Vegetarians May Preach – But We’re Not All Members of the Choir

Less meatThe  suggestion that we should eat less meat in order to save the planet pops up with monotonous regularity in my twitter feed. Interestingly, those who make this claim are almost always vegetarian, vegan or profess to eat very little meat. This is rather like me asserting that we could mitigate climate change and save resources by eating fewer bananas and curbing our windsurfing habits. I loathe bananas, and if you ever see me windsurfing you’d better be sure that there’s a nearby hospital bed and neck brace with my name on it. As you can imagine, giving up either activity would have little impact on my life.

This is why I find it interesting and rather facile that those who do not eat meat proclaim fleshy abstinence as the way forwards. It’s easy to preach a solution that has no impact on your life – far harder to make a dietary or lifestyle change that actually impacts you.

The “eat less meat” movement would have far more credibility if it was promoted by a hunting, fishing, grilling, hamburger-lover who publicly declared his/her love for meat in all it’s many forms, and bemoaned the fact that they felt they should forgo the steak in favor of the tofu stir-fry. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why? Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito. In reality, meat eating is only likely to decline if it becomes too expensive or subject to regulatory sanctions (e.g. rationing similar to that in Britain during WWII). The influx of papers suggesting that we should reduce consumption therefore fall on deaf ears.

So let’s face the facts. Neither the national or global population is likely to reduce meat consumption in the near future, and the rising income per capita in India and China will increase demand for meat still further. Instead of making recommendations based on notional utopias, let’s focus on areas where we can really improve.

Amazing gains in productivity have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.

Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat – using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy refutes the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.

Finally, take a look at your own plate. Globally, 33% of food is wasted. Just think of the reductions in resource use we could achieve (and people we could feed) if all the crops planted, fruit picked, and milk, meat and eggs produced were consumed, rather than just 2/3 of them.

We evoke change by leading by example – I’m off to enjoy a steak, conventionally-raised using 12% less water, 19% less feed and 33% less land than its equivalent in 1977. You’d better believe that if there’s any left, it’s going in a sandwich tomorrow. As my Grandma used to say: Waste not, want not.

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Is Corn the Soylent Green of the Future?

I recently had the pleasure of watching the 1973 movie Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston. I won’t spoil the ending for those who havent seen it, but the overarching premise of a big company controlling the food supply to an hungry, overcrowded future population strongly resembles some of the current claims made by the more vehement foodies. The anti-animal-agriculture activists appear to have a similar agenda – if only food production was “sustainable” (a word with a million definitions) without any of those “factory farms (that) pose a serious threat to health” and red meats that “have been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer“, life would be much sweeter.

So what’s the answer? It’s very simple. All that animal feed could simply be fed to humans. According to Pimentel at Cornell University, 800 million people could be fed with the grain that livestock eat in the USA each year. If we ignore the fact that field corn (fed to livestock) is not the same as sweet corn (the corn on the cob that we eat), and assume that field corn could easily be processed into a human foodstuff, Pimentel is right.

Given the average human nutrient requirement (2,000 kCal/day) and the energy yield of an acre of shelled corn (14.5 million kCal), one acre of corn (at 2011 US yields) could supply 20 people with their energy needs (see table below). On a global basis, we currently harvest around 393.5 million acres of corn, therefore we could supply the entire current global population (7.003 billion) using only 90% of the global corn area. Of course that’s assuming zero waste and US crop yields. If we use a more realistic scenario with global corn yields (85 bushels/acre) and 30% food wastage, we can only feed 12 people per acre and would need to increase current corn acreage by 121% to produce enough food to supply the current population. So what happens by the year 2050 when the population is predicted to reach 9.5 billion people? Assuming that we continue to see increases in yield proportional to those over the past 30 years (30% increase in US yields since 1982), that yield increases are exhibited globally, and that we can cut food waste to 10%, we could feed 15 people per acre and we’ll need to increase corn acreage by 79% to provide sufficient corn to feed the global population.

If our dietary requirements can be met by corn alone, the increase in land use won’t be an issue – land currently devoted to soy, peanuts or wheat can be converted to corn. Yet this simplistic argument for vegetarian/veganism suffers from three major flaws. Firstly, it assumes that the global population would be willing to forgo lower-yielding vegetable crops that add variety to the diet – where are the artichokes, kale or radishes in this dietary utopia?

Secondly, as noted by Simon Fairlie in his excellent book, converting to a vegan monoculture would significantly increase the reliance on chemical fertilizers and fossil fuels due to a lack of animal manures. Given current concern over dwindling natural resources, this is an inherently unsustainable proposition.

Finally, corn is currently vilified by many food pundits. The suggestion that our food supply is controlled by corporations who force monoculture corn upon hapless farmers who are then faced with the choice of complying with big ag or being forced out of business are the purview of food pundits (e.g. Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin) and documentaries such as Food Inc. and King Corn. Not a week goes by without another Mommy blogger or journalist publishing an article on the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup, often concluding that if only this ingredient was removed from our food supply, childhood obesity and pediatric type II diabetes would cease to be an issue for little Johnny and Janie pre-schoolers of the future.

It’s frighteningly easy to visualise the Soylent Green-esque vegan future, whereby food is doled out in pre-measured quantities according to dietary requirements – yet what happens when the whistle-blower of 2050 proclaims “it’s made from CORN!”?