If the current population predictions of the UN are correct, then by 2050 the current population on Earth will have increased by a third: from 7.6 to 9.8 billion people. Not only will these people need to be fed, but the world will need to be able to accommodate the growing middle class demand for protein, particularly from meat and fish. According to the Economist, the consumption of beef in Asia is expected to grow by 44 per cent in the next decade alone.
At the moment, there are 20 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cattle and 1 billion sheep alive on this planet. A quarter of the world’s land area is used to graze them. They consume 30 per cent of the world’s crops and require much more water than crops (for example a kilogram of beef requires ten times the water that a kilogram of maize or wheat takes to produce). According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) livestock are the source of 14.5 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases.
Are there ways that a growing population can wean itself off relying on meat for its protein? Sure, we could all become vegan. But I’m still not giving up steak. Another idea is that we should switch to getting our protein from insects. As the Economist notes in an understatement, this will require us to get over the “yuck” factor.
What about meat grown in a petri dish? Bill Gates and Richard Branson have backed artificial-meat startups that grow beef and poultry from animal cells. Scientists are also looking at genetically modifying animals to increase the muscle of cattle or to reduce the incidence of infections among farmed fish.
Another option is more efficiently use existing resources. In sub-Saharan Africa, the proliferation of mills that process grain into feed is helping, as is the increase in data-intensive farming which carefully monitors the use of water and fertiliser. At the other end of the process is to change animals’ diets. One example of this has been the reduction of fish meal used in aquaculture: in 1990, 90 per cent of salmon feed used in Norway was fish meal, but by 2013 the greater use of plant matter had reduced that percentage by two-thirds. Other options include reducing the grain fed to animals. At most only 20 per cent of the protein in grain fed to animals is converted to edible protein, the rest is wasted. There are other options being explored:
“Cargill, an agricultural giant, broke ground this year on the world’s largest gas-fermentation facility, in partnership with Calysta, a Californian firm that makes feed out of natural gas … After feeding bacteria called methanotrophs with methane, they can be turned into protein pellets for fish and livestock. Insects are also an option. Flies and maggots can be raised on manure and organic waste, instead of grains, and then fed to cattle, chicken and fish.”
But all of these innovative ideas should not prevent us from noting that world hunger has decreased while the population has vastly increased over the last few decades. As a proportion of the world’s population and absolutely, the number of malnourished is decreasing. We are adept at producing food, but we are not good at distributing it. Greed, political failure and war all disrupt the allocation of food supplies. Unfortunately, even if the innovations mentioned in the Economist’s article work, they will not change the underlying problems of the human condition.