Surviving the Anthropocene

A new, super-dense report on the future of food provides more detail than you ever wanted to know. But its conclusion is simple: Less meat, more veggies. ( The Packer )

Unsure what that term means? Never fear: a brand new, super-dense report on the future of food provides more detail than you ever wanted to know. But its conclusion is simple: Less meat, more veggies.

Not that we need another white paper for yet another group of “Experts-With-an-Agenda,” but here it is.

This group consists of about three dozen scientists who are members of something called the “EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems” (no offense to the many dedicated and highly competent scientists at work worldwide, but as a profession, they kinda suck at coming up with catchy acronyms for their various cobbled-together commissions).

This particular commission just released a report titled, “Our Food in the Anthropocene: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems,” and you don’t need me to make a prediction that one of the planks of the commission’s program would be decimating animal agriculture globally.

In the name of sustainability, of course.

And that’s exactly the conclusion reached by these scientists: the world (somehow) must enact “substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of … red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%.”

Now, nobody disputes that agricultural production must become more productive, more efficient and more diversified in order to retain even the promise of sustainability. As hunting and fishing have declined dramatically as sources of sustenance, there is no other option to feeding the world, other than growing crops and raising livestock.

But is it plausible, much less sustainable, to plan to double the production of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes? None of those crops are carbon neutral, nor is a doubling of harvests of those foods attainable simply by slashing the global output of animal foods. Since a significant percentage of the world’s beef, poultry and dairy are sourced from livestock raised on marginal land unsuited for production of all that produce and tree nuts, it doesn’t automatically follow that halving red meat production will support the doubling of pretty much every other sources of edible protein.

Simple answer to complex problems

The report goes on to claim that unless the above restructuring of global agriculture proceeds post- haste, “Today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.”

That would be a grim future indeed, and to stave off such a disaster, the scientists contributing to this report are demanding development of a “globally agreed-upon scientific targets for healthy diets,” along with creating a blueprint for “sustainable food production.”

The bulk of the report is a detailed analysis of all the complication, unknown variables, and socio-political barriers to that game plan, and if you love depth and detail on how our current global agricultural systems are seriously dysfunctional, you’ll be in heaven wading through the 32 pages of charts, graphs and data quantifying those deficits.

And that’s just the executive summary.

Clearly, there are monumental challenges on the horizon, if not already on our collective doorstep, in terms of ensuring worldwide food security and productivity, and the urgency of those challenges begs the questions of why are so many governments and private interests locked in a debate over how to advance agricultural sustainability? We’re great at identifying and analyzing the sources of the stressors on global food production, but why is so difficult to implement solutions?

I can answer those questions in a single word: people.

As in, too many of them … of “us.”

And it’s not just numbers alone that are putting enormous pressure on global food and energy systems. It’s density, as well.

For example: Take Pakistan, a fairly large country the same size as Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada combined. But those three states are home to a total of 10 million people; Pakistan’s population is 200 million.

Or how about Bangladesh? It’s almost exactly the same size as Iowa (56,000 square miles). Iowa’s population is 3.1 million; the population of Bangladesh is 168 million. Think there might some “issues” with food availability, energy production and environmental sustainability if there were 168 million people living within the borders of that state?

It would sure change the state’s prominence during the presidential primary season, of course, but it would also create a serious eco-crisis on many levels. Not because Iowa is some barren wasteland — it has some of the most productive farmland on Earth — but because feeding that many people on that amount of land would be near-impossible.

And that would hold true even if that state’s farmers switched from raising cattle and hogs to producing all the fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes we’re supposed to consume — and by the way, Iowa already produces close to 600 million bushels of legumes.

Going forward, ALL current systems in operation — food production and processing, manufacturing, energy production and transportation — need to become simultaneously more efficient and more productive. Agriculture is a big part of the transformation that must take place if the world is sustain and nourish as many as 10 billion people expected to be alive on the planet just by mid-century.

The good news is that there are literally dozens of areas where meaningful gains in manufacturing efficiency, energy utilization and environmental sustainability could be accomplished with modest investments of capital, albeit coupled with significant amounts of political will.

And after all those improvements have been implemented, then I agree: Let’s revisit how we can more efficiently feed the additional people three billion people expected to require regular meals in the next few decades — without wiping out animal agriculture.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.