As we come to the time of Peak Food, after which the amount of basic food available for each person in the world declines as population continues to rise, it is crucial that the conversion of feed in to meat is as efficient as possible.
This is where poultry has a big advantage. It can take less then 2kg of high quality feed to produce 1 kg of poultry meat compared with up to 10 kg for beef and somewhere in between for pork.
Dr Merdo MacLoed, editor-in-chief of British Poultry Science recently presented the result of a year long study into the importance of research in UK poultry and said,” At a time of concerns about climate change, the environment and human population growth, we should be positive about what the poultry industry has to offer.
“The industry has been on the defensive for many years but objective analysis shows that poultry meat and egg production have important advantages over other ways of producing animal protein.”
We agree that poultry should be the main method of meat production in the future, but we also believe that there will need to be less meat in our diets so that more grains and legumes can be eaten directly by humans.
Dr Vickey Pope, head of climate advice at the Met office described these projections as the most comprehensive analysis to date.
Whatever we do now, we are bound to have average the temperature rise by almost 2C compared to pre-industrial levels, but robust measures now could prevent rises above that level, which is where many scientists fear dangerous feedback effects will start to kick in.
The projections are that rainfall will stay about the same in the UK, but more will fall in winter with summer rainfall down by anything between 20% and 80%. The temperature on the hottest days could hit 41C by 2080.
This is exactly the opposite of what is good for food production. We need regular spring and early summer rainfall and moderate temperature to obtain the huge crop yields we now have in the UK.
Hilary Benn, commenting on these projections said they make very sobering reading and that climate change is the greatest challenge we face.
He said that we need to plan how to cope and protect people. He considers that the meeting in Copenhagen in December is the most important one in humankind’s history.
That’s quite a statement and does show that some government ministers do fully understand the situation. The problem is that the years are going by without the huge and far reaching measures being taken that would prevent warming going above the crucial 2C.
Most of Africa struggles to produce enough food, mainly through poor practices, poor government policies and a lack of money and education among farmers.
There are now many well meaning schemes to increase yields, but it will be a great shame if African farmers become dependent on fossil fuel inputs for better yield, only to find that in the future they cannot afford to buy them.
In the June issue of National Geographic magazine, there is a report that tells of two different approaches to increase yields in Malawi. The first is a government scheme where about 1.3 million farm families received coupons that allowed them to buy three kilograms of hybrid corn seed and two 50- kilogram bags of fertilizer at a third of the market price.
This has had excellent results with the 2007 harvest being a national record. But is it sustainable?
In northern Malawi, a different project is getting the same results at a fraction of the cost. In Ekwendeni Hospital, the staff were seeing high rates of malnutrition which research suggested was due to corn monoculture that had depleted soils and was giving poor yields.
The SFHC project now distributes legume seeds, recipes, and technical advice for growing nutritious crops like peanuts, pigeon beans, and soybeans, which enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen while also enriching children’s diets.
This is surely the sort of project that will give lasting results and will not make Africa’s small farmers as dangerously dependent on finite resources that are bound to become scarce and expensive, as the rest of us. I think that the education part is very important, not only to show farmers how to manage these crops, but also how to use them well in a balanced diet.
It is my opinion that the use of legume crops will need to increase in places like Europe too as we build a farming system that produces more vegetable protein with lower inputs. As we cannot grow soybeans in northern Europe, we really need a breeding programme to improve field bean and pea varieties.
We at Peak Food have been warning for several years that we have an unsustainable food production system that will be unable to sustain the 8 billion people expected by 2025. Modern farming is dependent on finite fossil fuels for it’s power needs, for nitrogen fertilizer and for pesticides. The world is losing about 25 million acres of land each year to desertification, salination and urban growth. Climate change will bring disruptive weather in the form of droughts in some places and floods in others. Shortages of water for irrigation due to falling aquifer levels and lower river flows because of competition from cities will also limit yields.
We have not just warned of food supply failing to keep up with rising population. There is also the possibility of a sudden and disastrous failure of the food supply system in the event of geo-political events causing severe fuel shortages. Farming operations such as seeding and harvesting need to be done at the correct time and without diesel in the tank, farms would grind to a halt.
We have had lots of people who agree that Peak Food may already be here and that from now on the amount of food that can be produced for each person in the world will decline as the population increases, but in general, because we are just ordinary people, our message is ignored.
So when Professor John Beddington, no less a person than the chief scientific advisor to the U.K. government, made a speech earlier this year predicting that a “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources, all operating on the same time frame, threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst affected regions, we expected big things to happen.
This should have been headline news in newspapers and on television. There should have been demands that the government make this a top priority and start to develop a sustainable food supply system. Considering the consequences for our children, this should have been the subject everyone was talking about.
But what happened? Pretty much nothing. The media was full of big brother celebrities and other trivia. So far as we know, the government has not started any new major programmes, and the general public missed it completely.
Peak Food – does nobody care?
Future generations will surely look back in astonishment and horror when they consider what our generation did for them.
They will see how we burned the once and for all endowment of fossil fuels with no thought for efficiency and conservation, leaving them short of oil for essential needs.
That excessive use, along with rain forest destruction will have changed the climate so much that extreme weather and rising sea levels will have caused food production to be far below that needed to feed the 8 billion or more after 2025.
Our massive consumption of goods and energy will mean that many resources, even uranium, will be scarce and expensive. Water for irrigation and human needs will be short as we have depleted the ancient aquifers as if there were no tomorrow.
Previous generations who started the destruction, could claim that they did not understand the consequences of their action. We know all too well, but prefer to continue, because we do not want to give up our any of fossil fuel enabled prosperity.
But now, especially in countries like the U.S., the U.K., and Ireland, we are leaving them massive debt, running in to many thousands of pounds for every man, woman and child, making life even more difficult.
What a legacy.