This is a Chinese farmer from Guangdong Province, holding out two handfuls of imported feed. Key word: imported.
The ground oats and soy in the palms of his hands tell the story of the most profoundly massive agricultural shift in the history of the world.
The story begins with something that factory farmers call “Feed Conversion Ratio” (FCR) or the amount of feed required for an animal to gain one pound of weight.
When I interviewed him, he told me his pigs gained 1 pound for every three pounds of feed they ate, i.e. their FCR was 3 to 1. But this number is a little misleading, because half of a pig’s live weight is lost in the process of deboning and dressing the carcass(1). Thus, in the best circumstances, the actual FCR is closer to 5 to 1, and this leads to one of the biggest problems with high meat consumption:
It is inefficient.
On a global scale, we’re pushing land and water resources to their limits to feed 22 billion animals as an intermediary step to feeding 7 billion people(2). Thus, as of 2006, livestock occupied 70% of all global agricultural land(3) but provided just 17% of humanity’s calories(4) and 33% of our protein(5).
Just how much this matters becomes clear when we look at the contrast in food demand between China and India, far and away the two most populous nations on earth.
Projections tell us that by mid-century, India’s population will surpass 1.6 billion, while China’s population holds steady below 1.4 billion (6). Yet even though India will grow by more than the size of the US and UK populous combined, while China barely grows at all, China will account for ~43% of global growth in demand for food imports while India will account for just ~13% (7).
China’s per capita meat consumption is ten times higher than India’s (8) and it continues to rise with incomes (9).
You may be thinking, “couldn’t this be attributed to some other economic difference in resources?” Certainly, correlation cannot be taken to imply causation. But China has more of the resources that matter, not less. China has almost the exact same amount of arable and irrigated land, far more pasture and most importantly, China has very nearly double India’s usable water resources (10).
Moreover, on a per capita basis, since India’s population will overtake China’s by far, the gap in land and resources is going to be even bigger. So it’s India that should be in need of importing more food, not China.
But we’re seeing that Chinese demand for meat is directly driving a massive shift in demand for grain used in feed. In the ten year period from 2014 to 2024, China is projected to increase its use of corn and soy meal (exclusively for animal feed) by over 100 million tons (11).
To put that in perspective, Brazil’s total corn crop for the year 2016 is estimated around 85 million tons and Russia had their biggest harvest ever in 2016, making them the fifth highest corn producer in the world. Do you know how much they produced? 15 million tons(12). Therefore, if my calculator is working, China’s projected increase in consumption of soy and corn meal, by 2024, is the same magnitude as that of Brazil and Russia’s total corn output. Not just their exports.
Did that sink in? My recommended reaction to this is to slap your face with both hands, and scream, like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone. Recall, this is just through 2024, and it’s a monumental increase in food demand from a country that isn’t even growing. In fact, China has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world.
Thus, when these two countries are taken as a microcosm (albeit a very big one) of the whole world, we see that dietary preferences have a substantial impact on matters of great human importance. And because global markets are increasingly connected, this demand can impact grain prices everywhere.
The Human Cost of High Food Prices
In a 2016 report, a group of researchers from the University of Utah and the People’s University of China stated that “if world grain and soybean exports fail to increase significantly between now and 2030, China’s rising imports will impose unbearable pressure on the world grain market.” As a result, “many small and poor countries will be priced out of the world grain market.” (13)
This raises some tough ethical problems, not just for environmentalists, feminists and animal rights activists, but for ordinary conscious consumers. Yet it is only one facet of a set of problems which get increasingly gnarly as you follow the chain of causality that starts with handfuls of grain and ends at our meat markets.
World hunger is not caused by insufficient food supply, as is commonly thought. We actually produce enough food for everyone. The real cause of chronic hunger among the 975 million people still facing it, is cost. The World Food Program puts this foremost in it’s list of reasons for global hunger, summarizing that “people living in poverty cannot afford nutritious food for themselves and their families (14).
Moreover, we’ve seen that surging food prices have a direct and devastating impact on hunger, malnutrition and poverty with women being the first to suffer and the last to receive relief. In 2008, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN reported that rising food prices increased the number of undernourished people, globally, by 75 million. Yet in the coming decade, market forces will orchestrate the funneling of 100 million tons of food that people could eat into the mouths of pigs, geese and chickens.
Meanwhile, India is absolutely water strapped and growing rapidly, yet they’ll barely move the needle on demand for food imports and, consequently, the all-important price of food, everywhere else. This shows just a portion of the consequences of the kind of food we habitually put on our plates.
The truth is that consumers at Chinese meat markets are unwittingly bidding up global food prices every time they buy meat, and thereby contributing to humanity’s misery index. But the same is substantially true of consumers in the United States and Europe. Conversely, if we take India as an example, we see that a diet with greater emphasis on plant-based protein, and lower meat consumption frees up massive amounts of resources for everyone else.
This is the story of China versus India. A story of two divergent levels of impact which start in their bowls and on their plates. But the story has yet to unfold and there’s no reason to believe it can’t go differently. Never before has there been such an easy solution to such expansive global challenges at the fingertips of normal people, everywhere.
Lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and soy are rich in high quality protein which beats out all animal protein in a head-to-head comparison of cost, and environmental impact. Artificial meat and even plant-based eggs and cheese are reaching new standards and a preponderance of scientific evidence is showing that these foods are actually better for us.
The key is that we not let perfect be the enemy of the good and ditch the binary thinking that veganism and normal high meat consumption are the only options. Reduced meat consumption can and should play a major role in reducing international hunger.
The coming decades present many challenges, but ensuring that everyone gets enough to eat without working our farmland to dust and bankrupting groundwater reserves should not be among them. China and India teach us that there is a simple means of reducing world hunger and the solution is in all of our hands.
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