Thursday, April 17, 2014

Feeding 9 billion people; can it start with us going vegetarian?

The cover story in this month’s National geographic "Feedingthe World" made me reflect on its byline “by 2050 we’ll need to feed two billion more people. How can we do that without overwhelming the planet?” Food for thought, perhaps topical for the long-weekend of good-Friday, Passover and Easter ahead of us.
It is springtime in the Northern hemisphere, bringing with it a refreshing change of scenery, greening gardens, and landscape dotted with multi-colored hues. With spring coming after a long winter with its fair share of snowstorms and “polar vortexes,” it is easy to ignore the latest UN report on threats from global warming. Global warming also has direct consequences on agriculture, which is bound to accentuate the problem of feeding a growing global population.
Lies we tell our children... about modern Agriculture and food
Working for a multinational agri-business giant, I am sometimes conflicted while trying to explain to my four-year-old where food really comes from. I find it amusing to read picture-books on farming with colored illustrations of quaint family farms, grain silos and barnyards with chicken, cows and goat meandering around. Yes, we still have some of these around. If you happen to drive out of Anytown USA or ride a train out of AnyCity, EU, you can still spot the big red barns, a few paddocks with horses and cows grazing. Picturesque scenery that proponents of “locally grown” and Community supported agriculture (CSA) movement would love to continue see in the landscape. But is that where food on our table really comes from?

Living in urban and suburban areas, most of us digirati are far removed from agriculture. Perhaps the closest we come to farming is in our kitchen garden experiments where we may be content to spend a few weekend afternoons sowing pre-grown plants on bags of gardening soil from Lowes or Home Depot, spraying an assortment of “miracle grow” chemical mix of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides. And by periodically watering the lawn and plants we are “amazed” to see flowers bloom along with a few veggies for a dinner salad. 

Books like “To Eat: A Country Life” and "The Town That Food Saved" that I read recently romanticizes hobbyist farmers and attempt to take us back to the quaint age of subsistence farming. The authors explain how passionate hobbyists with a few acres of fertile land can "sustain" themselves in modern day America.

The reality, as I would like to tell my son when he grows up, is that the bulk of the food we - urbanized denizens of this planet – eat is a product of modern agriculture, a.k.a industrial agriculture.
The reality of modern food: modern agriculture

There is so much cacophony and passionate debate on food and agriculture in popular press that obscures the challenge: how do we feed a growing population?

The debates also obscure the economic reality: tools and technologies supplied by agri-business are catching up with public demand; a demand for food and meat which is being shaped by modern trends and tastes. The recent New York Times essay “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” made for a fascinating read. It featured a local politician in Hawaii, Greggor Ilagan, whose quest for facts on genetically modified organisms (GMO) lead to a complete u-turn in his perspectives on the topic. The article echoes the challenge faced by policy-makers around the globe who need facts to weigh in on debates on modern agriculture. Facts that are especially hard to sift through with all the noise and cacophony.

A few basic facts food and challenge we face in the quest to "Feed the World"

Production: Growing and producing “food” is hard work and labor intensive.
  • A small minority of farmers support a vast majority of us, consumers of food.  “There are over 313,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms). In 2007, only 45% of farmers claimed farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation.” -  
  • Rural flight (Wikipedia) is an irreversible trend. The trend to leave farms continues in historically agrarian societies including China, India and Africa.
  • Subsistence farming practiced in developing economies is impractical. The periodic wave of suicides among subsistence farmers in Asia and Africa is a heartwrenching, all too common phenomena (link). Subsistence farmers in most developing nations don’t have the social security net that hobbyist farmers in the west enjoy. (wonder how many western farmers commit suicide just because the monsoon failed?)
Consumption: Changing food consumption pattern constraints production
  • For majority of humans, Meat is coveted meal. “the amount of meat eaten by each person has leapt from around 22kg in 1961 to 40kg in 2007”  (Economist: Kings of the carnivores
  • It takes anywhere from 7 to 10 pound of grains – primarily corn, soyabeans or barley – to produce a pound of meat. Ergo the need to grow millions of tonnes of grain to feed a growing population. 
  • Converting grains to meat to feed humans is not only expensive and time consuming but also environmentally unsustainable. Massive amounts Methane generated by industrial animal farms is just another side effect. Time magazine reported that FAO data indicates that 18 percent of the Earth's greenhouse gas emissions were linked to worldwide livestock farming.  
  • The trend towards increasing meat consumption for food is not just restricted to the west. China and India alone have hundreds of millions of increasingly affluent middle class citizen craving meat; consumers who equate meat rich diets with westernization. (ref: Holy cow! Who moved my meat – Economic times)
Bottomline: Increasing quantities of grains and Meat for human needs cannot come from small-scale farms. The majority of food in our world is a product of modern agriculture – mega farms spanning thousands of acres producing corn and soyabeans to supply industrial cattle farms with hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle. Mega-farms are enabled by industrial tools and techniques  including use of chemicals – pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, growth hormones – and seeds that are genetically modified (GMO) or increasingly bred using marker-assisted techniques (ref: washington post)

Growing Demand for Meat as Food 

Behind the demand for industrial/modern agriculture is an odd little reality that seems to get little attention: our food consumption pattern, especially growing demand for large quantity of meat is unsustainable.

The national geographic article hits home when it says “The spread of prosperity across the world, especially in China and India, is driving an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn and soybeans to feed more cattle, pigs, and chickens. If these trends continue, the double whammy of population growth and richer diets will require us to roughly double the amount of crops we grow by 2050.”

Growing up in middle class India in the seventies and eighties, it was not uncommon to see “non vegetarian” neighbors looking forward to the Sunday mutton biryani or fried chicken. However, for the vast majority of Indians, meat was an occasional indulgence not staple food. All this has changed as India “modernizes”. Middle-class Indians can not only afford to, but are increasingly asking for meat and chicken during regular mealtimes. My Chinese-American friends agree this echoes a snapshot of their native land too.

Is vegetarianism the answer?

If vegetarianism is the answer to world hunger, why are the gurus not actively advocating it? For one, vegetarianism is not fashionable or sexy. Most hardcore proponents of CSA and organic movements don’t claim any affinity to vegetarianism. Social icons like Oprah make waves just by trying a “Vegan Diet” for 21 days.  A few stock arguments against vegetarianism
  1. Protein: Advocates of western diet, perhaps rightly, point to the abundance of protein in meat and poultry. Protein is the basic nutrient and building block for a balanced human diet. No doubt. The myth that meat diet alone is a source of protein for humans needs is hard to bust. The western intelligentsia is drilled home this from an early age. Case in point the American diplomat who created a diplomatic furor when with her facebook comments that “mocked the Indian way of life, stating that her pet dog Paco got “more protein in his diet" than their gardener's, after one of her Facebook friends noted that Paco looks bigger than the man.” (link)  
  2. Behavior. Food habits and taste are innate behavior. Dietary preferences acquired at an early age are extremely hard to change. Even after spending a good part of the past two decades in America and Europe, I haven’t taken to eating meat, perhaps because I grew up in a vegetarian family. Same argument will be made by those who have grown up eating meat! (ref: Deepak Chopra on Becoming Vegetarian)
  3. Economics of meat – analysts have long obsessed over the efficiencies’ and economics of fast food companies. There continues to be a debate on profitability of dollar menus at Mc Donald’s and Taco bell but the debate is really about how cheap meat is! (link)
  4. Meat is cheaper than Veggie: The fact is Vegetarian menu items even at fast food restaurants cost more: A veggie patty at Subway cost more than a meat-laden foot-long that sells for $5! Wonder why? A good percentage of grains grown in the US is destined for animals and poultry feed, which in turn ends up as food. If meat is this cheap, one can only imagine how cheap grains would if we could bypass a complete step in food supply chain. 
There again, hardly any serious research exists on whether vegetarianism, even part-time vegetarian diets can alleviate the global food crisis. The occasional articles – e.g the Guardian piece “Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists” – end up sounding alarmist.
If not vegetarianism, where is the answer?

Notice the tone “force world into vegetarianism” in the Guardian piece; a tone like this is bound to unnerve many of us and is likely to minimize any rational discussion or research on the topic. An American is more likely to give up his first born child before he lets you pry away his stake, hamburger or ability to barbeque in his backyard all summer long!
But then if Americans aren’t going to change their culinary habits a bit, there is little hope in rest of world following suit. In a sense, meat eating, especially in developing nations is aspirational. For many there, a Big Mac meal at a local McDonalds is a symbol of joining the global economy as much as wearing blue jeans is.
A swing towards vegetarianism need not go to the extreme to make a difference. Abstinence of meat consumption is neither practical nor necessary to make a difference. Moderation is perhaps the mantra here. Proponents of vegetarianism should perhaps switch the tone and aspire for small changes: Abstain from meat certain days of the week. Perhaps a weekly lent  or a periodic Passover like diet to motivate a bit of reduction in meat eating?
What the world really needs is for a few more influencers like Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood stars to jump to the Vegetarian camp, or perhaps resurgence of Depak Chopra’s followers?
Of course, this hypothesis begs the question: could the savings of 7-8 times grains otherwise spent in producing meat be used to feed 7-8 times humans?

A lot would have to happen before that! Perhaps a topic for another blog.

Ps: don’t have to state the obvious: The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer!

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