A crisis of logic

By Eric Stryson

The current discourse about how to avoid another “Food Crisis” demonstrates nothing less than a crisis of logic and a denial on the part of policymakers of the more effective and essential approaches to solving the problem of global hunger.  Any rational debate on food security must be based on the acceptance of the inefficiencies of a heavily meat-based diet and also confront the hazardous practice of subsidizing the production of feed grains for industrial livestock farming.

Recent figures released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) and the World Food Program (WFP) indicate the current number of chronically hungry people is around 925 million or 13.5 percent of the global population.[1]  Although this figure is nearly 100 million fewer than 2009 it remains an indictment of our civilization given what scientists know about diet and food production.

Since 1960, per capita consumption of meat has quadrupled in China, alongside milk consumption which has increased 10-fold and egg consumption, 8-fold.[2]  Based on the perception of meat as a status symbol and a lifestyle validation for the newly rich, developing countries throughout Asia and Latin America have seen similar increases.  These gains have come in spite of the widespread understanding among the scientific community that animal-based diets are far less efficient than plant-based diets, and less healthy.

The average energy input to energy output ratio for animal protein is 25:1.  It takes 40 calories of energy to produce one calorie of beef, making it the least efficient among animal-based food.  The ratio for milk is 14:1 and for eggs is 39:1. [3]  This is not part of the current debate on global food production.  Tragically, due to industry pressure and influence over both media and scientific funding for research, it is widely assumed that such animal products are important for a healthy diet and therefore the inefficiencies are overlooked. 

No human civilization has ever consumed animal products in the quantities seen in contemporary societies.  Traditionally animals were hunted and therefore meat shared communally was a periodic addition to the diet rather than an indulgence at every meal as it has become today.  Demand for meat is manufactured in the same way consumer products are marketed and the industrial farming of animals is treated similarly as a profitable enterprise of scale.  However the externalities such as negative environmental impacts and risks of animal related pandemic diseases associated with industrial meat production arguably far exceed those of most other industries – water usage, waste and carbon emissions being a few of the most obvious.  In addition one of the most underappreciated of these externalities is the unfortunate reality that much of the world’s grain gets fed to animals rather than hungry people.  

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, about 40% of all of the grain produced in the world is fed to livestock animals.[4]  At the same time this corn, soybean and other feed grain uses land which would better be used to grow vegetables, legumes and other foods with actual nutritional value for people instead of feed which is in reality, unfit for most livestock consumption.  Today’s factory farmed livestock require huge amounts of antibiotics to keep them alive while they are consuming grains instead of grass and also in an environment heavily polluted with their own waste.

The belief that animal protein is essential for a healthy diet in current quantities is a myth.  On the contrary, the hazards of excessive consumption of animal products is beginning to receive much deserved attention in the media.  Recently former US President Bill Clinton has been outspoken on the health benefits of eliminating animal products from his diet (see interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3ied_AD4iE).

It is also untrue that the best sources of protein in the human diet come from animal meat.  The most comprehensive study supporting this argument comes from a comparison of the traditional rural Chinese diet with the standard American diet and the connection between animal protein and chronic diseases.  This study also throws light on the institutional forces which perpetuate the dangerous myths around animal based diets and the related support for industrial livestock farming.[5]

Reducing or eliminating animal products from one’s diet results in less medical problems, less impact on the environment and more surplus of food for the global hungry.  The fact that the current debate on the food crisis ignores these realities underlies an inability of global institutions and communities to deal with the facts and real causes.  They seem to be willing to accept things as they are and seek solutions only by doing more of the same.  It is surely not an easy transition to move away from the status quo and yet, if we are to make any progress toward solutions or even have a more rational discussion about possible solutions, these factors must be acknowledged.  Until then, even the most authoritative voices who would comment on the topic are illogical and without merit.

[1] Sept. 14, 2010 - http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/42715/

[2] The State of Food and Agriculture, 2009, pg 10, http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0680e/i0680e.pdf

[3] Pimentel, D., & Pimental, M. (2003). Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(suppl):660S-663S; http://www.suite101.com/content/meat-and-the-environment-a61306

[4]The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: nutrition ecology

[5] http://www.thechinastudy.com/about.html

Eric Stryson is the Director at the Global Institute For Tomorrow.