Sunday, January 07, 2018

Feeding the debates

World food production continues to hit new highs. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) expects record global cereal production in 2017, thanks to “robust harvests” in Latin America. The year before was also a bumper year. In 1908 one hectare of arable land could support about 1.9 people, but agricultural improvements – especially the development of fertilisers – meant that the same area of land could feed 4.3 people in 2008. Today optimists hope that information technology will boost agricultural productivity.

Nonetheless, yields of rice in east Asia and wheat in northwest Europe have plateaued in recent years. There is also a growing threat of water shortages in crucial agricultural regions such as north-western India, where water in the Upper Ganges aquifer is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate, according to the journal Nature. It takes 1,000 years to generate 3cm of top soil naturally, yet at current degradation rates “all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years”, reckons the FAO. The number of flying insects had fallen by a staggering 76% in 27 years. This is worrying because 84% of our food crops require insect pollination. 

Furthermore, the expanding middle classes of countries such as China are increasingly opting for the sort of high meat diets that were once the preserve of the West. The UN expects global meat consumption to rise by 70% between 2010 and 2030, three times faster than the rate of population growth. With a rising world population seemingly inevitable, changes to unsustainable consumption patterns are a more realistic solution. Controversially, there is growing discussion in policy circles that meat could be next to join tobacco, carbon and sugar on the “sin tax” list. Some measures, such as France’s ban on supermarkets throwing away unsold food, which was introduced in early 2016, are likely to become more widespread. Indeed, in the UK, supermarket chain Tesco has promised to end edible food waste by March this year.

Meat production is not an efficient use of resources, taking up about one-third of world crop land and grain, but providing only one-sixth of worldwide calorie intake. It also produces 15% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. To produce a kilogram of grain you need 1,500 litres of water; for a kilogram of beef you need 15,000 litres. Taxing meat was once deemed politically impossible, but polls suggest attitudes are beginning to shift.  The Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return Initiative, an investor advisory group, reckons that the introduction of meat taxes is “inevitable” within the next ten years as governments look to fulfil their obligations under the Paris climate-change agreement.

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