Food Under Fire

Experts predict that, over the long term, food security can't be achieved without energy security. Add in mechanization, storage, and transport and the energy impact of a typical meal in industrialized nations is many times the amount of energy the meal's consumer derives. Recently, researchers have been taking a close look at just how much energy it takes to produce even seemingly similar foods. The conclusion: Food choices can have a significant impact on energy use in agriculture, and by extension, on greenhouse gas emissions as well. Beef lovers beware! As the world diverts more of its grain harvests into meat production, some scientists are taking a closer look at more environmentally friendly sources of protein, including insects.

Attacks on meat eating are nothing new. In 2003, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health started “Meatless Mondays,” an initiative to reduce U.S. meat consumption by 15%. More recently, a number of pop celebrities, including Paul McCartney and Sheryl Crow, started a campaign for “Meet Free Mondays.” Indian economist and IPCC head R. Pachauri , who is also a vegetarian, encouraged all people to “give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there.”

As we reported in The Resilient Earth, others have pursued this story for different purposes. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. ABC News picked up the story in an article titled “Meat-Eaters Aiding Global Warming? New Research Suggests What You Eat as Important as What You Drive.” In it they reported that you should become a vegetarian if you want to help lower greenhouse gas emissions. They quoted researchers who liken eating red meat to driving an SUV. This position would certainly be supported by PETA, the group running the web site.

Now, according to a news article in Science, if people in the developed world ate less meat, it would free up a lot of grain that could feed billions of hungry people. A lot of good farmland could be converted from grazing to crop production as well. As article author Erik Stokstad put it in “Could Less Meat Mean More Food?”:

The logic—articulated by groups that include the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom and the United Nations Environment Programme—goes like this. From chicken cordon bleu to bacon double cheeseburgers, people in the developed world eat a huge amount of animal protein. And consumption of meat, eggs, and milk is already growing globally as people in poorer nations get richer and shift their diets. That's a problem because animals are eating a growing share of the world's grain harvests—and already directly or indirectly utilize up to 80% of the world's agricultural land. Yet they supply just 15% of all calories. So, the argument goes, if we just ate less meat, we could free up a lot of plants to feed billions of hungry people and gain a lot of good farmland.

Scholars on all sides of the issue agree on one thing: Just as the rich use more energy than the poor, they also eat more meat. The United States, for instance, accounts for about 15% of global meat consumption but has just 4.5% of the world's population. In the developing world, daily meat consumption averages around 80 grams. Americans consume about 330 grams of meat a day on average—the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers. This is despite a recommendation from the US Department of Agriculture that people consume just 142 to 184 grams of meat and beans daily.

All meals are not created equal in terms of production energy. As a start, researchers have been taking a close look at just how much energy it takes to produce even seemingly similar foods. Consider the production energy costs for the two meals shown below. The meal consisting of beef, tomatoes and wine (left) requires more than three time the energy to produce as does the one featuring chicken, carrots and tap water (right). Which one would you prefer?

Beef is twice as energy intensive as chicken.

In the face of the world's burgeoning population do we need to ban burgers? How can we meet the growing demand for meat? Some scientists think we need to look at much smaller, multi-legged livestock. A cow needs to eat roughly 8 grams of food to gain a gram in weight, insects need less than two. “If you are going to feed 9 billion people, we cannot ignore the efficiency of insects as protein producers,” says Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

As reported in another Science article by Gretchen Vogel, one possible replacement for cattle are caterpillars from the south of Africa. “Nutritionally, it is excellent food,” says Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “It's the same or even better than conventional meat, fish, or poultry.” According to van Huis, Just 100 grams of caterpillars can provide all of an adult's recommended daily protein, along with iron, B vitamins, and other essential nutrients. Known as the mopane worm, these caterpillars of the emperor moth may need some re-branding before the achieve wide market acceptance as a beef substitute.

Science reporter Vogel didn't just write about eating insects, she tried them herself. She and her family tried grasshoppers, boiled first to kill any possible nematodes and then sautéed with garlic, onions, and lime juice. The final result was described as “grassy and, truth be told, a bit mushy. Not bad, but not necessarily worth the effort.”

A better choice turned out to be Mexican chapulines served at Oyamel, a Washington DC restaurant. Chapulines are grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium. They are collected only at certain times of year—from their hatching in early May through the late summer/early autumn. Imported from Mexico, these insects are dried in the sun, then salted, and sautéed in tequila. The effect was crunchy, savory, and delicious. “We ordered seconds,” Vogel reported (they had me at “tequila”).

Although chapulines are available throughout Mexico, they are especially popular in the state and city of Oaxacain. They can also be found in the areas surrounding Mexico City, such as Tepotztlan, Cuernavaca, and Puebla. As with other types of grasshopper, chapulines must be thoroughly cleaned and washed, then cooked before human consumption. This is to avoid possible infection from nematodes that can infest human hosts.

Around the world entomophagy enthusiasts think that eating insects could catch on, even among Europeans and North Americans. In the Netherlands, a company called Bugs Organic Food markets mealworms and grasshoppers through two dozen outlets. The effort has reported some success: the Dutch minister of agriculture was seen holding a grasshopper at a press conference. She did not eat the grasshopper, so the insect eaters may have a bit farther to go. If you are personally adventurous a number of insect recipes can be found here.

Chapulines (Roasted Cricket) in a Mexican market. Photo Meutia Chaerani/Indradi Soemardjan.

Some food-security researchers remain skeptical, pointing to the complexities of global markets and human food traditions. These could produce some counter-intuitive and possibly counterproductive results. Calculating the full impact of meat consumption on global food security requires sophisticated models that can track how changes in consumption ripple out across farming systems, global supply chains, and food markets.

In 1998 Mark Rosegrant and colleagues at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRPI) used a model called IMPACT to study what might happen if rich nations cut their demand for meat to half of what it was in 1993. The simulation, published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, found that as demand for meat fell, prices declined and meat became more affordable worldwide. As a result, poorer consumers in the developing world could buy more and projected 2020 meat consumption actually increased by 13%. Regardless of what the vegetarian movement says, that's a good thing, because increasing animal-protein consumption among the very poor can provide substantial nutritional benefits, particularly for children. On the other hand, when the rich halved their meat habit, the poor didn't necessarily get significantly more grain.

According to the model, human cereal consumption in developing nations rose by just 1.5%. That's enough grain to ease hunger for 3.6 million malnourished children—but nowhere near the level of gain increase many expect from reducing meat consumption. Even worse, the simulation results indicate that eating less meat could increase food insecurity. When consumers in developed countries replaced meat with pasta and bread, world wheat prices actually rose, increasing malnutrition slightly in developing countries.

Others have pointed out that eating some meat is good for the planet because some habitats benefited from grazing. Also, vegetarian diets that included lots of milk, butter and cheese would probably not noticeably reduce emissions because dairy cow flatulence is a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas (see “Cow Farts & Kangaroos”). “It's not this panacea that people have put forward,” concludes Rosegrant. Quoting from TRE Chapter 15, Prophets of Doom:

In the US, there have been claims that the large number of domestic cattle, estimated by the Department of Agriculture at 100,000,000 head, are a major contributor to methane emissions. While this may be so, prior to the arrival of men with fire arms, as many as 80,000,000 bison roamed the American prairie. Since the DOA considers cattle and bison as equal in terms of emissions, there has not been an appreciable increase in such emissions in North America since prehistoric times. Furthermore, unless those cattle are eating coal or drinking oil, their emissions are as carbon neutral as biodiesel and ethanol. Vegetarians and animal rights activists are simply seizing on global warming to promote their own beliefs. As one blogger put it, “Vegetarian is the New Prius.”

So, can cutting down on meat save the planet from global warming and ease world hunger? Are there bug burgers or cricket casserole in our future? Here in the US it is highly doubtful that even the government-knows-best Obama administration will try to force all Americans to become vegetarians, even gradually. As I said in my earlier post, “When Humans Almost Went Extinct,” the two things that made us human were the use of fire and eating meat. Nowadays the climate change alarmists say we must curtail using the first, and activist vegetarians demand we stop eating the second. Right. Who knows, eating insects may eventually catch on—as with climate change, only time will tell.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

Check your burger, it could be cow-cricket!


The argument put forward by the veggies every time is that the land which is presently grazed could be converted to cropland is, for the most part, wrong. Livestock are generally grazed on marginal land which is not suitable for intensive crop production. The resulting erosion and soil degradation caused by conversion of usage would be epic causing production on these lands to last only a few years before the soil disappeared into the air or rivers. Things are not so simple once you leave your data collection terminal and step out into the real world.

Now it's CowGate: UN admits flawed report on meat and climate

It is becoming difficult to keep pace with the speed at which the global warming scam is unravelling. The latest reversal of scientific “consensus” is on livestock and the meat trade as a major cause of global warming – one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to eco-vegetarian cranks. Now a scientific report delivered to the American Chemical Society says it is nonsense. The Washington Times has called it “Cowgate”.

A 2006 study, Livestock’s Long Shadow, claimed meat production was responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions – more than transport. Now the UN has admitted the report linking livestock to global warming exaggerated the impact of eating meat on climate change.

Articles in the UK Telegraph here and here.

Study rebuts UN livestock study

It seems those cows aren't so gassey after all. From the Capital Press agricultrual news:

Researchers at the University of California-Davis are set to rebut a 2006 United Nations study that asserted that livestock operations are responsible for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.

In a journal article due out Oct. 1, the research will demonstrate that American beef and dairy production accounts for a much lower percentage of the gases believed to cause global warming.

The study, titled "Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contribution to Climate Change," makes use of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that agriculture as a whole emits only 5.8 percent of the nation's greenhouse gases, said Frank Mitloehner, a livestock air quality specialist who worked on the project.

Full article at

PETA =People Eating Tasty Animals

Well if I can't be a meat eating environmentalist I'll just be a meat eater. Not a hard choice is it.

Eating meat is murder

Eating meat is murder,
Yummy, yummy, murder.

Rhe revenge of the hippies

I often look at old films and TV shows from bygone eras. Take a look at media from 69' - about 73', all the hippies living in their communes were working on solar power and fungii as a food source or some other crap, which was going to save the world from its very imminent demise.

It's funny to see that their alternate energy sources and food sources are about at the same level of progress (still not viable) 40 years later despite how much 'better' they are than traditional food and energy.

energy inputs for crops

The chart indicates energy inputs for rice and potatoes greater than their food value. This is impossible, early agriculture would not have developed under such conditions.

Greens have been demonizing modern agriculture for decades, and have created tons of junk science. The inputs for corn are well studied, the two major ones are fixed nitrogen and diesel for farm machines. Both are about 10% of food value, so all inputs are probably 30%. Yet I see studies that include seeds as significant input, when they are about 0.2%.

Crop energy requirements

Modern farming techniques are much more energy intensive than primitive agriculture. The numbers presented include fertilizer, mechanized cultivation & harvesting, transportation and storage costs. I do not certify their accuracy but they are not "impossible" by any means.

Meat or not?

But what about all the millions of cows wandering around india - I understand that cattle grazing on English farmland are a lot less flatulent than the Indian cows. Perhaps someone has done some research on this?

Not planning to eat bugs

Luckily, I'm already a vegetarian which means not only am I morally superior to meat eaters and saving the planet, but I don't have to eat bugs.

The CAPTCHA letters and numbers are barely readable, so it may be a way to prevent both spam and humans not willing to keep trying. Took me six tries.

Poor eyesight

Your poor eyesight is probably due to lack of meat consumption.