Where’s The Beef?

  • From: Think.
  • Published: September 26, 2013
beef_diagram_trans3.jpgWe produce enough food to provide everyone on the planet with 4,500 calories a day, yet hundreds of millions live in absolute hunger. The old wealthy nations have shown a lack of equity in its distribution. What will happen when the Global South and East, with their exponentially growing demand for meat, take over deciding who gets to eat what, where and when? Written by Alex Renton

The main event of dinner at a friend’s house last week was a lamb tagine with couscous. Nothing spectacular – good food from ingredients gathered, as is the norm now, from all the corners of the planet. The lamb, shipped 14,000 kilometers from New Zealand, shrink-wrapped and semi-frozen, tasted as good as the day it was slaughtered. The saffron and the salted lemon from Morocco; the ginger from Jamaica; the wheat for the couscous grown in Brazil and milled in France; the avocados in the salad from Peru and the coriander from Spain. The drink was South African, and after the tagine we ate French cheese and Californian grapes.

Like most in the rich world, we gave little thought to the spider’s web of deals, political and economic, that permitted this astonishing feast to lie before us. Or to the resources: the massive use of water – 150 liters to irrigate the wheat for the couscous – or the fossil fuels that powered every bit of the production, from the refrigerated ships from New Zealand and South America to the fertilizer for the vines of South Africa and California. We thought even less, I fear, of the failings of this amazing system: that it oversupplies one half of the world, leaving 1.2bn of us suffering obesity and its associated diseases, while in the other half the World Food Programme estimates that 870m are living in absolute hunger, a third of them children who will grow up stunted in mind and body.

But furthest from our minds as we enjoyed ourselves that evening was a sense of how fragile this system is. A failure of the supply chains to our local supermarket would bring panic buying in a couple of days and civil unrest in not much longer. As the old maxim goes, “No man is further than nine meals away from anarchy.” Blips in the global commodities trading system have sent the price of the wheat for that couscous up 30 percent twice since 2008, sparking riots in 30 countries and revolution in half a dozen of them. The interlinking of the prices of oil and food means the latter is now susceptible to all the former’s volatility. A new field of academic study has emerged in which future food price indices are analyzed to predict political unrest – as I write the forecast from Massachusetts Institute of Technology is for stormy weather ahead.

All of this, despite the fact that we’re not going to run out of food. Looked at in terms of calories, the world is fabulously, happily oversupplied. We produce enough to give everyone currently on the planet 4,500 kilocalories a day, more than double the energy most of us need. On that basis we could feed not just the nine or 10 billion expected on this planet when the human population peaks in the middle of this century, but a few billion more.

Given the ongoing improvements in productivity from advances in technology and farming, those figures should get better and better. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago – even though there are 70 percent more people. And while fossil fuel inputs to agriculture may eventually have to decline, we have hardly begun to harness solar power or the immense potential promised by biotechnology.

Market Rules
So why the gloom? Why are cash-rich but resource-poor states from the Gulf to South East Asia buying land in Africa? Why is China purchasing American agribusinesses and putting in place long-term deals on agricultural crops with grain belt countries to ensure supplies of raw materials for industry? And why do politicians across the world talk about “food security” as a key global issue that must be addressed?

There are many answers to these questions, but they all come down to one issue: distribution. Though food, like energy and water, is a core human need, we are very bad at sharing it fairly or even sensibly. In modern history, governments have avoided addressing food strategy. When they have, the results have usually been catastrophic, especially when driven by ideology, such as in Soviet Russia in the 1930s or Maoist China in the 1960s. The 'structural adjustment' policies pushed in the late 20th century by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on developing countries, forcing governments to remove state planning and safety nets for farmers, have resulted in more hunger in Africa, not less.

Food strategy has largely been left to the market. Capitalism and agriculture have, on the face of it, accomplished amazing things in the past century. Medicine and better nutrition combined have enabled most humans to thrive by all the basic indicators: longevity, height and infant mortality rates have all improved by more than at any time in all the previous millennia our existence. Most significant of all, our population increased sevenfold – although 870 million of us remain hungry, that figure has been stable for 20 years.

But it has become clear that the 20th century’s successes are not a model for the 21st and, despite all the excess of supply and future increases in productivity, allowing the market to distribute those calories according to demand rather than need is no longer sustainable. This is due to the extraordinary rise in the levels of wastage as people become richer, chiefly through their change in diet from vegetarian to omnivore.

Currently nearly 40 percent of the planet’s grain crop and 60 percent of agricultural land are devoted to producing one type of meat, beef, which in turn gives us only 2 percent of our calories. Overall, 6kg of plant protein delivers just 1kg of meat protein. The world’s other favorite animals are of better value than beef but still painfully draining on resources.

Chicken gives a return of 2:1 in terms of feed for flesh, but that feed is largely a crop that humans like to eat – corn. The meat habit has other costs – the resultant greenhouse gases, for one, are equivalent to all the emissions of the world’s transport systems. In terms of land the deal is shockingly wasteful – according to the World Wildlife Fund, producing 1kg of beef requires 15 times as much hectarage as producing 1kg of cereals, and 70 times as much land as 1kg of vegetables.

This state of affairs is possible for now but it won’t be as more of the poorer nations develop, unless world economic growth goes into permanent reverse. It’s the Catch 22 of food security – take people out of poverty and they start to eat four or more times as much of the available food, largely because of the amount of meat they start opting for.

US State Department figures show that China now represents a quarter of the world’s meat consumption. In 1962 the Chinese ate just 3.6kg meat per head per year, a figure which had risen to 18kg by 1973 but up to a massive 58kg in 2009 – a curve directly related to the increase in the country’s wealth.

Carnivorous Habits
In the United States, where people eat, at 120kg per head per annum, as much or more meat than anyone, these statistics are reported with a mix of horror and glee. It is pointed out that the Chinese already have to import animal feed and breeding stock from the US, and are buying some grand old American meat companies. The threat to resources and the contribution to climate change of growing meat habits in developing economies are one of the first things mentioned by people concerned about food supply and security – with good reason. But, as ever with issues of finite world resources, it seems to be those who consume the most who are shrillest about the prospect of others aping their greed.

At the moment there is less to worry about from the most populous countries in Asia than Western doom-mongers would have you believe. Indonesia’s meat eating is probably already near its peak and the threat from India hardly exists. Indians consume a 30th of the meat that Australians or Americans do – about 4.4kg per person in 2009, up from 3.9kg 10 years earlier.

They lie at 177 in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) world league of carnivores ordered by appetite and, largely because of cultural rather than economic vegetarianism, fewer than 30 percent of them consume meat regularly. No-one believes that, even in the most optimistic growth scenarios, Indian meat consumption will top 10kg per head per annum in the foreseeable future, although their dairy use is forecast to double, while China’s will go up 60 percent. Africa’s meat consumption rates are stagnant at about 20kg and are not expected to change until serious development starts to take place in the continent. Far more of a problem today is the fact that the 300 million people in the US eat a third of the world’s meat supply – and they eat more beef, the most expensive type in resource terms, than most.

Until recently, the Chinese did not waste meat as countries where it is cheap do, not least because whereas in the US and the UK less than 10 percent of household income is spent on food, in China, a third is. Europeans eat about 50 percent, by weight, of a beef animal. In societies that prize offal and fat and pay more for their meat, as the continentals used to, 25 percent more of the animal is used for food. Here again lies hope for the hungry and fearful – as is often said, if we could use the 40 percent of edible food that gets thrown away there would be no crisis in food security. To that end, this year China launched its own public education campaign against food waste.
china_cow3.jpg
How much meat can the Chinese eat? Because of its size, the country already consumes just over twice as much in total as does the United States, the Chinese having overtaken the Americans in 1990. If China continues to develop as it has, and many experts are convinced it can, by 2020 all of its population “will have escaped poverty”, as The Economist put it earlier this year. If these newly rich Chinese eat the same amount of meat per head as the average person in a developed country does – 80kg per person – then in just seven years’ time these 1.4bn people will want 112 million metric tons of animal meat annually, more than a third of total world production today. That is on top of the fact that it already relies on imports.

“To make meat you need land, corn and water,” says James Rice, the former country head of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest farmer and processor of chicken, beef and other animals. “China is short of all three.”

Look East
Of course there are many other developing economies – the FAO predicts that meat calorie demand will double across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa by the mid-century. For this reason, it’s become a given that, to meet the demands of the nine billion who are expected to populate the Earth in 2050, world food production must increase by 40-60 percent.

Meanwhile, the business of food production is moving east. In May 2013 it was announced that the American firm Smithfield, one of the largest farmers in the world, was being sold to Shuanghui, China’s biggest meat packer. The $4.7bn deal will, if US regulators okay it, be the greatest sale ever of an American business to China. Together the two firms will slaughter more than 30 million animals a year. The deal means that, for the first time, the majority of global meat production is out of the control of the old rich nations. East Asia has been producing more chickens than any other region of the world for at least 10 years, and the global trade is dominated by a Thai company.

Beef is near-monopolized by another company in the South – Brazil’s JBS – and that country is now the world’s leading exporter of beef and chicken. In aquaculture, which now produces 40 percent of the world’s fish protein, 60 percent of the production is from China and most of the rest from South East Asia. Big grain trading houses are gearing up to serve China and India. Meat exporters such as New Zealand expect China soon to become the main destination of their lamb and beef, with whom it has just agreed a bilateral trade deal. Will there be any lamb left for Britain, which for a century was the first, and often the only, buyer of meat from Down Under?

In June 2013, when the G8 nations held a mini-summit on nutrition and food security in London, host David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, brought in heads of some of the world’s biggest food companies to discuss future strategy. But these were old-world companies – the meeting was held in the headquarters of Unilever, and nowhere on the guest list were JBS or Shuanghui.

Nor was any government representative of China, though Brazil’s deputy Prime Minister was there. A deal for more aid money to nourish the world’s poorest children was agreed, but both hunger campaigners and food security analysts agreed there was nothing strategic about that announcement, however headline grabbing.

The deals that truly address the world’s future hunger crises must consider the vast areas of Russia that could become grain producing land, along with the woeful productivity of African farmers, who yield a 10th per farmed hectare that Americans do. They will be about restarting the multilateral World Trade Organization talks, before food supply is completely tied up in a host of bilateral deals between the rich nations and the farming ones.

Twenty-first century food is going to be a different thing – I wonder if my friends and I will have the means, or the right, to casually eat produce from across the continents for much longer. I don’t think we will spend just 10 percent of our incomes on our food. And I’m sure we will eat less meat.

The way the planet is fed in the future and the shape of hunger will be decided in the Global South and East, in places which do not enjoy the resources the old rich nations had, and which do not necessarily share European and American ideas of democracy and justice. Let us hope they do a better job of sharing the food out fairly than their predecessors did.

Beans means... traffic jams

In March 2013, the world’s biggest ever traffic jam appeared off the coast of Brazil when 212 freight ships – some a third of a kilometer long – were waiting to load soy beans and soy meal. The country had experienced its greatest harvest on record and, on land, the line of lorries coming from the Amazonian Mato Grosso to deliver soy to the port of Santos stretched back 15 miles. When the boats finally loaded – and the delay caused hiccups in the world soy price – most were heading to the other side of the world. Their destination was China, where they would deliver their protein-rich cargo to feed animals and fish.

The traffic jam off the Brazil coast marked the biggest single transfer of grains to livestock in the history of the planet: by June, 56 million metric tons had been shipped. China’s soy imports in 2012 were 63 million metric tons, more than half of all world soy trade. This was on top of a record Chinese harvest the previous year. But it won’t be enough for long. The US Department of Agriculture forecasts that, by 2022, China will import more soy than America or Brazil, the world’s largest producers, currently grow at 102m metric tons.

The Chinese government is also doing huge deals with other land-rich countries to secure its long-term supply of other grains, including an agreement with Ukraine to supply 3 million metric tons of maize per annum.


Alex Renton is a prize-winning journalist whose work has been honored by the Guild of Food Writers, Amnesty International and the British Press Awards, among others. His new book on food security, Planet Carnivore, has recently been published.