A couple of opinion pieces that appeared within days of each other have recently caught my eye. First was “Grass-fed beef packs a punch to environment” by Dr. Gidon Eshel on the Reuters Blog, swiftly followed by “The myth of green beef,” in the Atlantic Blog, by Helene York. Both pieces swim rather vigorously against the scientific tide on the issue of the environmental impact of beef and grassfed cattle systems in particular. The issue of environmental impact and meat production is a complicated one and open to misinterpretation and confusion. With my obvious interest in grassfed and pasture-raised production I am always looking to see what new evidence is being presented. After reading both pieces, however, I was left feeling rather disappointed. These articles are interesting, but they are interesting for all the wrong reasons. While they appear to put forward a strong argument, with independent studies mentioned, if not always actually referenced, they actually expose the problems of scientific reductionism and a general lack of academic rigor.
Almost half of all the food we produce in the world never makes it to a plate. Today, we allow a staggering two BILLION tons of food to go to waste each and every year. If we eliminated this unnecessary food waste, we could potentially provide 60–100% more food to feed the world’s growing population.
These are just some of the shocking statistics from a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), highlighting once again how staggeringly wasteful our food and farming system is. But it’s not just simply the food that’s going to waste: think about all the wasted energy, water, chemicals, and labor that went into producing, transporting, and storing what is ultimately just left to rot.
The IME’s new report mirrors a 2011 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), entitled Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention. The FAO found that industrialized countries waste 222 million tons of food every year – almost equivalent to the annual net food production in sub-Saharan Africa. In the U.S. alone, we waste more than 29 million tons of food each year. That’s enough to fill the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl every day, according to food-waste guru, Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.
Look around and it’s clear that we’re not just wasting food by letting it rot or throwing it away. It’s a well-known fact that we already produce more than enough food today for everyone to have the nourishment they need to thrive. But while the number of people suffering from chronic hunger increased from under 800 million in 1996 to over 1 billion in 2009, obesity and diet-related ill health in the West is running out of control. Although the U.S. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, we account for almost a third of the world’s weight due to obesity. As our diets have changed to incorporate the ever-increasing availability of cheaper meat and dairy products and highly processed food, devastating diet-related diseases – like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some diet-related cancers – have reached epidemic levels in the US.
In 2008, 33.8% of U.S. adults were diagnosed as clinically obese. One in three people born in 2000 in the U.S. will develop Type 2 diabetes by 2050. Between 1980 and 2008, obesity among U.S. pre-school age children – we’re talking about kids of just 2-5 years of age – increased from 5% to 10.4%. During the same period, obesity among 6-11 year olds increased from 6.5% to 19.6%, and among 12-19 year olds we saw an increase from 5% to 18.1%. According to a study of the national costs attributed to overweight and obese people, medical expenses associated with these conditions alone accounted for 9.1% of total U.S. medical expenditures in 1998 – and may have reached as high as $78.5 billion ($92.6 billion in 2002 dollars).
We know that most of the world’s hungry live in the developing nations in the South. They are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food or grow it themselves, usually because of poverty, but also due to conflict, poor infrastructure, poor agricultural practices, and the over-exploitation of the environment, among other things. They are also hungry because much of their agricultural production is focused on generating food and livestock feed to supply Western markets. Recent price rises caused by harvest failures, commodity speculation, and the diversion of grain to produce biofuels over recent years have hardly helped matters (see for example Tom Philpott’s excellent blog on the horrendous impact U.S. biofuels policy is having on global food prices – and hunger).
In response to concerns about how we can feed the world’s growing population, which is predicted to reach nine billion by 2050, the industrial food lobby has misleadingly claimed that we urgently need to double food production. They argue that the only way we can hope to feed the world is by further intensifying agricultural production, with more agrochemicals, the global uptake of GM crops, and a dramatic increase in intensively farmed livestock – methods which happen to be highly profitable for their promoters. Yet people are waking up to the fact that food security is not simply about producing “more” of the same food, as those with vested interests would like us to believe. This argument is not only far too simplistic, but will simply exacerbate the significant human health and environmental problems that I have written about many times before – particularly in a future where climate change and ever-diminishing supplies of natural resources (such as fossil fuels) are now the accepted reality.
Many leading scientists, development organizations, and policymakers now recognize that the further intensification of agriculture is just no longer an option. Increasingly, scientists and global development institutions alike are recognizing that we need to make fundamental changes in the way we farm and how we feed ourselves. The consensus is that we need to find ways of farming that not only produce sufficient quantities of the right kinds of food, grown in the right places, but which also minimize greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts associated with intensive farming practices. In other words, we not only need to reduce the amount of food we currently waste, but we also need to dramatically improve our high-calorie, high-processed, high-waste Western diet – a diet which is literally killing us and destroying our planet.
Numerous reports and policy documents are now singing from the same hymn sheet, calling for a wholesale shift in food production and consumption. For example, the increasingly influential International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published the findings of a three-year project involving 400 independent scientists and development experts from across the world. The IAASTD report makes fascinating reading and concludes that small-scale farming and agroecological practices, such as organic farming, had a vital role to play in feeding the world in the future. The IAASTD also questioned the idea that GM crops are the panacea many people believe them to be.
In March 2011, the United Nations released Agro-ecology and The Right to Food, which states that small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, the study called for a fundamental shift towards agroecology and supporting independent farms as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the world’s poorest. A recent U.N. report, entitled Dead Planet, Living Planet: Biodiversity and ecosystem restoration for sustainable development, recommends a blend of the new and the old: pest management using natural predators, intercropping agroforestry and green manures. The Animal Welfare Approved program has routinely held the position that scientifically sound high-welfare, sustainable systems offer a real alternative to the failed experiment of industrial farming, and are the only way we can feed and water the world sustainably for the long term.
Don’t be fooled by the Doomsday rhetoric of those who want nothing more than to maintain the status quo. As fast food, obesity, and the market for drugs to treat diet-related health problems spreads worldwide, it’s now blatantly clear that Big Food simply wants to continue profiting from our misery. We need to fundamentally change our food and farming system, our diet, and global food distribution infrastructure – and we need to do it now. At a time when we are being bombarded by vested corporate interests to further industrialize food production in order to feed the world’s growing population, simply producing more of the same would be the biggest waste of all.