Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Feeding 9 Billion

Posted by butalidnl on 16 October 2011

This blog post is my contribution to “Blog Action Day 2011 (#BAD11)”. The theme this year is ‘food’.

The world is full! There are 7 billion people on it, and it will become 9 billion by 2050. Help! We will not be able to feed them all!

No need for alarm. We can quite easily feed 9 billion people. Here are a number of strategies that not only will enable the world to feed 9 billion people, but it will also enable us to return some forest lands to nature. Here they are:

Minimizing Eating Beef, Shift to Meat with Lower Feed Grain Ratios
Animals consume grain. Instead of being consumed by humans, grain is fed to the animals. We eat the animals (meat), but there is a loss in the process.  Cows eat 8 times their weight in grain; while pigs only 5 times. So, shifting from beef to pork would tend to save on grain.  Cows also eat grass, though, and this doesn’t  ‘waste’ grain. But the present number of cows greatly exceed the number that could live out of grass, so they are fed grain as a result.

The rising price of grain in the world market makes producing beef more and more expensive. At a certain point, wheat prices will outstrip the growth of beef prices (beef prices have to be at least 8 times the price of the grain they eat, to break even) so that it would no longer be profitable to feed cows grain. When this time comes, beef will be limited by the amount of grazing land.

Shifting to eating meat with a lower feed grain ratio (FGR) will always result in freeing up more grain for human consumption. Eating fish like tilapia (fgr of 2) or chicken (fgr of 2.5-3), would even be better than eating pork (fgr of 5). Eating only plants (fgr of 1) would be best, but we couldn’t expect to convince all people to become exclusive vegetarians (yet).

The world could voluntarily shift to meat with lower feed grain ratios; or, if they wait a while, they will be forced by the market (i.e. in the high price of grain, and thus meat) to make the shift anyway.

Promote Urban Farming
There is a lot of underutilized land in urban areas.  Most houses have backyards which could be devoted to growing food.  Houses and apartment blocks could be built with flat roofs to make them suitable to be vegetable gardens. Also there are many commercial and industrial buildings and yards which could be planted. People could opt to plant vegetables, if they have the time to pay attention to them.  If they have little time to tend to plants, they could plant fruit trees or root crops, which need less attention.

It’s amazing how many people are idle due to unemployment, but who do not do something so fruitful and which would earn them money like backyard farming. Part of the reason behind this is that there are no institutions which encourage and support them to do some farming. And the marketing of the produce may also be a problem, with people being used to buying vegetables and fruits from shops.

Governments could stimulate urban farming by setting up institutions which would provide the seeds, equipment and expertise needed. Governments could also help to set up neighborhood markets for produce.

Plant Food Trees at Edges of Forests
Reforestation need not involve planting ‘forest’ type of trees.  At the edges of a forest reserve, it is a good idea to plant money-making trees. This could be rubber (if climate is suitable), nuts (cashew, walnut, etc.) or fruit trees. These trees are as good in holding the soil and water as ‘forest’ trees, and they will be defended by those who planted them (and who depend on them for income and food) from people who want to cut them down. This will protect the inner area of true forest trees.

A lot of the land that is presently used for cattle ranches were formerly forest lands, and which would be very suitable for food trees.

Stop Producing Biofuels
Biofuels are the ultimate in wasting food. Food grains, oils or sugar are used as the ingredients for various kinds of biofuels. This should stop. All biofuel production eats into food production in one way or the other, and therefore should be stopped.

It is obvious when corn is processed into bio-ethanol.  The corn does not get consumed either by animals (which will eventually be eaten as meat) or directly by people, because it is being made into fuel for our cars. Why not just have more efficient cars? Why don’t we bike or walk more? Is riding a car more important than feeding people? Making bio-ethanol from corn or sugar cane wastes food.

Other kinds of biofuel production also reduces the overall supply of food. Take the plan to turn farm waste (i.e. the part of the plant without the grain/food) to fuel. If this is done at a massive scale, the result will be an enormous drop in the fertility of the farm lands; since the farm waste would otherwise have returned nutrients to the soil.  When you harvest the farm waste, you are depriving the soil of nutrients, resulting in lower future crop yields.

Turning used cooking oil into biodiesel is another case. Used cooking oil could be transformed, using a different process, into animal feed. And this would mean that less grain would be used for feeding animals, since they would be eating feed made from processed used cooking oil. Some people say that used cooking oil, when turned into a feed additive, is carcinogenic. Perhaps. But this is only a reflection on the state of technology; with a bit more research, it should be possible to produce non-carcinogenic animal feed supplement from used cooking oil.

Even making biofuels from wood is an indirect problem for food production.  Because the question is: where is the land that they would grow the wood in? Will it be from what are now ‘regular’ forests? I doubt it – it would be too expensive to do so. Much cheaper would be to convert some croplands and plant trees there for that purpose. So, those croplands could no longer produce food because they are producing wood.

Feeding 9 billion people could thus be done without having to make major political moves or technological discoveries. All it needs is a bit of creativity, or the pressure of ‘market forces’.

One Response to “Feeding 9 Billion”

  1. the arguments against using agri-waste or any other agricultural left-over products for bio fuels is wrong. 80% of the dry matter from agricultural is carbon hydrates, which is not being used in any way but released as CO2, water vapour and methane through bacteria. Left over products are usually being burned giving more pollution of VOC and a very low return of minerals back to the land.
    If one want to make a comparison, use the EROIE measurement (Energy return on invested energy) to get to a real number if it has use to create biofuels or extract energy from agricultural. Main problem with current agricultural practice is the use of artifical, fossil fuel based, fertilizers killing of SOM, soil organic matter and tillage of land for short rotation crop.
    EROIE for corn is a measly 1.25:1 if done in the classic way (loads of fertilizers, one harvest a year with soil bare for the rest of the period, like for corn-ethanol is practices) but still on the positive side. If done in a sustainable way this will rise to a 3:1 up to 5:1. If done for oil crops, like Palm oil, Jatropha etc. in a sustainable way EROIE will be around 7:1 up to 14:1, better than fossil fuels which is currently at a 8:1.
    There are many agricultural industries which do produce enormous amounts of waste not being utilized, especially in the Philippines. Most annoying is that this waste is dumped and its minerals are never returned to the land due to the volume size and the low ratio of minerals in the material. If that is processed by extracting the carbon hydrates in some form, the remains are almost pure minerals, easy to process and transport back to where it came from. Lacking are the minerals contained in the food of course which should be additional supplied. That can be done by growing food, non-food products which are being processed locally for their carbon-hydrate components only without any further input of artificial fertilizers. Those plants are there with the secondary purpose of retaining the minerals in the land so the run-off to rivers will be reduced to a minimum.

    For food the amount of food produced has never been a problem, it has been always in the distribution of the food. Arguments used in the food versus fuel are based on old, western style agricultural practices which assume a endless source of cheap transport (==trade, energy) available which is not the case any more. Rises in food price have hardly anything to do with the availability of food. It is like the price of fossil fuels which does rise sharply if a refinery is unable to produce a commodity. Not that there is not enough feedstock, but it can not be converted into the demand.

    BTW. most material left over after extraction of ethanol from corn or grains is an excellent fodder, full of protein. Same applies for most of the press cake of oily crops…

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