Thinking of Food on World Population Day

By Ross Miranti

UN Population Fund

UN Population Fund

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on July 11, 2013.

Today is World Population Day, an appropriate day to reflect upon the sustainability of our growing world population. While this year’s theme, “Adolescent Pregnancy,” addresses an important issue, Brighter Green is also interested in the consumption habits of the growing world population – a topic that has not been the focus of a World Population Day since it was established back in 1989. The impact of global food consumption alone has massive repercussions for the climate, food security, fresh water supplies, and the preservation of natural lands.

The world population is currently around 7.1 billion and growing. A few years ago, the UN projected that the world would reach 9.1 billion by 2050, with a 70% increase in demand for agricultural output, though they have since updated their population projections to 9.6 billion people by 2050 – which would logically imply that food output would have to increase even more than 70% by mid-century, based on their previous estimates. But regardless of how accurate this new projection turns out to be, certainly the world population will continue to grow and global food systems will be pushed increasingly hard to produce more food.

One of the reasons why the demand for agricultural output is increasing at a higher rate than population growth is because global diets are rapidly shifting to resource-intensive foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, which require much more water and agricultural land. Livestock production currently occupies 70% of all agricultural land, which equates to about 30% of the earth’s ice-free surface. As developing countries start to consume higher levels of animal-based foods, the demand for rangeland and feed crops shoots up.

Expanding food production by 70% or more in the coming decades to meet increasing global demand is problematic if not nearly impossible. Not only has the yield per acre of most major crops leveled out, having approached their biological limits, but climate change is decreasing agricultural productivity and accelerating the encroachment of food production onto forested land. This is a recipe for more climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil erosion.

But as Dawn Moncrief of A Well-Fed World often emphasizes in her organization’s advocacy for a more sustainable global food system, ‘projections are not destiny.’ Just as population growth can be mitigated, so too can global consumption habits, either through public policies or social education. The alternative to active mitigation is a market-driven solution, whereby plant proteins become more popular as the price of animal proteins rise, or a market-driven, Malthusian disaster, in which livestock continues to occupy an increasing share of our food supply – inefficiently cycling livestock feed through animals and rendering our food system incapable of meeting the hunger needs of the world’s population. In the latter case, poor people would be the least food secure because they could not access or afford these high-demand animal-based foods or even other foods grown on the world’s limited arable land.

The World Resource Institute has been addressing the issue of food and sustainability in a series of papers entitled Creating a Sustainable Food Future. It’s first installment calls attention to three important points about food and sustainability for the coming decades: 1) it is necessary to address population and global diet, 2) it will be important to support the livelihoods of small farmers in the developing world, and 3) there is a vital need to decrease the world’s impact on the environment and natural resources in order to maintain adequate food production.

As these and other issues related to global diet and sustainability become more pronounced, global leaders will have no choice but to give the matter greater attention. Who knows, one day we might even have a World Population Day dedicated to what the world population is eating.

Image courtesy of UNFPA

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Meat and Development in Liberia

By Ross Miranti

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website on June 4, 2013.

Meat consumption correlates with income; poorer individuals and countries tend to consume less than their wealthier counterparts. This applies to Liberia, one of the poorest nations in the world, which has an annual per capita income of about 374 dollars and an annual per capita meat consumption of about 10.4 kilograms/kg (22.9 pounds/lbs).

Three decades ago Liberia was one of the more prosperous nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the violent, fourteen year civil war (1989 to 2003) devastated the country in countless ways; it claimed 250,000 lives, displaced over 600,000 people, demolished infrastructure, and ravaged the economy.

The standard of living for the average Liberian diminished quickly, with the GDP falling 90 percent in the first five years of the war. Today, incomes remain low, even with a flood of aid money, the presence of a major UN peacekeeping force, and the ambitious efforts of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state.

Unlike most countries in the world, including many of its neighbors, Liberia has lower levels of meat consumption than it did fifty years ago (see the graph below). Today, average per capita consumption is slightly less than it was in 1961, when Liberia’s meat consumption was above that of most other Sub-Saharan African countries and three times higher than that of China. Since then, per capita consumption in China has increased fifteen fold and is over five times that of Liberia.

 Source: FAOSTAT

Though meat consumption in Liberia remains low, it is likely to rise dramatically with increasing incomes, much as it has in other countries. In the coming century, the entire region of Sub-Saharan Africa seems set for a massive increase in the consumption of animal products as incomes creep up and populations grow rapidly. The net impact of this regional dietary shift will be harmful in terms of sustainability, climate change, food security, animal welfare, and public health.

While this dietary shift in Liberia and the region will push our global food system more towards an ecological tipping point – spiking global demand for scarce agricultural land, consuming more fresh water, contributing further to climate change, and consigning an increasing number of animals to livestock production (over 60 billion animals worldwide are involved in livestock each year) – one mustn’t overlook the persistently high consumption of meat and other animal products in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. If the international community is to mitigate the global externalities of livestock, developing countries will need to resist the urge to put meat at the center of their diets, but likewise, developed countries will need to work on removing it from the center of theirs.

Rich countries can help to prevent or reverse the livestock revolution in poor countries like Liberia by leading by example. So far, only a minority in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world believe that meat, eggs, and dairy are not the right foods we should be using to nourish the world’s population. Perhaps high-income countries need to develop their understanding of the impacts of the livestock revolution before they can help Liberia and other low-income countries develop their food systems in a truly humane, sustainable, and climate-friendly way.

This blog is first in a series of three blogs on Liberia and animal agriculture.

Graph created by Ross Miranti using FAOSTAT statistics