When grain is fed to animals there is an obvious net loss of food compared to using the grain to feed humans. With beef this can be as high as using 10 kg of grain for each kilo of beef. Pigs are more efficient and chicken better still.
Many people say that the world will have to change to a vegetarian diet to support the 9 billion inhabitants of 2040, but perhaps a compromise would be better.
There are many wet or hilly areas of the world where arable crops are just not feasable, but grazing by cattle, sheep or goats can produce significant amounts of meat. Even in the UK, much land in Wales, Cumbria and western Scotland produces lush grass due to ample rainfall but would struggle as arable land.
Animals are also great at turning food waste in to new food. In the UK we have a massive problem with huge amounts of food waste going in to landfill and then emitting methane gas. Unfortunately, the spread of foot and mouth disease a few years ago was blamed on a pig producer who had fed waste food containing imported, infected meat. The government panicked and stopped the practice of swill feeding instead of tightening up and policing swill feed rules.
Most swill feeders were doing an excellent job of collecting, boiling and safely feeding waste and could do so again under sensible but strict regulations.
So perhaps in the future we should have a diet that has less meat and very little from grain fed animals except chicken.
The population of the Earth has always gone up in line with our ability to provide sufficient food and it could be argued that the population explosion of the last 60 years has been possible in large part because of artificial nitrogen fertilizer.
Good crop growth depends on sufficient soil nitrogen, and in the past farmers spread manure,and used nitrogen fixing crops such as peas, beans and clover to replenish reserves. There was also imports of guano and other nitrogen rich natural deposits.
The real breakthrough came in the early twentieth century when the german chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a way to use hydrogen to capture atmospheric nitrogen and form ammonia.
The application of large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer has boosted yields to such high levels that Professor Vaclav Smil of Manitoba University estimates that ‘without nitrogen fertilizers no more than 53% of today’s population could be fed at a generally inadequate per capita level of (year) 1900 diets’.
The green revolution, using high yielding new crop verieties would have been impossible without nitrogen fertilizer produced this way but has the world population expanded on the back of an unsustainable method.
The process needs vast amounts of energy which has been mainly provided by cheap natural gas and the production of nitrogen is responsible for a large part of farmings carbon emission. We know that gas supplies will eventually decline and become expensive, probably causing a switch to using coal as the feedstock, which would be much worse for carbon emissions at a time when world leaders are commiting us to huge reductios in all greenhouse gas emissions.
We could say that the availability of cheap nitrogen fertilizer has allowed the massive overpopulation of the world and that when it becomes much more expensive as demand outstrips supply, nitrogen shortages will contribute to peak food.
In David R. Montgomery’s brilliant book,”Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations”, he explains the effect of poor soil management on past civilizations and the likely effect on our own. Excerpts from the last page should be read by anyone worried about our future:
“As much as climare change, the demand for food will be a major driver of global environmental change throughout the coming decades. Over the past century, the effects of long-term soil erosion were masked by bringing new land under cultivation and developing fertilizers, pesticides, and crop verieties that compensate for declining soil productivity. Coupled with the inevitable end of fossil-fuel-derived fertilisers, the ongoing loss of cropland and soil poses the problem of feeding a growing population from a shrinking land base. Whereas the effects of soil erosion can be temporarily offset with fertilizers and in some cases irrigation, the long-term productivity of the land cannot be maintained in the face of reduced soil organic matter, depleted soil biota, and thinning soil that so far have characterized industrial agriculture.
“Many factors may contribute to ending a civilization, but an adequate supply of fertile soil is necessary to sustain one. Using up the soil and moving on to new land will not be a viable option for future generations. As odd as it may sound, civilization’s survival depends on treating soil as an investment, as a valuable inheritance rather than a commodity – as something other than dirt.”
Our government and most governments in the world are on 4-5 year contracts and are scared stiff of losing their jobs with all the perks and gold plated pensions.
This must be the reason that despite them being well aware of the disaster we face if we continue emitting greenhouse gasses and depleting the worlds resources at ever increasing rates, action is painfully slow and crucial years go by without the international agreements needed. In fact the world’s leaders are desperate to get back to fossil fueled economic growth as quickly as possible without considering policies that would greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels but might not increase living standards. They may be right, the public are not yet convinced that there is a problem worth making sacrifices for. We need to convince them.
This week the government climate change committee reported that if aviation growth is not slowed, the rest of us will need to reduce GHG emissions by 90% by 2050 instead of the 80% that was the previous target. A spokesman said on channel 4 news that a levy on air travel could be introduced to slow growth. When the presenter suggested this would be unpopular, he quickly said the levy would not be draconian, maybe £4-£10 on short haul and £20 transatlantic.
If the government thinks that would cause a significant reduction in aviation emission, they really are in denial. Draconian is what we need.
The present government has up until now taken the view that Britain is a trading nation that is best at producing high tech goods and providing financial services such as banking and insurance. Food should be imported from the cheapest areas while our farmers act as glorified wildlife custodians.
But in documents recently released, DEFRA acknowledges that food security can no longer be taken for granted and pressure on natural resources across the globe is making markets more volatile. Hilary Benn has been on TV and in the press saying that UK farmers should produce a bigger proportion of our food.
The papers state that the UN predicts the world will have to produce 70% more food by 2050, and as we have often pointed out, this needs to be done at a time when we will be short of land, water, oil and fertiliser. We will also have severe climatic disruption due to climate change.
We recieved a letter from Mr Benn over a year ago saying that he found the points raised in our book “Famine in the West” interesting and that he would be passing a copy to Defra policy officials for them to read.