Guest Post by Geoff RussellGeoff 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 like International 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?

Commodity   Global   LDC
    % Cal   % Cal
Rice   18.0   27.0
Wheat   18.0   7.7
Maize   4.9   10.8
Soybeans   3.7   1.5
Beef   1.4   0.9
Pork   4.0   0.7
Lamb   0.3   0.5
Poultry   1.7   0.5

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.