Thursday, April 8, 2010

Feeding the world

I'm constantly amazed at people's ability to spend vast amounts of money to arrive at increasingly more complicated ways of doing pointless things. Genetic engineering springs immediately to mind, but what got me thinking about it recently is the Global Research Alliance, which met for the first time yesterday.

The Global Research Alliance is a New Zealand Government-led initiative that aims to reduce farm emissions while ensuring food production meets the demands of a growing world population, according to Associate Climate Change Minister Tim Groser. It was proposed by John Key last September at the United Nations General Assembly and is backed by a number of countries, including the USA. Officials and scientists from 28 countries are getting together in Wellington to start nutting out questions like who will lead the different workstreams and who will own any intellectual property rights that come out of it.

All very interesting, but it begs the rather large question of when are we going to do something about the need to REDUCE the demands of a growing world population? Humans are stretching natural ecosystems to breaking point as a result of both our growing population and our per capita consumption, at least in rich countries like ours. It's time to tackle the problem instead of just wondering how we can make money from it.

The global demand for meat and dairy products is growing rapidly, not primarily from population growth but as a result of the emergence of large middle classes in places like China and India. The aggressive promotion of dairy products in East Asia by Fonterra (anyone remember their chocolate cheese?) is an attempt to get into their wallets, and is good business practise. However, when you consider that the livestock sector is the single biggest anthropogenic user of land on Earth, contributing 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (more than transportation) and is probably the biggest cause of deforestation on the planet, it seems obvious that promoting more meat and dairy consumption is not in our long term collective interests as a species. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report 'Livestock's Long Shadow' outlines the problems well.

A couple of years ago the world faced a serious food crisis. The media largely blamed it on the use of croplands to grow biofuels and it is true that this was a contributing factor. What made it worse was the fact that some biofuels used more energy to produce than they yielded. In reality, though, biofuels were only part of the story. The widespread feeding of food crops to livestock is a far more significant factor, with a protein conversion efficiency of between about five and twenty percent, depending on the animal. In 2002 around 670 million tonnes of cereal were fed to animals, including more than 60 percent of the maize and barley grown in the world and more than 90 percent of the soymeal.

One of the saving graces of New Zealand pastoral farming is that our animals actually eat pasture, although high stocking rates is leading to a growing reliance on imported feedstocks such as palm kernel. New Zealand is the major importer of palm kernel and while Fonterra argues that this is a byproduct, not a food crop, tropical deforestation to grow palm oil plantations is made more attractive by this additional market for the kernel. In addition, even with pasture fed animals, in most cases the amount of protein per hectare is much smaller than if the same land was used to grow plant foods.

So if we were really interested in how to feed the world while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we would simply sack the scientists and officials and use the research money to promote veganism. We'd probably all be healthier and there would be more food to go around. Such an elegant solution, however, is unlikely to find much favour at this week’s discussions.

The other side of the problem is the growing population. The real challenge is not how we are going to feed (and clothe, house and provision) the projected 8.9 billion people by 2050 , but how we are going to reduce that figure. The answers to that are not at all simple, but a fairer distribution of resources and access to education and birth control, especially for women, seem to be key factors. Perhaps Mr Key should get Durex to underwrite his next talk fest.

(from Monkeywrenching @

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