Forego a hamburger, feed a person

I eat meat. More specifically, I eat feedlot beef from major supermarket chains and generally enjoy it. Nonetheless, the implications of a recent study have me questioning whether I will eat meat in the future.

In their paper, Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare, Cassidy et al. present the case that we could feed an additional 4 billion people by growing food for people rather than for livestock. We could do this because feeding crops to livestock is inherently an inefficient way to feed people. In the U.S. (worst case country in this paper), only 1/3 of the calories produced per acre (pre-waste) actually make it to people, mainly due to corn being grown on a large amount of land but being fed to livestock, where most of the calories are lost. The authors estimate that “the US agricultural system alone could feed 1 billion additional people by shifting crop calories to direct human consumption.”

Cattle Feedlot by NDSU Ag Communication via Flickr.

Cattle Feedlot by NDSU Ag Communication via Flickr.

4 billion people! 1 billion from U.S. agriculture alone. Those are numbers that matter. Many experts think we will have 9 billion people to feed by 2050 and many recent conferences, meetings, and efforts are focused on just how to do this. Biotechnology? Increased fertilizer and other inputs? Increased irrigation? Experts say that these will be required to make up the yield gap between current yields and the best-observed yields. However, despite the talk of sustainable intensification, at least some of these strategies, as currently practiced, have negative effects on the environment. And if implemented fully, they would only raise yields by 45-70%, not the 70-100% increase we need to feed all 9 billion people.

Given this sizable problem, and all the money and thinking going towards solving it, I was astonished (although not surprised, I had seen the argument before) at the implications of the Cassidy paper. If we could feed 9 billion with our current land and yields, we would not have to spend lots of time and money trying to continually increase yields AND do it sustainably. We would not have to fully adopt every new technology available.  We could focus on addressing current sustainability problems. This would be a much easier task, especially when facing other large problems such as climate change and adjusting our economies to a stable population.

Is it as simple as saying “I will not eat meat so that others can live?” This would work for us as individuals, but it would require drastic changes in our cropping, farm program, and food distribution systems. We have a huge investment in breeding, production technologies, infrastructure, farm equipment, processing and transport systems, all focused on corn. Not to mention a large number of farmers who know how to raise corn well.

Steaks by Robert Burns of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service via Flickr.

Steaks by Robert Burns of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service via Flickr.

There are also cultural (Beef. It’s what’s for dinner), economic (can those who need food pay for it?) and political (food distribution; corn and ethanol subsidies) challenges to this solution. Ideally, meat would become increasingly expensive, people would reduce its consumption on their own, and farmers would have time to transition to different cropping systems. All this would require leadership to enact policy changes.

Are the numbers in this paper reasonable? I looked over the major assumptions (you can too, the paper is available to anyone) and did not see any glaring problems. Given that these kinds of global studies are always just estimates, I find comfort in the number 4 billion. If, as experts predict, we only need to feed another 2 billion (current population estimate is 7.1 billion), then we have 2 billion in slack. This could potentially make up for resistance to change in Western countries, or for China and other developing economies going on a meat-eating spree for a while.

What this paper points out is that there is a clear solution to the problem of feeding 9 billion people. Given the alternatives, I think this should be a major part of our strategy in feeding the world’s future population. I eat meat, but I would give it up to feed other people. Would you?

Cassidy E.S., West P.C., Gerber J.S. & Foley J.A. (2013). Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare, Environmental Research Letters, 8 (3) 034015. DOI:

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Andrew McGuire is an Irrigated Cropping Systems Agronomist for Washington State University Extension. He works with farmers in the Columbia Basin of Central Washington in improving soils through cover crops and high residue farming systems.


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34 comments to Forego a hamburger, feed a person

  • Ok. I’m in.

    (please don’t make me give up the cheese and eggs though, I’m not ready to go there….)

  • mikeb

    I wouldn’t. I’m fortunate enough to be on a small piece of land that allows us to raise a beef critter or two, plus pigs in the barn. Ever smoke your own bacon, or corn your own beef? It’s fabulous.

    My hunch is that this ain’t gonna happen. People like meat too much. I can see the possibility of a crisis happening, though, wherein prices rise so much that people are forced to cut back on meat.

    • Keith Hayes

      “My hunch is that this ain’t gonna happen. People like meat too much. I can see the possibility of a crisis happening, though, wherein prices rise so much that people are forced to cut back on meat.”

      This is my hunch as well. Despite all the talk about environmentalism and conservation, I think most people end up voting with their wallets.

      I like beef and can’t imagine myself stop eating it. And farmers still get subsidies to not grow certain things and we still export surplus grain. I don’t see this getting to a critical breaking point in the foreseeable future.

  • Leah

    I also raise some of my own meat, and I am wondering how much consideration is being made to meeting protein needs of the world. Calories are nice but kwashiokor is not. Though most of us in the developed world have little problem meeting protein needs that is not necessarily the case elsewhere.

    Can meat be an efficient way to produce complete proteins for consumption with minimal input and damage to the environment? Also, we need to look at it from a perspective of HOW meat is raised. I raise meat on pasture, brush land and young wooded areas with very limited input from cultivated grains. My goats graze/browse on whatever is out there for them to eat; whatever grows well there naturally with whatever rain falls that year – they eat a variety of weeds, grasses and trees. This method does require responsible stewardship, for example, not allowing overgrazing or destruction of riparian areas. Also, meat can be raised partially on agricultural waste in some instances. They don’t have to compete so directly or as much for plant products suitable for human consumption.

    I can’t help but wonder if the real question is not whether using meat as a food source is efficient, but if it is efficient they way modern practices do it. Animals don’t have to be finished on a feed lot, or have lots of grain input. It isn’t necessary for the option to be feed corn to people or feed corn to feed livestock grain – corn – for example- can feed people and grass, browse, agricultural byproducts, roots and bugs can at least make a contribution to feeding animals more so than they do on modern farms. Livestock can help us manage land use for the most output, the least input, and to minimize the host of problems that can come with raising crops and animals both.

    • Andrew McGuire

      Leah, the paper reported that this shift would double protein availability, but we would have to make sure to eat the right combination of plant protein sources to get the complete protein we need, and which meat provides by itself.

      What the paper presented, and I addressed, was the shift from “all crops currently allocated to animal feed [they did not include hay or forage here] to human food.” Grass-fed or wild game meat were not a part of the calculations, and so those would still be available, although I expect, much more expensive.

  • I think more people should give the meatless burgers & chicken patties a shot. They’re a lot better than most people give them credit for in my opinion. I just stocked up on them since the local store had them on sale. They’re easier to make (just microwave as opposed to working with raw meat), probably better for you & the environment, and taste pretty good, although I put so much ketchup, spicy mustard, horseradish, and sriracha on mine that I doubt I’d notice any taste difference anyway. All in all, there’s a good argument to be made about them as a better choice.

    • I agree! Wegman’s store brand meatless products are delicious and inexpensive, so are Morningstar and Boca. The calorie counts and protein/fat/carb ratios are good and the taste is great. I do appreciate the food safety aspect, too. Not that meat is “unsafe” but one does need to be much more careful with it.

  • Ewan R

    The mindset “I can’t imagine myself not eating…” is simply that. A mindset.

    I went vegan approximately 3-4 months ago. Prior to this change I literally couldn’t imagine not eating meat. Not eating dairy. Couldn’t do it. My wife however, with far more willpower than I, took the plunge 2 months before I did. I gradually moved away from meat/dairy and well, frankly it wasn’t even remotely difficult. I was tricking myself. I had constructed a world in which life without meat, dairy and all that jazz was going to be some horribly hard slog. It was going to be awful. Terrible I tell you. There would, no doubt, be much wailing and gnashing of teeth (at least until malnutrition kicked in an said teeth dropped out).

    It is easy however. At least it is easy in a relatively metropolitan area with a moderately sized household income (This qualifier, I think, is important – many people can’t make the decisions I have, the options simply aren’t there for them, or are actually too hard (there are countless other qualifiers I haven’t mentioned). The difficulties are thus –

    Eating out. Meat and dairy are ubiquitous. Scarily so. Eating out becomes quite the chore. Although one can still eat out relatively well so long as one takes care and isn’t embarassed sending food back (I’ve only done this once, at Red Robin, once because they gave me the wrong burger (vegetarian rather than vegan) and then a second time because they toasted the buns with butter (yes, I want a vegan burger but sure, heap on the butter) and the burger was frozen in the middle (rushed prep cooks can even mess up a microwave).

    Dealing with people. How do you get your protein? What on earth could you possibly eat? How do you survive!! Oh I couldn’t live without *something it is entirely easy to live without*. But you eat fish right? But can’t you just cheat this once? Your wife isn’t watching now. etc etc.

    Really people? Protein is the first nutrient I max out on in any given day. I struggle more with calcium and vitamin D (I think it’s D, maybe it’s the B’s) but hey, there are these handy little pills one can buy, we do, after all, live in the industrialized first world (well, I assume most of the readership does, my apologies for overgeneralizing if not!). What do I eat? Probably a more varied diet than I did previously (they do amazing things with TVP and Soy these days y’know, and you can totally fake the hell out of a cheese sauce with a lil silken tofu, some nutritional yeast and a bit of kitchen magic.

    Getting more recipes – this was the major hurdle… you stop animal products cold turkey (or tofurkey) and what do you do? Well, you can go ahead and simply try to eat the way you used to, and wind up perpetuating the stereotype and reinforcing your belief that you can’t do it (because at the end of the day you did it wrong) – because this way madness lies – you won’t get enough protein (you just cut your major source, and if you don’t replace it… disaster), food, or variety. But hey, there’s the internet, there’s libraries (thankfully!) and so long as one ignores the vast amount of wooful nonsense that comes with your average vegan cookbook… there are fantastic recipes to be had.

    Finally… ice cream. Sadly this one I have to deal with. Ice cream socials at work become simply socials… or as one colleague joked – water socials (hey, free bottled water! It’s like water from the tap only more wasteful) (also one might have to be “That person” who announces their diet to all and sundry (not because I’m smug (I am, but not about veganism) – simply because it sucks to go to a free lunch to realize that there is literally nothing you can eat unless you’re willing to pull stuff apart (cultural sensitivity training apparently doesn’t cover dietary needs which aren’t expected))

    So yeah, difficulty, not really a good get out for many.

    • I don’t want to hijack this thread with a discussion of the intricacies of eating habits but I am curious about your rationale for sending the burgers back.

      IMHO vegetarianism (especially if one is vegan or mostly vegan at home) allows a more flexible diet that greatly reduces environmental impact but doesn’t have you frustrated at every restaurant or social gathering if there’s a little butter on the bun or if the only non-meaty option has cheese on it. It also reduces many of the protein and vitamin issues (cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are great protein sources). Vegan is lovely for those who are willing to do it, but it seems like the work outweighs any benefit. Plus, all of those speciality processed products have a footprint – I wonder what that footprint is compared to eggs or dairy.

      All that said – good for you for sticking with it :)

      • Ewan R

        I sent it back because I ordered something else. My wife and I are vegan, we ordered vegan burgers. They gave us vegetarian burgers which are not vegan.

        Had I ordered a cheeseburger and got a guacamole burger I would likewise have sent it back.

        “Vegan is lovely for those who are willing to do it, but it seems like the work outweighs any benefit.”

        Very little work really, a little frustration. But given that as stated my reasons are ethical and environmental the ethics trumps a minor inconvenience on my part.

        My OP here however was simply to illustrate how easy it is to go Vegan. If it’s that easy to go vegan then vegetarianism, or simply massively reducing meat intake, is trivial. (again, to me, this isn’t a one size fits all statement)

  • Andrew McGuire

    Ewan, I am not sure of your brand of veganism, but I think for this to be a real option, we need a different name for it. Vegan implies a certain view that eating meat is exploiting animals. The argument that I am making (and the paper) is only that we can feed a lot more people if we grow crops for people and not for livestock. Vegan does not fit this argument, maybe vegetarian, but this too, although accurate, has some negative connotations for those who would change their diet to feed other people.

    • Ewan R

      I hadn’t really considered it from that angle. To me vegan has always simply meant someone who doesn’t consume animal products – the reasoning is, to me, a distinct entity from the label (There are vegans who do it because they think it is healthier (I’m pretty sure it is, but only, in my opinion, by virtue of eliminating a lot of “bad” options from the diet), those who do it because they believe it is more ethical from an animal welfare perspective (I fully consider this part of my reasoning – I do not however think it is a black and white issue, it is simply one area in life in which I choose to be more, rather than less, ethical – there are may other areas in my life where I have taken the less ethical but more comfortable choice (like owning a big TV, or multiple video game systems (although these more fall in my next ethical reasoning area…)), those who do it becuase they believe it is more ethical from an environmental perspective (again, this is one of the reasons I do it) etc etc.

      I’ve heard it called a whole food plant strong diet before (although this particular brand of veganism also eschews oil and sugar as far as possible) – I guess perhaps a plant strong diet might cover it?

      I’m also not totally convinced that vegan or vegetarian don’t fit the arguement (veggies less, because they still eat animal products, and one must feed said animals) – both cut the demand for animal feed by cutting the demand for animals – both do it better than simply reducing ones intake of animal products (by anything less than 100% in the case of vegans) – my own take on Veganism is probably 40-50% the environmental/food production angle for starters, regardless of what people choose to assume.

      • Ideally, we would not have to call it anything. Meat in general, and specifically, meat produced from crops like corn and soybeans would become increasingly expensive and people would naturally reduce their consumption, back to pot roast on Sundays.

    • I agree that vegan has too many issues associated with it. I do like flexitarian (recently popularized by Mark Bittman but as far as I know he did not invent the word) which is simply someone who is mostly vegetarian but occasionally eats meat. A monthly steak, weekly chicken, whatever – even meat once a day is an improvement over meat 3+ times a day.

  • Jason

    A well-managed pasture on high quality cropland will yield just as many lbs/acre of meat as an equivalent corn harvest on same land would. And by putting the land in pasture the soil is building in quality with fewer external inputs. This is what we do, rotating crops in and out of pasture. We work with lamb, dairy and beef producers and get higher prices per lb for the meat because it is healthier.

    The advantage of corn is that it can be stored and transported and thus fed year-round. Pasture-based meat is a seasonal product, typically 6 months per year for fresh meat, but frozen product extends sales period.

    In addition to cutting way down on corn to cattle (and any other ruminant), the other big waste is corn ethanol. I believe as much corn now goes to ethanol as to cattle in the U.S. A tankful of ethanol represents as much corn production as an entire year of food for one person.

    Thanks for bring up this point. I am so tired of hearing the “feed 9 billion by 2050″ mantra. We could feed that many people today, easily, if distribution was different. It is all about ability to pay. We over produce in the US and have to come up with silly things to do with the excess. Meanwhile people without $ to exchange go hungry. That said, I am not interested in destroying US soils to feed people elsewhere. Regions and nations should be food secure on their own with trade in commodity food kept to a minimum and as a security measure in case of periodic crop disasters.

    • Jason, if the goal is to produce meat, than your solution is a good one. However, if the goal is to feed people, then growing a crop that people can consume directly instead of a pasture makes more sense. Production of meat on grasslands not suitable to cropping would still be a viable option for feeding people, but the total amount of meat consumed would still have to be drastically reduced to avoid overgrazing of these grasslands.

      If I am reading the table right, this paper says that crops for biofuels only account for 6% of calories in the U.S. compared to 67% of calories going to feed (corn and other feed crops), so feed is still much larger, but biofuel acreage has increased greatly in the last decade.

  • Andre

    The paper is quite interesting, but it should not be overinterpreted. It will unfortunately be used by the « anti » movement to promote at best a reorientation of the research and development programs, at worst a reorientation of the agricultural sector towards the recipes of the past.

    You may not be as sensitive to this as I am; as a Frenchman who has to witness the nebulous plans or, better, dreams of an agriculture minister who is an adept of a nebulous « agroecology » concept; and as a European who has to witness an irrational push in favor of organic agriculture. An agriculture whose output in France is some 3.2 metric tonnes per hectare of wheat, compared to over 7 tonnes for « conventional » (forget about oilseed rape or canola…).

    « Forego a hamburger, feed a person »?

    It’s much more complicated than that. Feeding a person is not just making available the required calories, proteins, micronutrients, etc. somewhere, but making sure that those elements get to destination – day in, day out, and year in, year out – and that that person has the means to get hold of them.

    « 4 billion people! 1 billion from U.S. agriculture alone »?

    These figures alone should sound as a warning. The gain would come essentially from the major agricultural producers and exporters. Hence a shift to « less meat » (« no meat » for the activists) would not solve the problem of malnutrition, which is to a great measure one of lack of means to access food.

    The study, as interesting as it might be, should not divert the international community from the essential need to increase agricultural production in terms of both yield and variety in countries in need, both to feed their population and to provide a revenue to their rural population so that may raise up from poverty to dignity.

    • Andre, perhaps sustainable intensification should be the strategy in other countries where potential yield gains are high, while here in the US, we could shift away from feed crops and maintain yields while focusing on sustainability.

      • Andre

        The strategy is no doubt a bit of each – improved agronomy, improved genetics, improved crop protection, reduction of pre- and post-harvest waste, shift in consumption paterns – everywhere.

        The equations are not simple, and certainly not as simple as the paper may suggest. A typical example could be – note the conditional, I am only guessing – India. Animal production (both meat and dairy) is extremely inefficient, and it might be worthwhile to « divert » from food to feed.

        By the way, it may well be that the USDA livestock conversion efficiencies in calories and protein (table 1). We can discuss the details of the paper. The end results will change, perhaps quite drastically, but the overall message (which is no surprise) remains the same.

        Similarly, a calorie or a kilo of proteins from an animal source is dietetically more than an calorie or a kilo of proteins from a plant.

  • I haven’t had a chance to read this paper yet, but isn’t there an overlying assumption here that all land and crops are equal and we can somehow equally replace “corn” and “soy” with acceptable consumables for humans? Pollan and others have made similar “farm something else” arguments as well, but you just aren’t going to be growing tomatoes and eggplants on 2000 dryland acres in Kansas. If we decide to stop growing in those areas, what happens to those people? Do we just let them go?

    • Bill, you are right – we wouldn’t replace all the corn and soybean acres with vegetables. I would guess that small grains (wheat, oats, barley, etc) and grain legumes would be the crops we would shift to – with maybe some food grade corn and soybeans too.

      • Jason

        My sense is that agriculture has to move away from annual crop dependency and shift towards a dominance of perennials at the landscape level. That would mean perhaps 80% of the land is in a pasture/hay/forage crop that only needs to be planted once every 3-7 years and annuals are on the other 20%. The input costs for this form of agriculture are much less, and as you’ve shown, there’s plenty of grains to go around even if we cut out tens of millions of acres of corn and soy in the US.

        For perspective, the situation now is roughly 20% in perennial crops and 80% in annuals. Hence the huge problems with soil loss and water pollution. Annuals are very inefficient users of applied fertilizer and leave the soil bare much of the year.

        • If thinking about an “ideal” solution as opposed to a realistic one I’d say (and this would essentially put me out of work….)if one can reduce land useage in row crops and replace with perennials used for animal feed it would be better, environmentally, to simply replace the land used for row crops with land used for no crops. Vast acreage is useless for veggie production etc (although I do like me some tofu, and as far as I know the bean it comes from is relatively ubiquitous across the corn belt…) true, but what if the best of that acreage was used to produce what people eat, and the quantity required to feed animals was simply… not farmed. In a world with vastly reduced meat intake I wonder how that would pan out? (trophically (it’s a word!) you should be able to reduce land use for animal feed down to ~ 10% if it goes direct to humans (for an undergrad level of trophic level (10% passed from one level to the next), thus you only require 10% of the acreage devoted to production of animals to supply the same calorific input to humans – given that it’d likely be the best 10% (for obvious reasons) it’d probably be less than 10% anyway.

          When animals are taken out of the equation much of the requirement to farm every available acre goes away.

          On the question of whether we let people go? Perhaps we do (I’ve already alluded that my current job would be gone if meat consumption disappeared – I’m reliant on a requirement for row crops, this is largely driven by meat consumption, possibly another similar job would spring up, but likely not) – it’s unfortunate, but do you retain jobs in unneeded environmentally destructive jobs for the sake of having jobs (working on the rather obvious assumption that some farming is always more destructive than no farming (although of course this raises the question of what happens to the land… if it is developed for something else (strip malls, power stations and the like) it is likely a shift for the worse, but given that I’m operating in made up never going to happen land (as we all are to an extent in this discussion) I can assume it is left wild)?

          • Jason

            Your post reminded me of this:

            Dennis Keeney: A wedding on the midwestern savanna
            site-iconamestrib.com/sections/opinion/columns/dennis-keeney-wedding-on-the-midwestern-savanna.html

            Our first granddaughter was married over Labor Day. It was a beautiful, moving and happy weekend. But the purpose of this column is more than just to brag. I would like to describe the setting and what it means to me and to Midwest agriculture of the future.

            The wedding was on a “permaculture” farm. The vows were said under three beautiful oak trees, surrounded by grass with beef cattle grazing in the background, hogs contentedly oinking as they enjoyed their favorite mudhole, guinea hens and turkeys bustling nearby. The dogs moved about the happy couple as the ceremony progressed. Maureen and Peter sang their vows in harmony. Among the 150 or so happy guests, including four generations of family, there was hardly a dry eye.

            After the ceremony, the guests followed the couple through pasture to the reception tent, where all partook of a feast grown entirely on the farm, including delicious beef, courtesy of Bonnie the cow. Later, Bonnie’s survivors grazed nearby, curious but not alarmed about this intrusion in their evening. Perhaps they should have been alarmed, because they too will soon be on someone’s dinner table. Grass-fed beef with no additives is becoming increasingly recognized as a healthful, low-impact alternative to corn finished beef.

            The wedding was “off the grid,” in keeping with the lifestyle of the couple. The electrical power came from solar panels and a wind turbine. Bluegrass, Irish and other toe-tapping music were supplied by Peter and Maureen and friends, and later by a local disk jockey. We paused to watch a spectacular sunset over the hills and valleys of Southwest Wisconsin and later gazed at an incredible starry sky unencumbered by city lights. The Grand Canyon has nothing on this view.

            The farm is located close to Soldiers Grove, Viola and LaFarge, a landscape shared by an unglaciated, or driftless, area of northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and northeast Minnesota. The region has long steep slopes, and some ridgetop and bottom soils. Only these latter soils should be row-cropped, yet corn is creeping up the hillsides, encouraged by high prices and government policies. Even the dairy-dominated areas of Wisconsin are succumbing to the temptation of corn.

            Permaculture, which is agriculture based largely on perennial crops such as nut trees, shrubs and grass along with annual food crops, is incredibly productive. And it requires very little fossil fuel to keep it going. In my opinion, it is the “new age” of farming. It is not necessarily a vegetarian agriculture; indeed, in most cases, animals are needed to balance out the ecosystem and provide income.

            Other permaculture systems work elsewhere in the world, but I would like to concentrate on the marvelous Midwestern oak-savanna. Before Europeans arrived, the oak savanna was the dominant part of the ecosystem. It is a characteristic fire ecology. Fires, set by lightning or first nation inhabitants, kept plants with a low tolerance for fire from establishing themselves, and only strong fire-tolerant species survived. Oak, including black oak and bur oak dominated. There were around 50 million acres of savanna before settlement; only around 30,000 acres remain today. These ecosystems were cleared for agriculture, and fires were suppressed. Plant and animal species in the oak savanna became extinct or rare.

            Now, there is increased interest in restoration and preservation, a worthy objective. A prime example is the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. But restoration is not without costs to the public, including loss of productive land. Why not instead make restored savanna into working farms? This is the farm of our savanna wedding, a prototype for the future, when agriculture must run on far less fossil fuel and leave little environmental footprint.

            Permaculture is not predicated on a savanna. Prime Iowa farmland could be converted to productive permaculture. But major changes to government policies and our lifestyles will be needed. They will come in the future. The new partnership we witnessed will be part of the struggle to make agriculture sustainable. It is not sustainable now, and I feel it is slipping toward ecosystem collapse.

            Agriculture will always be here, but I believe the savanna wedding is a glimpse into the future. As the rear-view mirror suggests, it may be closer than it appears.

            Dennis Keeney, of Ames, is an emeritus professor at Iowa State University and the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He can be reached at earthwatch@mchsi.com.

    • Andre

      My understanding is the same.

      And I doubt that we can convert, one for one, the corn feed calories into food calories unless people switch to a polenta and tortilla diet. Replacing corn by other crops means an important reduction in the number of calories produced. It may be the same for soybean.

  • A colleague of mine suggested this book, Meat, a Benign Extravagance as a resource on this issue. Here is an article by the same author.

  • Paul Anderson

    The Feed Conversion Ratios used in this paper seemed off to me. They mentioned FCR’s of 12:1 for beef cattle and 5:1 for chickens. The U.S. livestock industry claims FCR’s of 6:1 and 2:1, respectively. That’s a pretty major difference. It would cut the calorie loss in half.

    http://agricultureproud.com/2012/02/06/cattlemens-college-cattle-feed-efficiency/

    The paper obtained their numbers from a USDA NASS report titled: “Feed consumed per unit of production. . . with quantity expressed in equivalent feeding value of corn.”

    Livestock are not fed straight corn. Rations are mixed with many different ingredients, including things such as cottonseed meal and wheat cleanings that represent waste from a human supply chain.

    I would cut that 4 billion number in half.

    • Paul, I am no expert in livestock feeding, but I think you pointed out in your post why there difference in the conversion ratios between the two sources. The paper uses equivalent feeding value of corn, but corn is not a high quality feed, it has to be supplemented with a protein source, so the ratios in terms of corn would be higher than actual feed values.

      I am sure you are right about some of livestock feed coming from waste streams, but how much?

      Even if you are right on both points, 2 billion is a still lot of people, a lot of new production we would not have to clear forests for, or push existing ag lands to produce.

      • Paul Anderson

        Two billion is a lot of people, and that’s probably a reasonable number to use in this discussion.
        So then, what’s the best way to actually maximize human consumable calories per acre of farmland? Cutting out meat entirely, or even down to only range-fed beef, might not be the best way. If you cut out all meat, you then need to focus on high protein crop production. But high protein crops do not yield nearly as many calories per acre as corn. It is not enough to merely provide enough calories per person per day, you need a certain amount of protein and fat as well as carbohydrates. When it comes to supplying protein, meat may well be the best way for a certain portion of the needed amount. (To get the right combination of plant protein(without meat) requires utilizing some low-yielding crops. It would be more efficient to mix in a small amount of meat, meat that was fed on high yielding crops)
        I would argue that the best way to maximize the number of humans fed a balanced diet would still include a small portion of meat. One-half to one pound of meat per person per week would supply a large percentage of the needed protein, and the rest could easily come from high yield legumes. I don’t think vegans can claim they utilize less farmland than meat minimalists. Quinoa takes far more acres per calorie produced than does corn. Even when you run that corn through chickens, corn probably still comes out ahead. Exactly what an optimal diet would look like would require analysis of crop yields compared to protein yields, feed conversion ratios compared to feed composition, human nutrition requirements, etc etc. That’s almost impossible to actually do because all those numbers are different for different areas of the world. But even without doing that, we do know one thing for sure. That optimal diet would include far less meat than the average American eats today.

        Just in the United States, if we cut back to one pound of meat per person per day we could feed a lot more people than we do today.

        • Ewan R

          Any protein that comes from meat comes from a plant source. Feed conversion rates at a calorie level are utterly meaningless if you’re then going to go ahead and focus on protein instead. Protein to protein, calorie to calorie comparisons would be required.

          I frankly see no way, mathematically, that running the protein through an animal is ever going to be a more efficient use than simply consuming plants instead.

          Running corn through a chicken to produce protein… simply doesn’t work. Major protein sources for poultry include:-

          Soybean Meal
          Canola Meal
          Cottonseed meal
          Sunflower meal
          Peanut meal

          plus

          Meat-bone meal
          Fish mean
          Poultry byproduct
          Feather meal

          (all of the plus section here clearly eventually winds up getting protein from the initial sources, unless, of course, you postulate that animals somewhere are fixing nitrogen)

          All of the plant based sources here (possibly with the exception of cotton meal, although I don’t see why it couldn’t be utilized if processed correctly)

          don’t think vegans can claim they utilize less farmland than meat minimalists. Quinoa takes far more acres per calorie produced than does corn.

          I’m a vegan, I’ll not make the claim because I don’t work particularly hard on reducing my footprint beyond the reduction from what I had to vegan, however I will, unreservedly, make the claim that a vegan that worked on minimizing land used would absolutely require less land useage than a meat minimalist (simply because all protein in animal ag is plant sourced eventually (although maybe there is an input potential from yeasts? I dunno, same would apply to an actual vegan though, nutritional yeast is a mainstay) and thus simple considerations of wasteage dictate that you have to produce more protein per person if you pass it through an animal than if you consume directly) it is not as if all vegans simply consume quinoa for protein (I don’t think I’ve eaten quinoa in months, it’s a pain in the ass to cook and can frequently go utterly wrong… my protein predominantly comes from beans (which hey, in the case of soybean (they highest yielding on the plant protein side….) is 1:1 for yield if it goes to humans or animals)

          (To get the right combination of plant protein(without meat) requires utilizing some low-yielding crops. It would be more efficient to mix in a small amount of meat, meat that was fed on high yielding crops)

          So to reiterate… no, not even close. All animal feeding systems require additional protein from the self-same low yielding crops you are saying can’t provide enough protein. You’re utterly wrong here. If you try to raise a cow, or a chicken, on corn alone… you yield zero protein at the end of the day because your animal dies due to protein shortage, which hardly seems an efficient use of even a high yielding crop.

        • Ewan has a point. If our overriding goal is to feed people, it makes most sense to grow crops for people and not for livestock. The exception for meat would be that coming from livestock fed on forages from permanent grassland.

          My colleague brought up some similar points in his response to my post,
          http://csanr.wsu.edu/no-i-wont-stop-eating-meat-to-feed-the-planet/

          • Ewan R

            Equally bad points.

            The whole thing falls back to the opener. They won’t stop eating meat because they like it. There then follows poor logic to back up this assertion (it’s ok… you can make decisions that don’t follow logic, it is better to simply admit this than to pretend…)

            “he vast majority of the global land base is not suitable for crop production”

            So what? In what ideal world do we utilize as much land as possible for food production. If we can cut out 80% of agricultural land (to pull a figure entirely from my ass) what is bad about this? Oh no, wilderness and wildlife, what an unmitigated disaster, how can we perpetuate the sixth mass extinction if land can be left free from human buggering about?

            ” the reality is that many regions of the world can’t make the shift”

            That’s fine. Personally I live in the US, as does, I suspect, the writer – an area which categorically can make the shift. That someone in Kenya may not be able to shift to a wholly plant based diet isn’t any sort of justification that the diet isn’t superior (on the axis of environmental impact, say) in an area where the switch is utterly easy (and sorry folks, for the vast majority of people it is easy – there do exist exceptions, for sure)

            “Every healthy natural ecosystem is based on the complex interactions of animals and plants”

            Hey fallacy, how you doing? Hey fallacy, how’s it going? Who’s that Fallacy? It’s Je… erm, the naturalistic one.

            Byproducts of animals helping the soil – not buying this in modern ag, the nitrogen and phosphorous etc are still sourced externally and are simply recylced through an inefficient system – if you’re going to do animal ag it makes sense to use the waste… if not… soil can be supplemented without the wasteful process of passing it through animals first.

            “genetic diversity of our dietary base” utterly meaningless if rather than our base it is a cow’s, or a chicken’s base – I warrant that I eat a far more genetically diverse diet than the typical meat eater, if only because my choices essentially force me to. Smacks of straw grasping to be perfectly fair.

            “meat consumption was a key evolutionary step in prehistoric human development”

            So was flint knapping. What is the point here again? Must I make another bizarre New Girl reference here in order to wow the kids with my tenuous grasp on pop culture?

            (Now to see if I can post this exact comment on there, if it requires registration that’d be a no, as I am lazy)

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