Meat consumption is a good way to think about global poverty
The Economist is not without its critics, but it does provide a lot of interesting information. This table, published by EconomistDailyChart, shows meat consumption by country. This data set is full of strange characteristics, but it is accurate enough for me.
I have argued before that if we choose the right options, we can feed the entire world. Our current food system produces far more per person than what is required for adequate nutrition. This can continue in the future if we make the right choices. Distribution is the key issue, not production.
The meat consumption figures lead me to an even more surprising conclusion. With current technology, and without diverting any additional grain for food, we could produce enough to feed everyone at a level comparable to the average Dutch person. I chose the Dutch as they are the tallest people on the planet, which suggests a good diet.
Let’s start with the numbers from the table. The current average world meat consumption per person is 37 kilograms. This includes 9.5 kilograms of beef, 15 kilograms of pork, and 12.50 kilograms of chicken. The Netherlands’ average meat consumption is 70 kilograms.
For every kg of grain-fed beef, it takes about 8 kilograms, while only 2 kilograms are needed for chicken. The trade-off is similar when cattle pasture on land that could be used to grow grain. The 5 kilograms that would be required to replace beef with chicken could instead be 20 kilograms.
The ethanol industry is the second largest user of grain, aside from human consumption. It consumes around 140 million tonnes per year. If fed to chickens, this would yield about 70 million tonnes, or 10 kilograms of grain per person each year.
This would mean an average of 62 kg per person per year. It’s not far from the Dutch standard. To close the remaining gap, I will turn to the usual suspects – reducing inefficiency and waste.
It is almost certain that the reduction in methane emissions from cattle will outweigh any negative impact of reduced ethanol production. The numbers on these two effects are so different that I won’t attempt to calculate them for the moment.
Is this all feasible? Even the US Congress has discredited this policy of using food grains for biofuels. It is a good idea to switch from beef and pork to chicken. This would accelerate the shift if carbon prices were implemented in agriculture. The world’s meat production is expected to increase over the next several decades, far ahead of the population growth.
The distribution problem remains. Some rich countries like the US, Australia, and New Zealand consume more meat than the Netherlands. The poorest billion people on the planet can’t even afford to buy enough grain. This is why increasing the average meat production won’t solve the issue until this situation changes. Even if everyone had enough meat, there would still be substantial differences. According to the data, Japan’s meat consumption is low by developed-country standards. This reflects national policies and preferences, not poverty.
The current world order does not have a solution to this problem other than to wait until the poor become richer. This is what has happened in South-East Asia, and it’s now happening in China and India in large numbers.
I do this exercise to think about the possibility of a world that is better, even though it may seem romantic today. A pre-requisite is that the world can feed itself and do so in a way that would satisfy a reasonable person. It was not met until recently – the food production of the entire world in normal times and famines years has been inadequate. As I have argued, this is now possible.