate in rivers, but we now sanction such behaviour in places which care about disease control. We can and do make decisions about all manner of things and “natural” really doesn’t cut it as a justification.
Lastly … No … education and tax is neither innovative or novel, but it works in the case of many things, not just tobacco. There is no shortage of adverse consequences of high levels of meat production to use in
such campaigns and also adverse consequences of high levels of meat consumption.
“…LLS and elsewhere claim that livestock is important to many poor people, but they provide little data that they are important in any nutritional sense…”
As mentioned a few times above, consider shifting your comparisons to include protein:
Livestock is a grave problem for biodiversity and the biosphere but not all livestock is created equal. Chickens traditionally wondered around the village turning seeds and the occasional bug into a high-protein food for people. Come to think of it, goats, pigs, and cows also converted stuff inedible to people into high protein food for people.
“…We evolved from fructivores into omnivores…”
That’s also not a particularly novel, or for the well-informed, effective argument. It is unlikely that Hominids have ever been fructivores, but if so, that was tens of millions of years ago. It is utterly irrelevant that millions of years ago our lineage included tree dwelling fructivores, or fish with legs for that matter.
An omnivore can usually survive on just animal products (Neanderthal, Inuit), or just vegetable products, but “optimally,” it is evolved for a varied diet that includes both. Given time and isolation, the Inuit and Neanderthal may have evolved into pure carnivores, but we certainly can’t expect humanity to voluntarily chose (or evolve to be optimized for) a vegan diet. We did not evolve into vegans. We are omnivores.
“…It’s of no relevance whether or not meat is natural … We can and do make decisions about all manner of things and “natural” really doesn’t cut it as a justification. …”
Certainly not by itself but we may also be using different definitions for the word natural. And maybe we should shift from the word “meat” to the term “animal products.” Dairy products and eggs, consume roughly the same resources as meat, depending. The rapid and widespread mutation (arising independently in more than one place) allowing adults to digest milk and cheese strongly suggests that animal products from domesticated livestock have been a very important part of our recent evolution (and well-being). That’s what I mean by “natural” and it’s relevant because solutions that fight natural predilections, like a ban on sweets, will be much harder to implement than say, a ban against howling at the moon, which is not natural, at least for hominids.
“…walking is natural but most of us prefer other modes of transport …”
That argument works against you. Although a tax on walking, or possibly a law against it, might greatly slow the destruction of our biosphere as people would be forced to slow down (as they crawled to and fro to log forests, herd cattle) because it is a solution that runs against the grain of human nature, it would stand no chance of long term success (or short term for that matter). People won’t stop walking. Maybe talking would be an even better analogy.
“…rape is natural (meaning common in all societies for as long as anybody has records), but we now sanction it because most societies now…”
Poor analogy. Legislation to restrict the eating of animal products is not equivalent to legislation protecting people from violence, sexual or otherwise, as natural as that may be for our species. Some things are easier to legislate than others and if your game plan to preserve biodiversity is to legislate against the consumption of animal products you need to start over. The consumption of animal products is not equivalent to rape or slavery or murder or cigarette smoking.
“…Similarly it is natural to let one’s cattle drink from and defecate in rivers…”
That’s stretching the use of the word natural. I use the term natural to mean a proclivity elicited by genetic makeup, like walking, talking, hormonal and physiological incentives to eat certain things, procreate, seek status, and on and on.
“…Lastly … No … education and tax is neither innovative or novel, but it works in the case of many things, not just tobacco…”
You will never get a tax on animal products. The education system has been teaching us and our children to eat less meat and dairy for health reasons for decades: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/foodgroups/proteinfoods_amount_table.html
Your description of the problem is good, however, we have no shortage of descriptions of the problem. What we don’t have are innovative, potentially viable fixes, which are all that really matter at this point. From my book:
“…As far as I’m concerned, further quantification of this carnage isn’t necessary. That job has been done and done extremely well by others. Those who have read these works are fully aware of what is happening. The rest of humanity is along for the ride. It is not my goal to convince anyone that the destruction of the Earth’s biodiversity should be a concern. This book was written for those of you who are already convinced and want to see solutions…”
Russ: I don’t choose to look at calories because it suits me, but because protein isn’t a malnutrition issue. This was all sorted out in
the 1960s and 70s … pre-www … you may need to go to a library
for this: “The Great Protein Fiasco” (The Lancet 1974)
For a modern explication of the causes of malnutrition, see “Explaining Child Malnutrition in Developing Countries”
Protein and meat don’t get a look in as explanatory variables. Its quite difficult to get enough calories without getting enough protein, particularly in developing countries … it’s actually easier in Western countries with soft drinks and potato crisps!
I won’t deal fully with the rest of your response. I don’t mind if you disagree, but I’m frequently left guessing why. Just saying “Poor analogy” isn’t illuminating. Do you think animals don’t suffer during raising for food? If so, then you are simply wrong. If you don’t think their suffering matters, then this is exactly what rapists think. I could have used genocide or many other natural human activities which are now broadly condemned as a result of the lateral thinking that takes notice of the victim’s viewpoint. It is a common but declining viewpoint that animal suffering doesn’t matter, but you should be up-front if that’s what you think.
Similarly “You will never get a tax on animal products”. Why not? Some countries have introduced a tax on saturated fats … which is pretty much exactly a tax on animal products without being up-front about it.
I’ll certainly do some rewriting of Parts II and III as a result of this exchange. Thank you.
“…I don’t mind if you disagree, but I’m frequently left guessing why…”
I’m critiquing the article because it has weaknesses. I’m not critiquing you and I don’t disagree at all about your major premise, that livestock has a huge impact on biodiversity. However, as I’ve said before, solutions are all that matter at this point. 99% of your effort has been another accounting exercise, which has limited value, but even so it should be able to withstand critique from vested interests should they arrive (think Heifer International).
“…Russ: I don’t choose to look at calories because it suits me, but because protein isn’t a malnutrition issue. This was all sorted out in the 1960s and 70s…”
Go back to your link to the paper written 35 years ago and click on the letter link in the right column:
“…20 000—32 000 children with kwashiorkor are treated in Malawi every year. The prevalence of kwashiorkor in Malawi is about 2·5% in children aged 1—3 years.2, 3 Across the maize-consuming countries of southern and eastern Africa, kwashiorkor is arguably the predominant form of severe childhood malnutrition…
“…UNICEF reports that eastern and southern Africa accounts for roughly 20% of child deaths worldwide, and half of these deaths are a result of poor nutrition…”
And from the Wikipedia article on Kwashiorkor:
“… In at-risk populations, kwashiorkor may develop after a mother weans her child from breast milk, replacing it with a diet high in carbohydrates, especially starches, but deficient in protein….”
“…Its quite difficult to get enough calories without getting enough protein, particularly in developing countries…”
I’m not a nutrition expert but I am aware that many native American skeletons have been uncovered predating the European invasion that show signs of horrific iron deficiencies from diets containing too much corn.
My wife is a pediatrician. I asked her at dinner tonight what the official recommendations are for vegan infants. No problem while breast feeding or using formula but after that they need to give the kids protein supplements because you can’t be sure a kid will eat enough pulses.
So, if I can poke this many holes in your argument imagine what qualified motivated nutrition researchers would do to it.
In your second source ( http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/rr111.pdf ) I did a search for the word “protein” and found not a single instance of it in 124 pages. A 124 page paper on child nutrition and not a single mention of protein?
“…Just saying “Poor analogy” isn’t illuminating…”
Let me repeat in full what I said about your rape analogy: “… Poor analogy. Legislation to restrict the eating of animal products is not equivalent to legislation protecting people from violence, sexual or otherwise, as natural as that may be for our species…”
“…Do you think animals don’t suffer during raising for food? If so, then you are simply wrong…”
My young daughter is an enthusiastic member of 4H. In our small backyard in Seattle she has a breeding pair of meat rabbits, three ducks, and five chickens. Just last week she butchered a chicken and a rabbit. I paid $100 for a free range turkey this year .: (
I am on your side when it comes to limiting suffering of our domesticated animals, but properly cared for chickens, ducks, pigs, goats, cattle and what have you (free ranging is typical of the poor), lead good domesticated animal lives. They evolved to thrive in a domesticated environment, the way lap dogs have. It’s the industrialized concentrated chicken, pig, and cattle factories that should be drawing your attentions and energies.
“…Similarly “You will never get a tax on animal products”. Why not? Some countries have introduced a tax on saturated fats…”
So… convince every country on the planet to tax things like meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt (and let’s throw in sweets and deserts while we are at it to thwart the diabetes epidemic) hard enough to force voting constituencies to stop consuming them
Wouldn’t it be easier to increase lobbying efforts for more humane treatment of domesticated animals caught up in our modern factory farms, since that seems to be your true overarching concern?
As per BNC Comments Policy (check the About page), your comment has been edited to exclude personal attacks on an individual and attribution of another's motives. Please play the ball not the man.
Russ: “A 124 page paper on child nutrition and not a single mention of protein?” Exactly. As I said, it is difficult to get enough calories without getting enough protein … but not impossible. That 124 page paper isn’t concerned with “edge cases” but with explaining the vast bulk of malnutrition, which is caused by insufficient calories, dirty water and uneducated mothers.
This series isn’t about the ethics of eating meat but about maximising
the chances of feeding the planet in 2050 while also maximising the land available for other species and for reforestation. You bought in
a “naturalistic” argument and I replied with a moral argument. Suppose I could show with absolute certainty that meat production has to decline dramatically to give a better than even chance of feeding the planet in 2050 and you reply “Sorry, that’s unnatural, we can’t do that”. How should I proceed? First I need to establish that the low meat regime is nutritionally adequate for good health. Suppose I do that and you reply. “Sorry, that’s unnatural, I can’t fault your argument, but it must be wrong”.
Is my overarching concern factory farming? I wrote a whole book on red meat despite the fear that it might drive some people to eating chicken. In Australia most red meat is grass fed and chicken is factory farmed. My major concern is climate change and its impact on people and other animals. I believe we have to globally destock ruminants (not no ruminants but far, far less) and it is a huge moral dilemma for me to say that and have some people respond by “Ok, I’ll eat chicken”. So my book has an appendix (by my partner Dr Suzanne Pope) on the chicken industry hoping to appeal to people’s ethical sense. But, at the end of the day, climate change is the main game and I think the suffering it may unleash exceeds even that of the chicken or pig industries.
You know that an internet debate is winding down when previously addressed points start reappearing.
“…As I said, it is difficult to get enough calories without getting enough protein … but not impossible…”
Just doesn’t pass the common sense test. The American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees with you (source: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/nutrition/pages/Vegetartian-Diet-for-Children.aspx ), diseased fossils disagree with you, and lots of other sources disagree with you.
Your earlier contention that advertisers are responsible for people wanting to eat animal products certainly does not explain what motivates Madagascans to hunt and eat lemurs with every opportunity. We evolved to seek and enjoy animal products via evolution, which is all the proof needed that animal protein imparts a reproductive advantage.
From a recent article about a recent study titled: “Stopping Bushmeat Is Good for Conservation—and Bad for Hunger”
“…The study—led by Harvard’s Christopher Golden—looked at the diet of 77 children under the age of 12 in rural northwestern Madagascar, one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in the world. Their models indicated that removing access to bushmeat would lead to a 29% increase in the number of children suffering from anemia, and a tripling of anemia cases among children in the poorest of the poor households. Since childhood anemia often leads to future disease—and globally, nearly 2 billion people suffer from iron deficiency—protecting wildlife in this case would seem to seriously impact the health of an entire generation. …(snip) So can we have wildlife conservation and fight hunger? Yes, but not without smart policy. When I visited rural Cameroon with Wolfe, I was struck by how few domestic animals I saw in and around the villages. Few chickens or goats, no cattle or pigs—which meant that a monkey or a dik-dik really was just about the only viable source of protein. In his study, Golden found that people in Madagascar wanted to eat chicken or pork, but couldn’t afford it. The smart way to save wild animals might involve improving domestic animal production on the ground in Africa and other places where bushmeat remains a necessity. Sacrifice a cow, save a monkey—and since fighting the bushmeat trade can reduce the risk of new diseases jumping to human beings, we all could benefit….”
And when it comes to picking sources, see the Wikipeida article on confirmation bias: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias, which, admittedly, is a sword that swings both ways.
“…This series isn’t about the ethics of eating meat but about maximising the chances of feeding the planet in 2050 while also maximising the land available for other species and for reforestation…”
That’s what I thought until you said: (and pardon the repetition as I warned earlier):
“…If you don’t think their suffering matters, then this is exactly what rapists think. I could have used genocide or many other natural human activities which are now broadly condemned as a result of the lateral thinking that takes notice of the victim’s viewpoint. It is a common but declining viewpoint that animal suffering doesn’t matter, but you should be up-front if that’s what you think…”
I don’t buy your justification for making those remarks: “…You bought in a “naturalistic” argument and I replied with a moral argument…”
A) Although I’m repeating myself, I made it very clear what I meant by the word natural (evolutionary predilections).
B) Countering a (strawman) “naturalistic” argument with a moral one is about as logical as countering a “holistic” argument with a lawnmower.
The following chart from Livestock’s Long Shadow shows the first-world industrialized factory farming impact on global warming compared to third world practices: http://home.comcast.net/~russ676/Graphics/img0.gif
What the chart does not show is that the vast majority of animal suffering is in those first world factory farms. Animals belonging to subsistence farmers largely live the lives they were bred (evolved) for (domesticated farm animals) and don’t suffer as a result. Third world livestock does most damage to biodiversity and global warming impacts, but heavily taxing the livestock of the poor could easily have very negative unintended consequences.
“…Suppose I could show with absolute certainty that meat production has to decline dramatically to give a better than even chance of feeding the planet in 2050 and you reply “Sorry, that’s unnatural, we can’t do that”.
You are attempting to construct a strawman, or better yet, a series of strawmen.
A) I don’t disagree that meat production has to decline dramatically to give a better than even chance of feeding the planet in 2050. I disagree with your game plan.
B) The words “naturalistic” and “unnatural” were never used by me. Let me repeat what I said in an earlier comment:
“…Well, that depends on our definition of natural. And maybe we should shift from the word “meat” to the term “animal products.” Dairy products and eggs, consume roughly the same resources as meat, depending. The rapid and widespread mutation (arising independently in more than one place) allowing adults to digest milk and cheese strongly suggests that animal products from domesticated livestock have been a very important part of our recent evolution (and well-being). That’s what I mean by “natural” and it’s relevant because solutions that fight natural predilections, like a ban on sweets, will be much harder to implement than say, a ban against howling at the moon, which is not natural, at least for hominids….”
“…How should I proceed? .First I need to establish that the low meat regime is nutritionally adequate for good health.Suppose I do that and you reply. ‘Sorry, that’s unnatural, I can’t fault your argument, but it must be wrong’…”
It’s always interesting to watch positions “evolve” in the course of a debate. The term “low meat regime” was not used in your article, nor was the term ruminant (mentioned later).
A) I don’t disagree that a low meat regime is nutritionally adequate for good health. I disagree with your game plan to reduce damage done by livestock (the term used in your article).
B) I have found lots of fault with your argument. See above comments and the numerous links to other sources that are also at odds with your argument.
(Deleted inflammatory remark.)
And, although I repeat myself, eggs, cheese, yogurt, milk, etc, etc …and meat are all on par with each other when it comes to resource consumption and emissions. Your insistence on using the word meat instead of something like animal products is inaccurate, inadequate, and therefore misleading.
“…My major concern is climate change and its impact on people and other animals…”
Could you clarify what you mean by “other animals?” Clearly this will likely accelerate the extinction event, but there will be little if any impact on the quality of life of domesticated animals, which are dependent on humans for survival. There may well be fewer domesticated animals but there won’t be more of them suffering.
“…I believe we have to globally destock ruminants…”
Your article talks about livestock …no sign of the word ruminant.
“…But, at the end of the day, climate change is the main game and I think the suffering it may unleash exceeds even that of the chicken or pig industries…”
I fail to see how climate change will exacerbate animal suffering. Are you suggesting that extinction is a form of suffering? Maybe you could elaborate.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees with you … and lots of other sources disagree with you.”
Indeed they do Russ. I prefer to argue with data than quote authorities, but the combining protein sources reference shows the Academy of Pediatrics is a few decades out of date.
Prof Marion Nestle from “What to eat” p.143 says “Indeed, unless your diet is unusually restrictive, you will get enough protein as long as you get enough calories … Nutritionists used to worry that you had to be careful combining plant foods to get the right combination of amino acids – but we now know that variety and calories take care of that.”
So Russ, the challenge is to find me a child in any western country admitted to hospital with poor amino acid balance who isn’t also starving. Find me anybody anywhere with poor amino acid balance.
And then find a population with poor amino acid balance. If it was happening for real, don’t you think anybody at FAO would have noticed?
Second challenge is to find a diet that is reasonable … not a coke and potato crisp job … where a person is eating say 3000 calories of real food a day but deficient in protein. Here’s one, not very reasonable but it will show you how hard it is. 30 bananas according to my calorie and protein counter is about 3000 Calories and 60 grams of protein, which is enough protein for anybody weighing under 85 kilos. Make the diet a little more natural by substituting some cereals and veggies and the protein count will go UP. Dietitians formulating low protein diets for kidney patients can’t do it with food … they need to use lemonade or ghee or something similar.
We won’t agree on the rest. “Evolutionary predilection”? I obviously don’t know what that means, I thought it meant “natural”.
P.S. I have a friend who eats 30 bananas a day (or similar, depending on season). He does 24 hour bicycle races and running races … wins more than a few. Such diets don’t scale well ecologically, but can be quite sound (with added B12).
…Prof Marion Nestle from “What to eat” p.143 says “Indeed, unless your diet is unusually restrictive, you will get enough protein as long as you get enough calories … Nutritionists used to worry that you had to be careful combining plant foods to get the right combination of amino acids – but we now know that variety and calories take care of that…”
And he’s right. I’ve been listening to my pediatrician wife say that to new parents for many years, which is at odds with your assertion that the AAP is decades out of date when it comes to promoting child nutrition (an assertion that really doesn’t pass the commons sense test). It is not the same talk she gives to vegan parents of vegan children. By restrictive, he means, not enough variety. As long as your calories come from an adequate variety of sources, no problem. If all you eat for your calories is, say, ground corn, big problem.
In some parts of the world people do end up with an “unusually restrictive” diet, which may consist of too much rice or maize, or in Haiti, mud pies. It takes very little in the way of animal products to make such a diet less “restrictive” enough to prevent health problems, which is why animal products are such an effective weapon against some manifestations of malnutrition. A few dozen chickens running around turning seeds and bugs into eggs and meat can make all the difference. Unlike your 30-banana-a-day friend, the poorest of the world don’t have access to things like B12 tablets.
“…So Russ, the challenge is to find me a child in any western country admitted to hospital with poor amino acid balance who isn’t also starving…”
Better yet, let’s remove your new requirement for a Western country, and while we’re at it, admission to a hospital, and, while keeping a straight face, repeat after me: “On this planet of 7 billion humans there is not one child who could have avoided a debilitating nutritional shortfall had animal products been part of her diet that had adequate calories, but inadequate variety.”
“…Evolutionary predilection”? I obviously don’t know what that means, I thought it meant ‘natural’…”
The up side to having a debate spiral into endless repetition is that I can start cutting and pasting my previous comments instead of composing new ones. This will be the third time you’ve seen the following:
“…Well, that depends on our definition of natural. The rapid and widespread mutation (arising independently in more than one place) allowing adults to digest milk and cheese strongly suggests that animal products from domesticated livestock have been a very important part of our recent evolution (and well-being). That’s what I mean by “natural” and it’s relevant because solutions that fight natural predilections, like a ban on sweets, will be much harder to implement than say, a ban against howling at the moon, which is not natural, at least for hominids….”
And I thank you for giving me the opportunity to drive that point home to any reader bored enough to be following this exchange.
“…Make the diet a little more natural by substituting some cereals and veggies and the protein count will go UP. Dietitians formulating low protein diets for kidney patients can’t do it with food … they need to use lemonade or ghee or something similar…”
A little more “natural?”
A) Time for you to define “natural” for us.
B) I never said a person can’t get adequate protein without animal products. I’ve lost count of your strawmen.
Nutrition for the poorest is a probability game. A child of a subsistence farmer is at risk. Crops fail to varying degrees. Nutritional imbalances can impart permanent physical and mental damage in short periods of time with children. Livestock is a hedge. It can survive when crop failure culls variety for calories (only your corn crop survives). Animal products are just another weapon in the arsenal against inadequate nutritional variety. They improve the odds, smooth out dips in available nutrition when adequate crop variety is not available. Animal products are not a guarantee of nutritional adequacy, they increase the odds of obtaining it, not for you or me, but for the poorest of us.
Russ, please keep it more focused on topic, and less personal, or this line of comments will be closed.
[…] Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff 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) […]
“…Russ, please keep it more focused on topic, and less personal, or this line of comments will be closed…”
Barry, I realize this is off topic and therefore at risk of being replaced with a warning, but I very much appreciate the effort you make to moderate your comment fields. It allows for serious debate by sifting the wheat from the chaff. IMHO, your site is the best in the world, bar none, dealing with potential solutions for climate change. That’s quite a compliment and heart felt. I routinely reference articles on your site. Geoff’s article is excellent as well, and I’m sure I will be referencing it as well. I critiqued only a small portion of it.
Because the phrases “on topic” and “less personal” don’t have precise definitions, and are largely a matter of perspective, in a long debate one walks a line never knowing where a moderator will decide to draw a line (in part because the written word is easily misinterpreted for lack of facial expression, voice tone, and body language). When Geoff was allowed to say “…If you don’t think their [animal] suffering matters, then this is exactly what rapists think. …you should be up-front if that’s what you think…” (both off topic and personal from my perspective) I took it as an indication that we would be allowed to pull hair but not kick or scratch ; ).
Thank you for complimenting the moderation on BNC. It is not always easy to decide where to draw the line but the main thing we try to avoid is attacking the person and not the argument. History has shown that snide or inflammatory remarks, directed at an indivdual, from any commenter, tend to precipitate a similar response and the quality of the comments spiral downwards.
It has been claimed that the energy return from hunter gathering was 10:1 and now with industrial food production this has declined to 1:16. Source. Those energy inputs include tractor fuel, fertilisers, processing and delivery. In Australia legislation has required the calorific value of fast foods to be given on menus, with 8,700 kJ or 8.7 MJ now given as the adult daily allowance. Source. If you put these two numbers together it suggests every adult needs 16 X 8.7 MJ = 139.2 MJ per day in total energy inputs just for food supply. That is quite an extraordinary figure if you contrast it to frugal direct electrical demand of say 10 kwh or 36 MJ.
Extrapolating that to a well fed world population of 10 billion produces some staggering numbers for energy inputs. These inputs may also face constraints due to ultimate fossil depletion or near term CO2 caps. Additionally there will be material input constraints, water variability and phosphorus concentration being just two. Therefore I disagree that the world can feed 10 billion people and we are already at unsustainable levels given present tastes in consumption.
John: “It has been claimed that the energy return from hunter gathering was 10:1 and now with industrial food production this has declined to 1:16. http://news.goldseek.com/GoldSeek/1250621683.php ”
Claimed yes, but is it true? I couldn’t follow your link back to anything that looked like primary research and your extrapolation to the claim that we are using 4 times as much energy for food as our electrical supply would seem a pretty good proof that the 1:16 ratio is plain wrong … a reductio ad absurdum proof!
[…] Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and mechanism programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. His prior essay on BNC was: Feeding a billions in 2050′s sauna (Part I) […]