Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Meat: the other culprit in world food price increases

Ronald Trostle at USDA's Economic Research Service has a fascinating report this week on the causes of global food price increases.

The scope of the price increase is dramatic.

One of the culprits, which has rightly been receiving a lot of attention, is the growing use of crops for biofuels instead of food.

Another important culprit, however, is the growth in meat consumption. Meat consumption is rising rapidly, especially in India and China. Just over half of the rate of growth in meat consumption is due to population growth. The rest of the growth is due to increases in the amount of meat each person consumes.

Meat consumption is an important resource use issue, because the conversion of animal feed into meat wastes the majority of the food calories in the original crops.

Ethanol subsidies have recently come under great scrutiny. But why aren't more people questioning the wisdom of the large semi-public U.S. boards for beef and pork, which use the federal government's powers of taxation to collect many hundreds of millions of dollars each year, to spend on promoting increased beef and pork consumption at home and abroad?

It is fine for consumers to have the freedom to choose meat. But why is it the U.S. government's business to try to get the world to eat more meat at this particular time? That seems as strange as massive subsidies for converting corn to ethanol.

More Reading
Follow the checkoff tag for more coverage of these programs. Also at USDA/ERS, Ephraim Leibtag recently reported on corn price increases. Kat at Eating Liberally last month covered Marion Nestle's moderate and reasonably skeptical perspective on the contribution biotechnology will make to solving the current food problems, which provides a contrast with Agriculture Secretary Schafer's recent discussion. On meat issues more broadly, see the recent Pew report (large .pdf), also described by Elanor Starmer at Ethicurean and by Rick Weiss in the Washington Post.

[Update May 14: A couple people have sent me links to the Indian response to recent discussion of meat consumption and food price increases. It's entirely correct. As richer countries moderate their meat consumption, which is a great idea for a long list of reasons, it should be possible for Indian and Chinese consumers to increase their own consumption to nutritionally reasonable levels, without increasing total per capita global meat consumption. If I'm careful not to blame India and China, I hope the rest of the commentary goes through just fine?!]


Aaron said...

Thanks for the perspective, Parke. That little graph of 'pounds of feed for 1 lb of meat' is itself worth a thousand (++) words. Do you have a sense of how much the corn/ethanol situation played into any reforms put forth in the Farm Bill debates?
- Aaron

Aaron said...

AH - thought just popped into my head.
With that same graph (lbs of feed per lb of meat), I wonder how it might look calorically. Meaning, if we think about how many calories from feed equate to how many calories from meat (disregarding, for the moment, the energy inputs required to produce feed grains or raise/tend animals), how much do you think that picture changes? Looking only at pounds of feed doesn't really account for a.) animal fat having more calories than vegetable carbs, and b.) non-caloric fibrous portions of the feed.
I imagine there are even more ways to nuance this discussion, but it's always an interesting one to consider in light of arguments for or against a more global reliance on plant-based diets.