Food & drink

Meat is evil

First it was 4x4 vehicles. Then it was air travel and plastic bags. Now it’s meat. According to some reports, the consumption of meat is responsible for as much as 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Others say 5-10%. A 2009 study by the Food Climate Research Network reported the figure in the UK was around 8%.

The true answer is complex and is influenced by the variables in the equation. For example, do you use data from US agricultural models or from less intensive European farm models? Do you include clearing forest to graze cattle, the production of fertiliser to grow animal feed, the steel used to make ships to transport cattle, or the gas emissions from the animals themselves? Moreover, how do you calculate the value of the animals in terms of human employment or the secondary value created by the use of by-products such as leather that reduces the need for plastics?

There are plenty of arguments in favour of giving up meat. Some of the reasons are: animals consume land that could be used for other purposes, they consume too much water, pollute land and water, indirectly use scarce oil resources, deforestation (especially in Asia and Latin America), and the fact that intensive agriculture and global supply chains contribute to the spread of human disease.

So should we expect the rise of the vegetarian soon? Animal welfare issues are becoming more mainstream in the West and we should expect to see animal rights merging with climate change concerns. However, it is simplistic to think that by not eating meat we will save the planet. It’s true that a plant-based diet requires only 25% as much energy to create as a diet rich in red meat. But even this figure is disputable. A US study found that, because corn yields in the US are 300-400% higher than soybean yields, it could be better to produce corn and feed this to fish or poultry for human consumption. We consume 230 million tons of meat every year (double what we ate 30 years ago) but, if we didn’t eat farmed animals, they would cease to exist.

Ref: The Observer (UK), Food Monthly, 18 July 2010. ‘10 ways eating less meat can help save the planet’, by J. Vidal.
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Search words: meat, vegetarians, resources, greenhouse gas, corn, disease

Cereal killers

One unforeseen consequence of the GFC was grain prices, which rose sharply in 2006-2008, started to level off and slightly decline. This was good because the high cost of grain had caused riots in some countries. So, if the world reverts back to normal growth, should we be worried about rising food prices and domestic unrest?

The problem is simple to explain. Since about 1950, the world’s growing population has pushed up demand for food. This demand was met by expanding cropland areas. Gains in productivity came from the use of fertilisers, the spread of irrigation and development of modified plant varieties. But while the global population continues to rise, opportunities to expand production further are starting to decline. Moreover, the increase in demand isn’t just coming from people. The shift to growing biofuels is resulting in a loss of cropland for food purposes and higher oil and gas prices in the future are likely to compound this problem.

On the supply side, things aren’t looking much better. Urbanisation diverts land and water for other purposes and environmental change is having a big impact too. Soil erosion, for example, has already reduced the inherent productivity of the world’s cropland by 30% according one estimate. Aquifer levels are dropping and heat waves, draughts and monsoons are all contributing to devastation. Rising sea levels could take large tracts of land from use.

In the short term, things do look a little bleak. Expect tightening supply, higher prices, and increased protectionism with the export of certain foodstuffs and materials. More countries will tie up the supply of essential foodstuffs through long-term contracts and some will buy or take long leases on farmland in other countries. This last trend is already in full swing and is likely to cause social unrest in some areas, especially low-income countries where hunger is already a problem.

Of course, parts of the world suffer from too much food. Perhaps higher grain prices could help reduce obesity in developed regions. In other words, food will revert to being expensive and some people will have to get used to eating less.

Ref: The Futurist (US) January/February 2010, ‘How to feed 8 billion people’, by L. Brown.
Links: See also 'The coming surge in food prices' published by Nomura (September 2010)
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Search words: grain, food prices, unrest, hunger, population, obesity, biofuels

Food inflation

According to some observers, the price of wheat (along with coffee, milk, bacon, cocoa and sugar) is set to soar. There are three reasons. First, surging demand from newly affluent households in China, India, Russia and Brazil. Second, floods in India and droughts in Russia are creating a shortage of wheat and other grains. Third, financial speculators are driving up prices by gambling on the future price of such commodities.

A recent UN report agrees and predicts that food prices might jump by 40% over the next ten years. The global population is set to expand from 6.5 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050, so food production will have to increase by a minimum of 70% above 2005-2007 levels to stop millions starving to death.

Population levels are undoubtedly growing and increasing wealth is certainly leading to a shift in diet. For example, if China matched the South Koreans in eating habits, this would result in a 3.7% fall in demand for rice and a 27% increase in demand for meat and fish. Moreover, supply of food products is indirectly being restricted because of growing demand for ethanol. In 2000, 10 million acres of land were set aside globally for the production of ethanol crops. By 2015 this is expected to expand to 120 million acres.

While Russia’s ban on wheat exports hit the headlines in the West, most of Russia’s wheat exports go to the Middle East and these countries should be able to find alternatives. India, the world’s second largest rice and wheat grower, has more stocks than the mainstream media reports. Canada was wet and plagued by locusts in 2010, but the US and Europe both had strong wheat harvests. What’s next? Expect food prices to increase and expect some volatility due to speculation, but for the time being most regions have enough to eat.

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 7 August 2010, ‘Price increases about to take a big bite out of your office sandwich’, by P. Inman.
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Search words: food prices, land, harvests, China, South Korea, starvation, rice, wheat

‘Greenable’ spaces - onwards and upwards

I’ve written about vertical agriculture before, but the idea (if not the practice) seems to be catching on. The world’s population is growing, but most of the growth is in urban areas. How do you get food to reach urban populations easily and efficiency without encroaching upon land that’s needed to house people? Grow food up rather than across.

Apartments can be built with balconies, enabling people to grow a few fruits and vegetables, or it could be more ambitious – skyscrapers that house crops rather than people. Green roofs are a similar idea. As well as harvesting sunshine, wind and water, urban rooftops could be used to grow food. This would be a paradigm shift in urban planning, but the idea is receiving a lot of support.

Sky Vegetable is one company that’s doing this already. The company sells commercial-scale hydroponic farms for urban rooftops. Sky gardens have other benefits beside food production too. First, they retain water, so they consume less potable water. They can grow 20 times as much food using less than 5% as much water. Second, sky gardens help to manage storm water and reduce run off. Third, they help to reduce heating costs for the floors immediately below the roof. Even food can be upwardly mobile.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 24-25 April 2010, ‘Highly productive’ by S.Murray.
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Search words: food production, sky gardens, vertical agriculture, apartments, balconies, skyscrapers, green roofs

A new era in food?

Our grandparents would hardly recognise most of what we now eat. Almost everything that we consume in the West has been invented or reinvented over the past few decades. Food is no exception. Three new books cast light on some of these changes, especially why there is growing disquiet in the West about what we are eating and how it’s produced.

The first book is An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage. This book provides the context for where we are today but I suspect that you would need to be interested in the history of fertiliser to find it a gripping read. Nevertheless, Standage does note the growing unease that is linked to the thought that we have lost touch with the land (hence the boom in farm and food nostalgia?).

The second book, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is called Eating Animals and does not mess with its subject. While we care a great deal about what we eat (and now where it comes from geographically) we hardly care at all about how it’s produced. For example, if most people knew how meat was produced, they’d stop eating it. Factory farming has been producing cheap meat since the 1920s and the average American now consumes the equivalent of 21,000 animals in a lifetime. In other words, what was once regarded as a rare and expensive luxury or treat, has become regarded as a necessity.

The third book, The End of Overeating, is by David Kessler. This is, to my mind, the most interesting of the three books and explains why our eating habits may be about to change once again. In the developing nations, especially where food is scarce, it is difficult to tell people what or how to eat. Six billion people can’t all eat free-range chickens and ethically produced chocolate. But elsewhere, people are starting to wake up to how their food is made. This includes the ethical treatment of animals (especially cows, chickens and pigs), how the diary industry makes milk and cheese, and even how snack food companies make tortilla chips.

The idea of Big Food has shades of Big Tobacco. This is no coincidence since the author once took on the US tobacco industry while working at the USFDA. Perhaps the end result will be much the same? One very interesting argument in Kessler’s book is that very large food companies knowingly create addictive, drug-like substances. They are essentially selling what many of us now crave – namely fat, sugar and salt and work very hard to ensure that even the most boring foods are hyper-palatable. This is part of what Kessler calls “conditioned hyper-eating”.

Presently this is very much a Western issue (especially US) but the trend is much wider than this. The big food companies (including the big sugar, salt and fat companies) are mostly global in reach and are increasingly targeting emerging middle class households in China, India and elsewhere. Hence, obesity rates that used to occur only in rich nations are now showing up in relatively poor countries too.

As for what’s next, expect the diets (and diseases) of emerging nations to increasingly mirror those found in developed countries. Also expect rich developed elites to increasingly reject factory-farmed and ‘hyper-palatable’ foods in favour of fair trade, ethical and natural foods. A great statistic from The End of Overeating: “ In the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food as many as 25 times… now the average is 10”.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 10-11 April 20010, ‘Fat of the land’ by S. Kuper.
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Search words: Big Food, sugar, salt, fat, fair trade, overeating, diets, hyper-palatable, eating habits, factory farming, nostalgia