Food Under Fire
Experts predict that, over the long term, food security can't be achieved without energy security. Add in mechanization, storage, and transport and the energy impact of a typical meal in industrialized nations is many times the amount of energy the meal's consumer derives. Recently, researchers have been taking a close look at just how much energy it takes to produce even seemingly similar foods. The conclusion: Food choices can have a significant impact on energy use in agriculture, and by extension, on greenhouse gas emissions as well. Beef lovers beware! As the world diverts more of its grain harvests into meat production, some scientists are taking a closer look at more environmentally friendly sources of protein, including insects.
Attacks on meat eating are nothing new. In 2003, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health started “Meatless Mondays,” an initiative to reduce U.S. meat consumption by 15%. More recently, a number of pop celebrities, including Paul McCartney and Sheryl Crow, started a campaign for “Meet Free Mondays.” Indian economist and IPCC head R. Pachauri , who is also a vegetarian, encouraged all people to “give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there.”
As we reported in The Resilient Earth, others have pursued this story for different purposes. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. ABC News picked up the story in an article titled “Meat-Eaters Aiding Global Warming? New Research Suggests What You Eat as Important as What You Drive.” In it they reported that you should become a vegetarian if you want to help lower greenhouse gas emissions. They quoted researchers who liken eating red meat to driving an SUV. This position would certainly be supported by PETA, the group running the GoVeg.com web site.
Now, according to a news article in Science, if people in the developed world ate less meat, it would free up a lot of grain that could feed billions of hungry people. A lot of good farmland could be converted from grazing to crop production as well. As article author Erik Stokstad put it in “Could Less Meat Mean More Food?”:
The logic—articulated by groups that include the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom and the United Nations Environment Programme—goes like this. From chicken cordon bleu to bacon double cheeseburgers, people in the developed world eat a huge amount of animal protein. And consumption of meat, eggs, and milk is already growing globally as people in poorer nations get richer and shift their diets. That's a problem because animals are eating a growing share of the world's grain harvests—and already directly or indirectly utilize up to 80% of the world's agricultural land. Yet they supply just 15% of all calories. So, the argument goes, if we just ate less meat, we could free up a lot of plants to feed billions of hungry people and gain a lot of good farmland.
Scholars on all sides of the issue agree on one thing: Just as the rich use more energy than the poor, they also eat more meat. The United States, for instance, accounts for about 15% of global meat consumption but has just 4.5% of the world's population. In the developing world, daily meat consumption averages around 80 grams. Americans consume about 330 grams of meat a day on average—the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers. This is despite a recommendation from the US Department of Agriculture that people consume just 142 to 184 grams of meat and beans daily.
All meals are not created equal in terms of production energy. As a start, researchers have been taking a close look at just how much energy it takes to produce even seemingly similar foods. Consider the production energy costs for the two meals shown below. The meal consisting of beef, tomatoes and wine (left) requires more than three time the energy to produce as does the one featuring chicken, carrots and tap water (right). Which one would you prefer?
Beef is twice as energy intensive as chicken.
In the face of the world's burgeoning population do we need to ban burgers? How can we meet the growing demand for meat? Some scientists think we need to look at much smaller, multi-legged livestock. A cow needs to eat roughly 8 grams of food to gain a gram in weight, insects need less than two. “If you are going to feed 9 billion people, we cannot ignore the efficiency of insects as protein producers,” says Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
As reported in another Science article by Gretchen Vogel, one possible replacement for cattle are caterpillars from the south of Africa. “Nutritionally, it is excellent food,” says Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “It's the same or even better than conventional meat, fish, or poultry.” According to van Huis, Just 100 grams of caterpillars can provide all of an adult's recommended daily protein, along with iron, B vitamins, and other essential nutrients. Known as the mopane worm, these caterpillars of the emperor moth may need some re-branding before the achieve wide market acceptance as a beef substitute.
Science reporter Vogel didn't just write about eating insects, she tried them herself. She and her family tried grasshoppers, boiled first to kill any possible nematodes and then sautéed with garlic, onions, and lime juice. The final result was described as “grassy and, truth be told, a bit mushy. Not bad, but not necessarily worth the effort.”
A better choice turned out to be Mexican chapulines served at Oyamel, a Washington DC restaurant. Chapulines are grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium. They are collected only at certain times of year—from their hatching in early May through the late summer/early autumn. Imported from Mexico, these insects are dried in the sun, then salted, and sautéed in tequila. The effect was crunchy, savory, and delicious. “We ordered seconds,” Vogel reported (they had me at “tequila”).
Although chapulines are available throughout Mexico, they are especially popular in the state and city of Oaxacain. They can also be found in the areas surrounding Mexico City, such as Tepotztlan, Cuernavaca, and Puebla. As with other types of grasshopper, chapulines must be thoroughly cleaned and washed, then cooked before human consumption. This is to avoid possible infection from nematodes that can infest human hosts.
Around the world entomophagy enthusiasts think that eating insects could catch on, even among Europeans and North Americans. In the Netherlands, a company called Bugs Organic Food markets mealworms and grasshoppers through two dozen outlets. The effort has reported some success: the Dutch minister of agriculture was seen holding a grasshopper at a press conference. She did not eat the grasshopper, so the insect eaters may have a bit farther to go. If you are personally adventurous a number of insect recipes can be found here.
Chapulines (Roasted Cricket) in a Mexican market. Photo Meutia Chaerani/Indradi Soemardjan.
Some food-security researchers remain skeptical, pointing to the complexities of global markets and human food traditions. These could produce some counter-intuitive and possibly counterproductive results. Calculating the full impact of meat consumption on global food security requires sophisticated models that can track how changes in consumption ripple out across farming systems, global supply chains, and food markets.
In 1998 Mark Rosegrant and colleagues at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRPI) used a model called IMPACT to study what might happen if rich nations cut their demand for meat to half of what it was in 1993. The simulation, published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, found that as demand for meat fell, prices declined and meat became more affordable worldwide. As a result, poorer consumers in the developing world could buy more and projected 2020 meat consumption actually increased by 13%. Regardless of what the vegetarian movement says, that's a good thing, because increasing animal-protein consumption among the very poor can provide substantial nutritional benefits, particularly for children. On the other hand, when the rich halved their meat habit, the poor didn't necessarily get significantly more grain.
According to the model, human cereal consumption in developing nations rose by just 1.5%. That's enough grain to ease hunger for 3.6 million malnourished children—but nowhere near the level of gain increase many expect from reducing meat consumption. Even worse, the simulation results indicate that eating less meat could increase food insecurity. When consumers in developed countries replaced meat with pasta and bread, world wheat prices actually rose, increasing malnutrition slightly in developing countries.
Others have pointed out that eating some meat is good for the planet because some habitats benefited from grazing. Also, vegetarian diets that included lots of milk, butter and cheese would probably not noticeably reduce emissions because dairy cow flatulence is a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas (see “Cow Farts & Kangaroos”). “It's not this panacea that people have put forward,” concludes Rosegrant. Quoting from TRE Chapter 15, Prophets of Doom:
In the US, there have been claims that the large number of domestic cattle, estimated by the Department of Agriculture at 100,000,000 head, are a major contributor to methane emissions. While this may be so, prior to the arrival of men with fire arms, as many as 80,000,000 bison roamed the American prairie. Since the DOA considers cattle and bison as equal in terms of emissions, there has not been an appreciable increase in such emissions in North America since prehistoric times. Furthermore, unless those cattle are eating coal or drinking oil, their emissions are as carbon neutral as biodiesel and ethanol. Vegetarians and animal rights activists are simply seizing on global warming to promote their own beliefs. As one blogger put it, “Vegetarian is the New Prius.”
So, can cutting down on meat save the planet from global warming and ease world hunger? Are there bug burgers or cricket casserole in our future? Here in the US it is highly doubtful that even the government-knows-best Obama administration will try to force all Americans to become vegetarians, even gradually. As I said in my earlier post, “When Humans Almost Went Extinct,” the two things that made us human were the use of fire and eating meat. Nowadays the climate change alarmists say we must curtail using the first, and activist vegetarians demand we stop eating the second. Right. Who knows, eating insects may eventually catch on—as with climate change, only time will tell.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
Check your burger, it could be cow-cricket!