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: Feeding the billions in 2050′s sauna (Part I)

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Welcome to Part II of my presumptuously titled series on feeding the world in 2050. Before concluding where we left off with the analysis of the foods which the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) thinks are globally important, we need a short prologue on protein.

Protein prologue

Any suggestion based on Calorie counts that the net contribution of beef or other meats to global food security may be trifling or even negative brings instant feedback about protein. The presumption is that it is adequate protein, particularly animal protein, which is the key requirement for beating malnutrition. This is inevitable for two reasons: first, the absence of medical malnutrition literature from the best seller list, and second, we have all spent our entire lifetime swimming in meat industry propaganda … much of it focused on protein.

We need some historical perspective on protein.

There’s nothing quite like being the first, and protein can lay good claim to being the first critical nutrient discovered in the early days of modern chemistry. Nitrogen is protein’s key chemical component and one of the first to be accurately measured. Consequently, quite precise measurements of protein utilisation in people have been around for almost 200 years.

Early investigators fed dogs pure sugar diets and watched them die. Absence of protein was the explanation they eventually settled on. What else could it have been? In 1815, vitamins (in any measurable sense) were well beyond the knowledge horizon, so there was really only one candidate. By 1842, protein was pronounced the only true nutrient and the sole provider of energy to the muscles. It mattered not that measurements on prison work gangs showed no differences in protein utilisation on rest days and hard treadmill days. The history of protein spin is a picturesque tale of arrogant opinionated people holding fast to beliefs in the face of overwhelming data. Not everyone was fooled. US Yale University researchers in 1907 took athletes and halved their protein intake during a mammoth 5 month piece of live-in research. Over the 5 months, far from fading away, the subjects got stronger by 35%. The protein myth charged on regardless, pushed by the then head of the US Agriculture Department who thought (seriously) that when people could choose food without regard for cost or availability, they would choose an optimal diet. i.e., the rich must know best.

Between about 1950 and the mid 1970s, the protein pushers even subverted the General Assembly of the United Nations which declared war on the global deficiency of protein … the World Protein Gap.

But truth will out … eventually. In 1974, The Lancet published the start of the death knell of the protein gap theory … “The Great Protein Fiasco”. It wasn’t quite a naked emperor moment, but over the next few years, the junkiness of what passed for science on the issue became clear.

Fast forward to 2000. A 124 page paper called “Explaining child malnutrition in developing countries” by acknowledged experts (yes, from IFPRI), has not a single occurence of the word “protein”. The big factors in childhood malnutrition are Calories in the food supply, access to clean water, and levels of female education. The science may be done and dusted, but that won’t of itself stop conglomerates of livestock lobby groups funding researchers to run around Africa telling people to eat more meat. Given the scarcity of good fencing in Africa, what impact will 275 million cattle have on the problems of providing clean water? The tip of the iceberg is clearly visible in Cryptosporidium parvum infections, made even more tragic by the interaction between these infections and high rates of both malnutrition and HIV.

The recent ignorant ravings of some current politicians about our live cattle exports being part of a desperate need for protein in Indonesia show that profitable myths need persistent debunking. Like me, some of these politicians were indoctrinated about the protein gap during their formative school years and it stuck in their brains with the full force of rote learned multiplication tables. Indonesia needs more food and if we didn’t annually feed 12 million tonnes of grain to pigs, chickens and cattle to fuel our vast over consumption of animal protein, we could supply far more food to Indonesia and elsewhere.

The Australian food supply produces 109 grams of protein per person per day. Our National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends a protein intake slightly below that used in the 1907 Yale experiment which makes 109 grams roughly double what is recommended. And even the recommended intake is considerably higher than many people need because it includes a sizable buffer to allow for individual differences. Not only are the official recommendations about half the average intake, there are no separate higher or lower requirements for people eating exclusively plant protein (vegans) or for people eating exclusively animal protein. Oils ain’t oils, but proteins is proteins.

Okay, end of prologue. Back to business. Calories are king.

At the end of the last post I was discussing foods considered critical by IFPRI in a recent report on childhood malnutrition rates in 2050. I dealt with the meats but still need to deal with the plant foods. During that discussion I also produced a table of the relative amounts of meat in the least developed countries. So we need to finish a couple of details, first we need a feel for actual quantities of meat rather than just percentages and second we need to deal with the plant foods.

Then we can finish this piece by putting everything in context by considering IFPRI’s obsession with animal products in the context of the FAO’s monumental lack of vision on how to feed the world in 2050.

Relativities and absolute values

The global average intake of meat is 7.4 percent of daily Calories. How much is this? And how much is the 2.6 percent intake the LDC? These numbers are best understood with reference to research I discussed at length previously on BNC in Brains, Biceps and Baloney. In that research, young (7-9 years old) Kenyan children were given daily 240 Calorie food supplements for a year made from a stew of maize, beans and greens and either 85 grams of meat, 200 mL of milk or vegetable oil. Each supplement provided the same energy, but one group of children got the added meat, another group the milk and the control group just got more stew with a little added vegetable oil.

What percentage of daily Calories is provided by 85 grams of beef mince? For 9 year olds eating 1700 Calories per day, its about 8.5 percent. For an adult, it is even less. In absolute terms, this serving is some 10 times bigger than the average amount of beef currently available in the LDC. It’s more than 3 times the total amount of meat available on average in the LDC.

Oh yes, and it’s close to double the red meat intake of Australian children of the same age.

But did this amount of meat make any significant difference compared to simply giving the kids extra stew? No.

Clearly, even these substantial amounts of meat were no magic bullet for chronically underfed children also frequently fighting infections from poor quality water and sanitation.

The bottom line

What are the implications of the Kenyan research, the production levels of various meats, together with the knowledge that the real needs of the malnourished are more food, clean water and well informed mums?

The implication is that doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the supply of meat is about the worst way to achieve the smallest reductions in malnutrition in the least developed countries but such a path will interfere with attempts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss by ending deforestation and extending reforestation.

Oil’s ain’t just oils

Maize and soy are both interesting additions to the IFPRI’s table. Most of the world’s maize is used as feed (463m tonnes), not as food (110m tonnes). If it were used as food, the global Calorie supply would jump by 585 Calories per person per day minus an amount for reduced meat production. The net increase would be well over 400 Calories per person per day. The story with soy is more complex. Most of the world’s beans (85 percent) are crushed with the oil being used as food and the left over soy meal being further processed for animal feed.

Soy meal is typically about 44 percent protein. The amount of protein in the meal used as feed is over double the entire protein output of the meat industry. If there really was a protein gap, here is a good candidate to fill it. However, the required processing to turn soy into meal is complex and to further process this into food that tastes like something humans know and like is also complex. Whether this is regarded as an impediment or an opportunity depends on your viewpoint, but certainly developing suitable technologies to turn soy meal into food for LDCs could be a valuable contribution to food security. The story is the same with other meals: palm kernel meal and cotton seed meal to name but two. There is a vast mountain of potential food currently being used to feed livestock for people with no food security issues and which could be turned into affordable food with appropriate technology. All that’s missing is a suitable price signal … see below.

Missing foods

As well as containing irrelevant foods which probably earn their place by their popularity at IFPRI staff BBQs, the IFPRI table is missing foods which are critical for large groups of people and can be expected to remain so in the warmer world of 2050. For example, sorghum, pulses, cassava and peanuts, to name a few. Pulses, for example, provide both more protein and more energy than the entire sum of all meats in the countries of the LDC.

Missing collateral damage

Also conspicuously absent from the IFPRI report is any concern with the environmental impact of livestock or the fact that their feed is either food which could provide far more energy if fed directly to people or it is grazed biomass which would otherwise protect the soil from erosion and add to soil carbon. The worst possible combination is having livestock feed on crop residues and with the resulting dung burned as fuel. This combines soil cover losses with nutrient losses and sick or even dead children from smoke mediated infections.

Biomass flows tell the story

A consideration of biomass flows should make the impact of livestock on food production potential obvious:

 

 

Ethiopia

 

Sudan

 

Kenya

 

Columbia

Harvested Biomass (Gt)

 

0.010

 

0.007

 

0.005

 

0.014

Harvested Residues (Gt)

 

0.021

 

0.011

 

0.009

 

0.013

Grazed Biomass (Gt)

 

0.075

 

0.114

 

0.029

 

0.087

Human Induced Fire (Gt)

 

0.115

 

0.312

 

0.047

 

0.013

This table shows that the major appropriations of plant growth in the countries I’ve selected are by livestock, not people.

The data in the table comes from work on biomass flows by an Austrian team headed by Fridolin Krausmann and was kindly supplied by the author. The fires in the bottom row are almost entirely set by livestock herders to keep land free of woody regrowth. They represent a major nutrient and biomass loss.

While the environmental impacts of 11 million cattle in Queensland (Australia) and Colombia have been well studied, the down side of having 50 million cattle in Ethiopia, a country about half the size of Queensland, hasn’t received much attention. The World Bank Report mentions that:

“Overgrazing and degradation of pastoral areas are widespread in much of the steppe of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, and the Sahel.”

but doesn’t make a connection between its implicit support of large increases in meat production and the consequences. Ethiopia’s 50 million cattle eat over 7 times the weight of harvested food but provide just 3 percent of daily Calories and drive annual conflagrations that further depress soil productivity. Environmental impacts from livestock don’t rate a mention in the IFPRI report I’m considering.

All up, the IFPRI report seems obsessed with meat despite IFPRI having the internal nutritional expertise to know better.

IFPRI and the FAO

The FAO regularly publishes weighty reports on feeding the world. It’s latest has a publication date of 2011 but a writing date of mid-2009. Its title is Looking Ahead in World Food and Agriculture, and it is the outcome of a High Level Expert Meeting on “How to feed the World in 2050″.

IFPRI modelers gets a chapter as do a range of other experts. But if you expect a meeting about “How to feed the World in 2050″ to have any policy vision, then you will be disappointed. There is a total lack of any kind of vision of what should be done. The entire 558 pages are about predicting the future, not planning for it. One gets a clear sense that the FAO doesn’t consider itself a player but merely an observer with a keen interest in accurate forecasting and no interest in constructing policies for a better future.

Also missing is any sense that the climate change causal arrow runs in both direction. Food is a principle cause of deforestation and greenhouse gas production with animal source foods having the lion’s share of responsibility.

Don’t misunderstand me. An obsession with accurate measurement is entirely proper for the FAO and there is plenty of evidence that FAO is indeed properly obsessed. But the climate science is clear that we must change direction, not merely accurately predict our problems. Similarly, I suspect that if the malnourished had a voice they too would rather we change direction than merely predict outcomes.

The only issue on which some consideration of policy is discussed is biofuels which gets numerous mentions along with an entire chapter. The IFPRI authors in their chapter explicitly reject any consideration of policies concerning meat.

“… policies that might affect direct food and feed use of grains would rely on the alteration of consumer preferences for food products (including meat), and are not as straightforward to address within the analytical framework discussed in this chapter. “

This is simply wrong. IFPRI later describes a promising policy tool which could reduce the feed/food ratio and which doesn’t rely on any alteration of consumer preferences:

“Policy interventions include limiting or even avoiding the use of food crops to produce biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.”

Why not use this policy lever on meat production? Why not limit that amount of human quality food used as feed? Why not prohibit it altogether? This doesn’t involve changing consumer preferences, but it certainly sends a price signal. How much of a signal? In the lead article in a special issue of Science last year Charles Godfray asserted:

“… although a substantial fraction of livestock is fed on grain and other plant protein that could feed humans, there remains a very substantial proportion that is grass fed.”

If this is true, then meat consumers won’t mind at all, there will still be substantial amounts of meat. It is the perfect policy for all those meat advocates who claim that meat production just turns stuff we can’t eat into stuff we can.

Conclusions

Climate scientists tell us we must reforest the planet and cease additional deforestation to have a chance at avoiding the worst of climate change. Biodiversity concerns imply likewise. Nutrition experts tell us we don’t need livestock to beat malnutrition and in any event, the amount of livestock required to provide adequate Calories is incompatible with tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. So we need policies to reduce livestock populations globally and such policies are missing from the organisations who should be providing them.

In the concluding article of this series, I’ll look at the Foley and Ramankutty Nature papers that provide data and modeling that can inform policies with teeth. Policies that will make a difference.


Calories and kiloJoules

Sometimes SI units are awkward, so I stick with long established usage and use Calories instead of kilo joules. Dietitians have long used Calories with a capital “C” to name what physicists call a kilo calorie. Journals these days use kiloJoules (kJ) or both. It’s just a unit of energy.