The British government wants to “eradicate undernutrition globally”. It has a department for it. This can not be good. There is also a committee of MPs who have released a report.
There is an argument in the report that since the population is expected, by Benny Dembitzer as far as I can tell, to increase to 9.3 billion people by 2050, and since consumption of meat is increasing, that there is going to be a general food shortage. Meat is singled out for being an inefficient use of resources. From the report:
Simply urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable. Moreover, nor is it necessary: meat production based on pasture-fed systems (e.g. pasture-fed cattle), as opposed to the mass production of grain-fed livestock, is markedly less problematic.(69) The Food Ethics Council therefore suggests a ‘less but better’ approach, with meat promoted as a occasional product rather than an everyday staple.(70)
Note that the Food Ethics Council is funded mostly by the Joseph Rowntree and Esmee Fairbairn charitable trusts. Even private organisations can be wrong.
So why is pasture livestock “less problematic” than grain-fed? Note 69 points to question 62, part of a series of testimonials which seem to make up most of the evidence used to make the report. I’ll highlight the most fun bits.
Q62 Fiona O’Donnell [committee member]: Finally, as carnivores, can we keep consuming meat in the way that we are? It is probably a rhetorical question.
Tim Lang [Professor of Food Policy, City University, London]: Is the “we” here? Do you mean us?
Fiona O’Donnell: Yes.
Tim Lang: The rich world, no. Let me be very hard, and I will speak now as a public health man. The case or reducing meat consumption in the West from our astronomic levels is overwhelming; it is a public health gain if you reduce it. The report that I led and that Oxford University and others fed into, on food security and sustainability and on sustainable diets, showed that there is a win-win for the environment and for public health if you reduce our meat consumption. It is not meat qua meat; it is processed meat. The evidence there is getting stronger and stronger.
Camilla Toulmin [Director, International Institute for Environment and Development]: It is also intensive livestock production.
Tim Lang: Exactly. You will get agreement from us. In our world, the three of us and the previous panel, we are worried about this assumption that 50% of grain or 40% of grain to the world must be diverted down the throats of animals to then give us meat. There are cases when that can be useful, depending on the climate. To factor in a meat engine, which is like a juggernaut driving our definition of what a good food system is, is crazy. It is a crazy use of resources, it is crazy economics and it is crazy public health.
Andrew Dorward [Professor of Development Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies]: Can I just add two things to that? Firstly, I would broaden it to livestock production. For example, butter is not very good for us either and eating too much cheese makes for the same sorts of problems. In terms of livestock production, it is basically the consumption of grains in intensive systems that is bad. Where you have more extensive systems, where you have pastoral systems and where you have more extensive upland systems in the UK, it is a different argument. For the intensive grain systems, the health and the environment, the food security and the water demand arguments are really overwhelming.
It is mostly incoherent ranting. Are they arguing for less intensive farming of animals to solve the problem of too much meat consumption, or something else? I’ll see how far I can get by assuming that this is about using resources in the most efficient way.
It seems to me that if people are hungry they will start to bid up the price of grain and stop buying meat anyway and that the problem will solve itself. I am not sure why pasture livestock is preferable. I suspect it is even less efficient than grain livestock, assuming all land is equal. It may be that grain for humans is always more efficient than grain for animals, however since there is land that is not suitable for grain that might as well, in that case, be used for livestock. There is also a hint here that grain production needs more water. But all this is a non-problem in a free market. In a free market the land is always used in the most efficient way and whatever shortages of grain or water come about will move the prices and hence the demand automatically.
This seems to be a big problem with the concept of “sustainability”. If you think that current levels of meat production are unsustainable, then if you are right they will not be sustained. If you are right, it doesn’t matter what anyone does. Coming up with innovative policies to reduce the consumption of meat seems to be a bit pointless unless what you really want is to reduce the consumption of meat even if you are wrong about its sustainability, or you are concerned about being blamed by the voters for its un-sustainability. I rather think that it is sustainable and we will end up eating less meat anyway to please these sustainability “experts”.
If some fundamental resource shortage does increase the price of food, an interesting question is at what point does food become so expensive that it takes more than one person’s labour to produce enough food for one person? I expect with 9 billion people (some of them rather more clever than the assembled committee members and witnesses at making food production more efficient) we are still a way off mass malnutrition caused by resource shortages. At some point hydroponics and 3D farming become cost effective.
Still, the rest of the conversation is a fascinating insight into the minds of the elite:
Q63 Fiona O’Donnell: Do you think the market price will choke off demand for meat? There is only so much horse meat you can put into a burger.
Tim Lang: You are back to a mass psychological problem. Meat has, historically, been associated with progress and feast days. The problem is that feast days are every day. Wearing different hats, let us just move to horse-burger land. Look at what is exposed there. You have got a culture that is now centred around plentiful meat and meat as the centre of the plate. These are deeply rooted—in different ways in different countries—cultural goals.
Camilla Toulmin: You are right that meat is too cheap. Meat production does not, in fact, cover the full costs of production. Until it does that, we are going to see too much of it around.
Q64 Fiona O’Donnell: We would almost be heading towards a vegan diet then for a lot of people, especially poorer people, in order to be healthier. Are we doing enough work to look at how we then should have a nutritious balance and how we produce it?
Tim Lang: The short answer is: no. I referred very early on to this issue of sustainable diets. There is a bubbling debate. I could spend my whole week, like Camilla, in the air going to meetings—they are cropping up everywhere. Last week I was in a one-day meeting, though I was only there for half a day, where experts from all over the country were brought in. I will quote, without naming, a leading nutritionist, who said, “Look, veganism can deliver a sustainable diet and can deliver a healthier diet, but the issue is culture and choice.” Without a shadow of a doubt, the ubiquity and cheapness of meat and meat products, as a goal for progress for Western agriculture, let alone developing world agriculture, is one we have to seriously question now for reasons of climate change, emissions, ecosystems and local reasons. Many of us in this debate referred to the Steinfeld et al./FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report. This month, the new version of that report is going to come out, so I strongly recommend the committee has a look at that. I am not allowed to say what is in it.
Do these people listen to themselves? Meat is cheap and ubiquitous therefore we need to eat less of it. Climate change!
Andrew Dorward: This is something we all personally need to take very seriously, because it starts with us, not with telling policymakers what to do.
Fiona O’Donnell: I will take that away, if nothing else, from today.
Camilla Toulmin: In 20 years’ time we will look back at it in the same way as we now look back at smoking as it was 20 years ago.
Do not underestimate the power of these people. They may seem like idiots and professors talking nonsense among themselves but look what they have done with smoking. In 1999 I had to change seats on an aeroplane because there was too much smoke. Now people are cast out of society for lighting up at the far end of the empty railway platform. And it started like this.
Lots of conversations like that, then the report, now the news articles. Say the headlines: “Families should only eat meat as an occasional treat because the surge in global demand is unsustainable, according to a committee of MPs.” They are making the idea seem normal.
The committee also urged the Government to redouble its efforts to slash the amount of discarded produce – estimated to be around 30% globally… The committee wants ministers to set producers and retailers targets for food waste reduction, with sanctions imposed when they are not met.
The thing about food waste is that there is no such thing. There is a rational economic decision to choose excess food production to optimise for something else instead. In my house I sometimes buy or cook more food than I need because the computing resources needed to calculate exactly the correct amount are more expensive than the food that is thrown away. Everyone else is making similar choices. If the government invents innovative new policies to reduce “waste” X they necessarily make Y more expensive and thereby allocate resources less efficiently than before.
If existing policies are found to cause market distortions that cause food to be thrown away that would not be absent the policy, then these should of course be abandoned. But this should be applied generally to all policies that distort markets.
And it called on the UK to look at whether nations should stockpile food to protect themselves from price spikes.
Don’t we have market solutions to this already? Speculators?
They also warned that some biofuels are driving up prices and making them more volatile and, in some cases, could be even more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels.
Good thinking. Don’t stop there. Let me help you along. What do biofuel targets have in common with food waste targets and meat production targets?
The above is a lesson in how the ideas of certain classes of people – academics; politicians; journalists; social scientists – become law. These are the early stages, but something is afoot.