Food prices are going up. There is a serious shortage of food all over the world. Even in America there is talk of ‘rationing‘. Who is to blame?
Fingers are pointed to ethanol, a petrol substitute. It is said that American farmers are diverting corn to making ethanol and hence the rise in world food prices. There is also a serious debate whether it is wise to use land for production of ethanol. Voices have been raised to say that land should be reserved for
food grains and not for ethanol. Well said. But who exactly is consuming the
food grains? Over 70% of the food grains produced in America are consumed by cows and pigs for
producing meat. Unfortunately, animals are very inefficient converters
of food grains to meat. A cow takes in 16 kg of food grains to develop one kg of beef.
Obviously, grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. If humans were to directly consume grains rather than cycle them through animals to eat their meat, there would be enough food to feed the world and there would be no ‘food shortage’.
An average American eats 125 kg of meat every year and all Americans put together consume, hold your breath, 35,000,000 tonnes of meat every year. Chinese situation is even more alarming. An average Chinese (whose diet used to consist of plenty of vegetables) now consumes 70 kg of meat every year.
Mostly pork but increasingly beef too. All Chinese put together eat 100,000,000 tonnes of meat every year. World meat consumption has surged five-fold in the past 50 years, forcing diversion of
foodgrains to feed the animals. Even in countries like Thailand the proportion of foodgrains diverted to animals has jumped from 1% to 30%. Since demand for foodgrains is racing ahead of supply the price of foodgrains is rising.
For countries like China or the US, meat is food. Foodgrain is not food. They don’t care if foodgrain prices rise. As long as meat prices are under control they are not bothered. China even maintains
a ‘strategic reserve’ of hundreds of thousands of live pigs whom they release in the market to keep pork prices under check.
Why do they feed their animals with grains? Why don’t they just let them graze in the rangelands and consume grass? Well, the number of animals raised for meat production is 50,000 million, eight times the human population.
There isn’t enough rangeland to let so many animals roam around and graze. Secondly, animals would grow faster if fed with foodgrains and other nutrients rather than grass. Naturally, meat factories would like to feed the animals (or let us say overfeed them) with foodgrains.
Meat is an inefficient energy provider. Would you believe that a beef-eater needs more energy walking one kilometre than a car travelling one kilometre? An example would prove this point. The beef eater would spend 70 kcalories in walking one kilometre. Let us say he gets this energy back by eating a piece of beef containing 70 kcalories. The beef-cow would have eaten foodgrains containing 1,120 kcalories to produce this piece of beef.
The meat supply chain would necessitate further 1,120 calories in the meat processing factory, chilled storage during transportation, warehousing, retailing and at beef-eater’s domestic refrigerator totalling 2,240 kcalories. What quantity of petrol would contain 2,240 kcalories? 70 mls of petrol! And a car would go more than one kilometre in that 70 ml petrol!