A few years ago I applied for a Policy internship with, funded by NERC. I would’ve taken a break from my PhD and spent 3 months learning about the role science plays in making policy (which may seem like a joke at the moment, sadly). Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful, but the processes was valuable anyway. I had to write a document describing a challenge the United Kingdom was to face in the future, and so wrote about the rising global population, its increasing demands for food and protein in particular.
Seeing this recent news story from the University of Guelph reminded me of this, and I’ve decided to share my original article as a blog post. I’m not sure there is a great deal of progress in the last 4 years apparent from comparing my article to the recent UoG one, but I do hope progress is being made.
Increasing global meat demand
The present global population is estimated at 6.5Bn, and projected to reach 9Bn individuals in 35 years1. Yet 1Bn of the current population are chronically undernourished1, requiring a more than concurrent increase in food production. In particular, with globally increasing per-capita meat consumption meat production is predicted to double from 1991 levels by 20502, placing acute strain on the meat production industry. Already 70% of current arable land is used to grow feed for meat production. If all nations consumed meat at rates of those in the Western world this figure would have to rise by a further 66%2,3.
Industrialised nations are already space limited, requiring food to be imported from developing nations (the UK imports 40% of its food, a figure which is rising yearly1). Additionally, in developing nations the best farming land is typically already in use, limiting prospective farming expansion. The expanding global population requires land for housing, as well as for growing crops for biofuel production. Expansion would also have environmental impacts, as livestock already play a key role in climate change (18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock, a higher share than transport), contribute to land degradation (70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is now used for livestock) and water shortage and pollution (over 8% of global human water use is for livestock)3.
Eliminating the space/demand disparity would require increasing the efficiency of existing methods. Currently, 75% of the world’s poultry, 66% of its eggs and 50% of its pork are produced by high-density industrial meat factories rather than small scale farms2. These require feed additives, limited space per animal and the movement of vast quantities of water, food and waste, with associated health and welfare issues for both the animals and the consumer. Partly thanks to technological advances such as the use of antibiotics and hormone implants, the beef industry in the US has increased its productivity by 80% in the last 50 years4. Economic forces have driven the meat production industry to be extremely proactive in perfecting existing methods, suggesting limited scope for long-term improvements in these methods. Therefore the current situation likely requires suitable changes to avoid the detrimental effects of meat production (“livestock’s long shadow”3) spreading, such as using alternative protein sources or reducing the demand for meat globally.
Alternative protein sources
Fish & Aquaculture
With more than 84% of wild fisheries either maximally exploited or depleted5, and grave difficulties in instituting management policies, wild fish populations are too fragile to meet global protein needs, requiring farmed fish to fill the gap. Indeed, since 2011 aquaculture has accounted for a greater proportion of the global supply of fish than wild fish6. Furthermore, fish convert food to protein very efficiently, needing 13kg of grain to produce 1kg of protein, compared to 38kg required by pigs and 61kg by cows6. Aquaculture also emits less greenhouse gas, nitrogen and phosphorous than terrestrial livestock6. Aquaculture is globally highly skewed, widespread only in Asia (91% of global aquaculture), and particularly China (62% of global aquaculture)6. Efficiency also varies greatly, suggesting great improvements could be made if a policy of learning best practice is adopted across the existing industry and by incoming stakeholders. Lessons must also be learnt from agriculture, such as avoiding environmentally vulnerable regions and monitoring the ecological impact of introduced aquaculture. Aquacultures situated in coastal regions may even require less water than other animal production systems6, suggesting that countries, such as the UK, with extensive coastline could take advantage of this method to reduce reliance on imports.
In 80% of nations insects are eaten as food, with over 1900 different species of insect used7. Like fish, insects convert a very high proportion of feed to protein. The 2014 international conference “Insects to feed the world”, held in the Netherlands, concluded that insects have highly relevant potential for both meeting the rising human protein need and providing high protein animal feed8. Yet they also noted enormous scope for improvements if global leadership and support is given to the “minilivestock” industry. There are also potential large environmental gains to be had to switching to using insects for protein, as they produce less greenhouse gases, consume less water and require less space8. The most critical step remains getting people to eat insects, which can be overcome by top down approaches (celebrity endorsements, advert campaigns highlighting the similarity to food such as shrimp) and bottom up approaches (consumers seeking a cheaper source of protein and/or one with a lower environmental impact).
Even insects and fish must expend energy on their structural, nervous and immune systems, which are not eaten by humans. Meat can be cultured in the laboratory, by artificially stimulating muscle cells to grow. Muscle tissues may have been artificially grown from satellite cells for the past 15 years, but they have not yet entered commercial markets9. Major obstacles to the use of cultured meat as a source of protein include the efficiency of scaling up laboratory level operations to industrial sized ones, and producing a product that looks, smells, feels and crucially tastes like meat9. These obstacles have been tackled by the vegetable meat substitutes industry (e.g. Tofu, Quorn) and it may well be easier to re-create genuine meat taste and texture with proteins, sugars and fats that are bio-chemically identical, rather than their vegetable counterparts.
Reducing global meat demand
As mentioned above, high per capita meat consumption has enormous impacts on the environment. Furthermore, while protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, a diet high in meat has a large impact on human health. Excess meat consumption is associated with certain cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity10, suggesting attractive benefits to those who reduce the volume of meat in their diet. It is estimated than the average North American consumes 150% of the average daily protein requirement10, yet protein-energy malnutrition effects more than a third of the world’s children11. As people in developing countries increase their income, their diet tends to feature an increasing amount of animal products2. As such, it is difficult, not to mention hypocritical, to try to discourage peoples in developing countries from aspiring to Western levels of meat consumption. Rising costs and initiatives such as “Meatless monday”12 might help reduce consumption in the Western world, with possible knock-on effects for the global community. This would appear to have large health benefits for those in developed countries, as well as global environmental benefits.
However, with some experts claiming that “people aren’t going to stop eating meat”2, ultimately mechanisms must be developed to allow meat production to continue, but focusing on land management and pricing that reflect the social and environmental costs of intense production.
As the global population increases, the availability of affordable protein for global nutrition and minimising the rich-poor diet disparity will be critical. With the traditional protein production industry approaching maximum capacity, and the strain on the environment still increasing, a long-term plan incorporating alternative industries is essential. It is vital that forthcoming policy considers the incoming changes and prepares the UK as best as possible to adapt and thrive.
(for some reason I didn’t have the exact reference list saved, so this is just a list of articles I probably was referring to, I am unable to join up the numbers in the text with specific articles, sorry…)