24 May 2018
Professor Denis Murphy is taking part in the opening event for this year’s Hay Festival, discussing the sustainability of food production. Here, he looks at how low-meat or completely vegetarian diets could actually help to secure worldwide political stability.
WOULD you consider switching to a low-meat diet to alleviate famine in the rest of the world? And could you cut back on the amount of food you throw away, so your consumption falls?
That could be what millions of people in developing countries need to do as the Earth’s population increases dramatically over the next three decades, and the inhabitants face up to the challenge of ensuring everyone has enough to eat.
By 2050, the world’s population is expected have grown to 9.6 billion people. That’s an extra 2.4 billion mouths to feed on top of the ones who are already here.
This growth in population is in itself astounding. Even more so when you consider that the planet’s population was 2.4 billion just under 80 years ago, a year after World War II started.
Ensuring that all of these people are able to live a fulfilling and happy life is a massive ask. Ensuring they have food security – essentially, enough to eat - will be a major challenge for the population to overcome.
But what exactly is food security?
On a macro level, it means that a nation or region will have reliable access to sufficient food for its population. This doesn’t necessarily mean complete self-sufficiency. Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food production for several centuries, but as a relatively rich nation we are able to pay for imported food from other countries.
Many developing countries also need to import food, but they are much less wealthy and powerful than Britain, which makes them vulnerable to any interruptions in food supply, especially if a shortage in supply leads to price rises.
On a micro level, food security means that smaller groups – for example individuals or families - are able to produce enough food to feed themselves, or earn enough to buy it from others.
However, across the globe the proportion of food that people need to purchase varies widely.
In Britain, an average family spends only about 11% of their income on food, whereas families in developing countries spend well over 70% of their income on feeding themselves. In simple terms, this means that a major cause of food insecurity is poverty.
Eradicating poverty in developing countries would obviously help to increase their food security. But it is here where the problems of population growth will exacerbate the situation.
The massive rise by 2050 will overwhelmingly be in developing countries. As the numbers grow in these states – such as in sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia – this is where poverty will increase, and food security will drop. The constant threat of crop failure will only make this problem worse.
A further challenge for those looking to increase food security is the demand for meat and other high-impact foods in developing countries, such as in China, South East Asia, and Latin America.
This development has meant demand for land to be used to produce food grain to feed animals has increased over the past two decades, with the rest of the world catching up to richer countries in their appetite for this different diet.
So, how do we go about ensuring that the world has enough to eat?
Over the past 70 years or so the use of intensive farming has meant that we now produce 30% more food per capita. However, producing a meat-intensive diet uses up a lot more resources land than just producing food crops, and a vegetarian uses on average less than 1,600 litres of water per day than someone on a carnivorous diet.
So should the world consider cutting back on its meat diet, or even going fully vegetarian?
If the majority in Britain decided to take the lead and switch to a low-meat diet, the benefits across the globe would be massive. Not only would it mean that fewer resources would be wasted, and thrown away, but a balanced low-meat diet is healthier in terms risks such as heart disease. Such diets are also less likely to lead to overeating and weight gain, which means that the impact of the obesity epidemic that we currently face would be substantially reduced.
So, in the long run, low- or no-meat diets would be in our own best interests, both health-wise and for the future of our fellow humans in poorer countries, where mass famine could threaten global security, and in turn lead to mass migration, with all the associated global political impacts.
It may seem like a doomsday scenario – but food is one of the key demands that every living thing requires. If we do not ensure it is available, then the consequences could be severe.
Professor DenisMurphy is Professor of Biotechnology at the University of South Wales.
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