Monday, 5 December 2011

more meat, please?

In this blog I have argued that the best way to provide food for an increasing global population is for us to feed less grain and soya to animals and to eat more of it ourselves. I'm not the only person who says this, it seems just common sense, but some have argued against it.

I have been listening to two radio programmes as podcasts where this issue has been debated. Recently on 29th of October on BBC World Service there was an episode of The Forum. On 24th of January on Radio 4 there was an episode of Farming Today entitled 'Feeding the world in 2050'.

On The Forum Bridget Kendall asked Jason Clay should we not be eating less meat and more veg. Jason Clay works with the World Wildlife Fund. This is what he said in reply:-

"Let's use science and math to help us think this through. Most animal protein in the world, for example most beef, is produced on pasture. Not in feedlots, not with grain. 85 to 90% of global beef is actually produced on grass. By simply switching away from that most of that pasture would never be possible or should be used to grow food crops because you'd have too much erosion, you'd have too many other environmental problems that come from that. And, while vegetables are very good, let's look at the form we eat those vegetables. Fresh vegetables have spoilage and loss rates of 50 to 80%."

He went on to say how important frozen foods are is avoiding waste and preserving nutrients. What is wrong with his argument is that nobody is saying we should plough up grassland and plant lettuces or cauliflowers. We're not even saying that we should plough up grassland and grow grain and pulses. We are saying that much more of the grain and soya that is already grown should be eaten by people, and not fed to animals who then produce meat and dairy products. That is a much more efficient use of resources.

He said that most animal protein is produced on pasture. It's unclear if he is talking about farm animals generally or cattle. Pigs and chickens don't eat grass, they eat mostly maize and soya. He doesn't mention them, though. He says that 85 to 90% of global beef is produced on pasture. At first I thought those figures are wrong, but I can see that globally that could be true. There are a lot of cows in India, for example.

In North America and in Europe, however, very large numbers of cattle are kept in feedlots. Like pigs and chickens they are kept intensively indoors and fed mostly maize and soya. The population of farm animals is getting higher and they are eating more and more grain and soya. So I don't think that science and math support Dr Clay's arguments, and I think it is patronizing of him to imply that his opinion is the only rational one.

Another patronizing man is Professor Maurice Moloney. On Farming Today he was discussing with Sandra Bell of Friends of the Earth. Sandra was saying how we should eat less meat and dairy. This is what he said in reply:-

"I'm certainly not, as a scientist, prepared to risk the lives of 9 billion people by relying upon the idea that we may be able to change behaviours across a very complex social and cultural matrix that exists in the world. And so we've got to be pragmatic and practical about the other solutions we can offer."

He said that more intensive agiculture is the way forward. There are a number of things wrong with this argument. We need to distinguish between intensive crop production and intensive meat and dairy production. It is difficult to argue against intensive crop production. I think it is a wonderful thing that has saved humanity from a lot of mass hunger. We could talk about the problems of the increasing price of necessary inputs like nitrogen fertilizer and decreasing availability of irrigation water, but on the whole I support it. Intensive meat and dairy production is a different thing altogether.

He says that eating less meat and more grains and pulses would require a change in behaviour globally. That is not necessarily true. A change in government policy would do a lot to help. We could forbid new mega dairies and other CAFOs. Apparently the mega dairy at Nocton is not now going ahead. We could treat grain and soya fed meat as a luxury and put VAT on it. We already have VAT on luxuries like ice cream.

Perhaps Dr Clay and Professor Moloney don't realize how important government policy has been in shaping our eating habits. At one time in America beef burgers were made with pig fat. The beef lobby managed to get this banned. Beef however didn't have enough fat to make the burgers palatable, so farmers started keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain. Pig fat is a bit healthier than beef fat, and also pigs are more efficient at converting grain and soya into meat or fat. So we have poorer health and wasted resources because of stupid government policy. And yet if we suggest sensible government policy it is dismissed.

It's not so much that we need to change people's behaviour. Traditionally most people have eaten a starchy staple (usually a grain) together with pulses and vegetables. They have also had a small amount of animal protein. This should continue, but an emerging middle class often want to be Western and what they think is modern.

What is wrong with educating people about nutrition? Nobody is saying that this should be our only method of combating world hunger. It's people like Professor Moloney who seem to be ruling out options. We should educate people that they don't need as much protein as they think they need, that grains and pulses will provide all the good-quality protein people require, and that meat can never be cheap protein compared to something like tofu. While we're at it we can teach them about beta-carotene.

I think both Dr Clay and Professor Moloney believe that technology and the free market will always find solutions to the problems of humanity. The idea that a change in global food policy and mass education are part of the answer is alien to them. They are not being pragmatic and practical about the other solutions and so they are risking the lives of 9 billion people.

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