Tag Archives: meat consumption

The Coming Food Crisis And What To Do About It

According to the best available research, we are going to have to double food supplies, globally, by 2050. Think about that for a moment. Children born today will be in their 40s at a time that we need to have already doubled food production, yet during the last 20 years we have seen only a 20 percent increase in food supply. Assuming a steady rate of increase in production (which might be optimistic) we should expect to fall far short of demand over the next few decades. This is a problem. The problem is expected to most severely affect poorer people, people in less developed nations, and poor farmers, but if the entire world is double digit percentage points short of food, almost no one is going to get by unscathed. And, at some point, when nearly everyone is seeing some sort of food shortage or extraordinarily high prices, the totally unscathed are going to start looking pretty tasty to the rest of us.

eat-the-rich_11-26-11Also, agricultural production, whether for food or biofuel, has a fairly large Carbon footprint, both by reducing natural Carbon sinks and by using fossil fuels at a fairly high rate. Doubling production of food would presumably involve increasing these effects, unless alternative approaches are developed. So even if we solve the problem of production, we might exacerbate the problem of human caused climate change. Let us not even speak of sea level rise; Over the coming century we expect sea levels to rise sufficiently to flood, either regularly or permanently, some of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, which would seriously dampen efforts to increase productivity.

And water. This will all require more water, when we are facing increasing shortages of water.

How do we address this problem? Will Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) save the day? Are there other approaches to quickly increase agricultural output? Can we eat different foods that are less difficult or costly to produce?

See: The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization

See: GMOs Are Interesting

Emily_CassidyEmily Cassidy knows some of these answers. Emily is a scientist with with over five years of experience working on land use, agriculture, and the impacts of growing biofuels vis-a-vis developing food crops. She is currently a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Earlier she worked as a scientist with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, measuring impacts of coastal activities. Her Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota involved detailed modeling of global food availability, which involved developing a new index to quantify the number of people fed per hectare of cropland. This research was widely disseminated in mainstream media.

Recently, Emily produced a report for EWG that looks at the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in addressing the world’s food supply. You can get the report here. I had a few questions, so I interviewed Emily about this report as well as the larger issue of humans running out of food during the present lifetime of so many of us.

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Question: The amount of space, energy, and other resources dedicated to the production of meat is enormous. According to your EWG report, producing meat requires three-quarters of the agricultural land in use. For every one calorie of meat we produce we displace about 10 calories of plant based food. You also note that there is a huge amount of waste in the food stream, with about a third (by weight, about one quarter of the calories) lost. The US tosses closer to 40 percent, and of all the forms of food, a disproportionately large percent of meat is wasted. Having recently purchased, twice in a row (apparently you can fool me twice) “fresh” chicken at my local not-very-good grocery store that was rotten the next day, I was wondering where the waste in the food stream, especially for meat, was concentrated, and if we could help solve this problem by distributing meat primarily in frozen form.

On food waste in the US, especially meat, do you have a breakdown of where the meat is wasted? I wonder if a switch to having almost all meat frozen and sold in frozen form would reduce a lot of waste.

Emily: Meat production takes a massive environmental toll, and when we waste meat, we’re wasting all the resources used to produce it. About half of the meat wasted in the U.S. and Europe is tossed at home. Better meal planning and freezing meat could be a big step to reducing household waste. Although supermarkets have an important role to play in reducing waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, only about 15 percent of meat waste in the U.S. occurs at supermarkets.

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Emily’s report pretty much slams GMOs. The report states:

Proponents of GE crops claim that they are essential to “feed the world,” but recent evidence indicates that so far, GE crops have How to feed the world. [GMOs have] not increased crop yields enough to significantly contribute to food security…In recent decades, in fact, the dominant source
of yield improvements has been traditional crossbreeding, and that is likely to continue for the
foreseeable future. Relying on genetic engineering to double food supplies by 2050 would require a huge leap in biotechnology and doubling the recent yield trends of crops.

Question: Are there any examples of GMOs being developed that will help with this that are not just vague promises? In other words, is there any tangible namable project or potential project you know of that would contribute to that “giant leap in biotechnology”?

Emily: “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans represent over 80 percent of the acreage growing GMOs, so it’s clear that the industry’s focus since the 1970s has been on genetic modification for herbicide tolerance. These crops haven’t improved yields because there are inherent biophysical trade-offs between productivity and pest resistance. This is why I wouldn’t bet the farm on biotechnology generating massive yield improvements. It’s similar to the live-fast die-young principle in evolutionary biology; plants are limited by their resources and can’t be good at everything at once.

Not all forms of genetic modification are created equal. There are some projects which could be promising and aim to modify a plant’s genome to improve the efficiency photosynthesis. But it seems to me that most genetic modifications only see benefits in the short term, until evolution catches up to the new genome. For example, insects have evolved tolerance to Bt crops, and U.S. Farmers have been told to lay off of them.

Where I do see exciting research that could really improve food security is the cross breeding of often ignored “orphan crops.” Just recently a new kind of drought-tolerant bean was bred by combining a modern bean with a variety traditionally grown by communities in the American Southwest. We should focus efforts and funding on improving the yields of nutritious food crops, not crops that mostly go to animal feed and biofuels.

See: The Case for Vegan Hot Dogs

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Question: On a related matter, how much does the the nature of the research itself ruin GMOs as a potential source of a modest or even minor agricultural revolution? It seems to me that helping poor farmers to be less poor will always lose to helping big corporations make more money, and the big corporations seem to be doing or funding most of the research. Is this a general pattern for ag research in general? In the old days big government money went into public universities to develop crops, technology, and methods that were available to all. The current system seems different. Is this a problem?

Emily: Universities are increasingly reliant on private industry for agricultural research funding, and companies are a lot more interested in making money than improving the lives of poor people. Private spending for agricultural research is more than twice the public expenditures. Unless public research funding for agriculture improves, the future of our food system will be heavily influenced by companies seeking to make a profit.

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Question: I think a lot of people assume that technology will solve many of our big problems, such as food shortages and climate change. People are divided mostly into two groups: GMO Frankenplants will rise out of the ground and take us in the dead of night (I exaggerate slightly), or they will fix the future. You are suggesting, it seems, that neither of these scenarios is likely. Bottom line, what does your report tell us about GMOs and the medium term problem of people, the poor farmers first, not having enough food?

Emily: There’s a myth that I often hear in Washington, that GMOs help the world’s poorest. If you really look into the evidence though, there’s no support for it. That’s why I wrote EWG report, to address ways to help small farmers, which is the real key to helping the world’s poorest. I’m not anti-GMO but I think we should be honest about their contribution to global food security and improving the livelihoods of poor people.

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Question: Current research suggests we need to double our food supply by 2050. But we’ve heard that before. In every decade there are predictions about future population growth or future agricultural productivity that suggest catastrophe, and we’ve passed many of those due dates for an expected Malthusian apocalypse. Is this projection different?

Emily: Malthus assumed population growth would continue without limits. We know now that as people have more income, they generally have less children. Another result of people being wealthier us that they demand more meat and dairy. Recent research has shown that population will increase by about 30 percent by 2050, yet demand for crops is estimated to increase by 100 percent. This difference means that demand for meat and dairy is a bigger driver of crop demand than population.. We also have to keep in mind that many countries are starting to adopt biofuels mandates. Tim Searchinger recently estimated that if all countries met their food-based biofuels targets, it would be the equivalent of removing about 30 percent of calories out of the food system. So depending on biofuels mandates, crop production may have to more than double to meet demands.These policies clearly threaten global food security.

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Emily’s report makes a series of specific recommendations that will close some of that huge gap in productivity vs. demand. She doesn’t mention eating the rich, but she does have a few other worthy suggestions. Eliminating food waste, shifting away from biofuels, and changing diets are all on the menu. So far, GMOs are not. I recommend that you read it and get working on this right away.

Check out: The First Earth Day, an epoch journey into politics, explosions, folk music, and old boats floating on stinking rivers.

The Case for Vegan Hot Dogs

If you are a meat eater, you probably appreciate the texture and flavor of a nice piece of loin, or a properly cooked pork chop, or a chicken breast that is moist and flavorful. But what is it about hot dogs that you appreciate? The pasty enigmatic texture? The idea that the casing either is, or imitates, the intestines of a pig? The possibility that the ‘meat’ inside the thing includes a high proportion of anus tissue, other bits of skin that were unsuitable for use as leather (i.e., nostrils), nerve tissue, and other non-muscle parts of animals, often of unspecified species?

Let me put that another way. Say you order a nice steak at your favorite restaurant, but when it was served to your table, instead of a New York Strip or a Filet Mignon you were given an equivalent amount of whatever a hot dog may include. It would probably be served in a bowl because hot dogs are mainly water. Floating in the water would be nerve tissue, cow anuses, sinus tissues, chicken eyelids, maybe an eyeball. If it was an “all beef” version these would all be cow parts. If not, it might be a mixture of cow, pig, turkey, and chicken. But really, nobody ever said that a non-beef hot dog only includes those animals. Goats, sheep, horses, and really, mammals and birds in general all have nerve tissue and anuses. Bon appetite!

Clearly, the role of a hot dog is not to provide or even enhance the meat eating experience. So, I ask you, what is the purpose of the widely consumed tube-steak?

I submit that the role of the hotdog is to provide a substrate for mustard and relish. Or, ketchup. Meat purists may eat their meat plain, or with minimal condiment. Other than certain young children or dogs, have you ever really met a “hot dog purist” who eats the hot dog without anything on it? In fact, studies would show (if they existed) that there is a correlation between the degree to which an individual self identifies as a hot-dog lover and how much stuff an individual piles on top of the hot dog, both in terms of diversity (how many different things) and amount (how high the pile gets).

As with many things, the importance of the hot dog is found in the context, not the thing itself. The role of the hotdog is the roll. And the condiments, including for some kraut or beans.

Now, consider the following facts.

  • 1) For most Westerners, reducing the amount of meat in the diet would provide a health benefit.
  • <li>2) In the United States and parts of Europe, the efficiency of our agricultural system, in terms of energy in the field transformed to energy on the dinner plate, is abysmally low.  Something like 30-40% of our "field calories" reach the table.  The reason for this is that so much of those field calories are first converted into meat.</li>
    <li>3) The global food supply and the world's increasing population are expected, according to recent and reliable studies, to reach equilibrium in about 2050.  After that we start to starve en masse, I suppose.</li>
    <li>4) The production of food generally is a large contributor to climate change, and the production of meat in particular is a very large contributor to climate change.</li>
    <li>5) Anuses.  Cow, pig, sheep, goat, unknown.  In your hot dog.</li></ul>

    Meat in hot dogs is not really meat, if you are a meat eater. It is not what you would eat were it not turned into something you don’t recognize. Meat in hot dogs is bad for you and bad for the planet simply because it is meat. Meat in hot dogs does not produce culinary pleasure, especially when you think about it. A hot dog made with no meat but that still had the undistinguished mushy internal texture, with a burnable plastic like exterior, would serve just as well to hold the condiments. Such a meat-free hot dog would still serve a roll. As it were.

    Americans probably eat about 700 million pounds of hot dogs a year, according to the American Meat Institute. (Not per person, but rather, in total.) That’s close to 2.3 pounds per person a year. Th average American eats about 180 pounds of land-animal meat in total per year. So, about 1-2% of our meat diets consist of hot dog. (I’m purposefully leaving fish and other wild animals out of this.)

    If all hot dogs were suddenly meatless, there would be no loss at the consumer end, only gains. We would still have the tube-shaped object to coat in corn and deep fry, put in a roll and cover with condiments, slice into barrel-shaped bits and pierce with uncooked linguini to boil later to make a festive meal of mini Cthulhus, and so on. But we would improve the quality of our own diets by an average of 1-2% with respect to meat consumption. Since there are a lot of people who eat no meat, and a lot of people who only rarely eat hot dogs, this probably translates into a much larger change for the hot-doggiest amongst us. The American Meat Institute estimates that close to half of American hot dog consumption occurs at outdoor events, mainly sporting events. We buy, at the grocery store, 350 million pounds a year of hot dog, and we eat at events the same amount again. This tells me that a very small subset of Americans, those who go to a lot of sporting events, then while there, consume a few hot dogs every time, are eating a very large percentage of the dogs. I’d wager that the most hot-dog loving third of those who eat hot dogs would reduce meat consumption in their diets by double digits if all hot dogs were suddenly Vegan.

    Also, while as a specialty product (that you can’t find in most grocery stores, sadly) Vegan hot dogs are not especially cheap. But imagine the potential savings. If, instead of making hot dogs out of nerve tissue, anuses, and noses of animals, hot dogs were made out of the equivalent parts of plants … whatever that might be … they would be dirt cheap. Maybe the use of dirt there is a poor choice. Anyway, they would be cheaper than meat-ish hot dogs. Cheaper hot dogs would sell.

    And that is the case for Vegan hot dogs.

    Sources of information:

    <li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/08/01/the-problem-with-the-global-food-supply-new-research/">The Problem With The Global Food Supply: New Research</a></li>
    <li><a href="http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/seriouslyscience/?p=785#.Ug-rZ2TXikI">Ever wanted to know what’s really in hotdogs?</a></li>
    <li><a href="http://www1.umn.edu/news/features/2013/UR_CONTENT_430583.html">Can we feed the world?</a></li>
    <li><a href="http://www.inspirationgreen.com/food-consumption-in-america.html">The American Diet!</a></li>
    <li><a href="http://www.food.com/recipe/hot-dog-spaghetti-445667">Hot Dog Spaghetti</a></li>
    <li><a href="http://www.hot-dog.org/ht/d/sp/i/38599/pid/38599">American Meat Council</a></li>


    For completeness, I’ll note that the American Meat Institute claims this about hot dog ingredients:

    What exactly is in a hot dog?

    The ingredients in hot dogs have been the subject of much humor, rumor and speculation. But the answer is less exciting than the question.

    All hot dogs are cured and cooked sausages that consist of mainly pork, beef, chicken and turkey or a combination of meat and poultry. Meats used in hot dogs come from the muscle of the animal and looks much like what you buy in the grocer’s case. Other ingredients include water, curing agents and spices, such as garlic, salt, sugar, ground mustard, nutmeg, coriander and white pepper.

    If variety meats such as liver and hearts are used in processed meats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires the manufacturer to declare those ingredients on the package with the statement “with variety meats” or “with meat by-products.” The manufacturer must then specify which variety meat is included. In the U.S., companies are required to list ingredients in order, from the main ingredient, to the least ingredient.

    But science says something a bit different. Here’s the results of one study looking inside the dog:

    …Package labels typically list some type of meat as the primary ingredient. … A variety of tissues were observed besides skeletal muscle including bone (n = 8), collagen (n = 8), blood vessels (n = 8), plant material (n = 8), peripheral nerve (n = 7), adipose (n = 5), cartilage (n = 4), and skin (n = 1). … Electron microscopy showed recognizable skeletal muscle with evidence of degenerative changes. In conclusion, hotdog ingredient labels are misleading; most brands are more than 50% water by weight. The amount of meat (skeletal muscle) in most brands comprised less than 10% of the cross-sectional surface area. More expensive brands generally had more meat. All hotdogs contained other tissue types (bone and cartilage) not related to skeletal muscle; brain tissue was not present.