I only read it for the pictures, honestly

The Economist gets some well-deserved derision these days, but it still delivers lots of interesting data, illustrated by graphs that are usually well designed and informative. Via Kenny Easwaran I found this table (published by EconomistDailyChart, but I haven’t yet located the chart) of annual meat consumption per person by country. The data set has plenty of anomalous features, but looks accurate enough for my purposes.

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. . More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands[fn1].

Here are the numbers we need to start with from the data table. Current average annual world meat consumption is 9.5 kg beef, 15kg pork and 12.5kg chicken for a total of 37kg per person per year. Netherlands average is 70 kg.

Each kg of grain-fed beef requires about 8kg of grain, compared to 2kg for chicken, and the trade-off similar when cattle are pastured on land that could be used for grain. So, 5kg of beef could be replaced by 20 kg of chicken.

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year. 

That would give an average of 62kg per person per year, not far below the Dutch average. To fill the remaining gap, I’ll call on the usual suspects, reductions in inefficiency and waste.

The reduction in methane emissions from cattle would almost certainly outweigh any adverse impact from reduced ethanol production (numbers on both of these effects vary so wildly that I’m not going to attempt a calculation for now).

How feasible is all this? The use of food grain for biofuels is discredited as a policy, and even the US Congress has withdrawn some support. The shift towards chicken makes economic sense, and would be accelerated if carbon pricing were applied to agriculture, which might well happen in the next couple of decades. So, world meat production could increase steadily over the next few decades, well ahead of population growth.

That still leaves the crucial problem of distribution. People in some rich countries, notably the US and Australia consume much more than the Netherlands, and that the  billion or so poorest people in the world can’t afford enough grain to eat, let alone meat. Until this changes, increasing average meat production isn’t going to solve the problem. [2]

There’s no real answer to this within the current world order, except to wait for poor people to become richer, as they have done in much of South-East Asia and are now doing, in large numbers, in China and India.

But a large part of my reason for doing exercises like this one is to consider the feasibility of a better world, even if it might be considered utopian at present. The ability of the world to feed itself, and to do so with a diet that should satisfy any reasonable person, is an important precondition. Until recently it has not been met – the total food output of the world has been barely adequate in normal times, and quite inadequate in famine years. But now, as I’ve argued it’s entirely possible.


fn1. I’ve picked the Dutch because they are supposed to be the tallest people in the world, which implies an adequate diet.

fn2. Even in a world where everyone had enough, substantial differences would persist. For example according to the data in the table, meat consumption (I’m not sure if they have a good handle on fish) in Japan is very low by developed country standards, and obviously this reflects preferences and national policies, rather than poverty.





Posted via email from John’s posterous

81 thoughts on “I only read it for the pictures, honestly

  1. You’ve replicated the substance of footnote 1 at the very end.

    Fixed now, I hope. Thanks – JQ

  2. How much grain is used for non-food sources apart from ethanol? (which I don’t support using for ethanol/butanol for the record) (e.g HFCS, paper products, convenience food etc)

    We could also get rid of most sugar production — that plays no useful part in human nutrition and if output fell by 90% humanity would not suffer.

    Of course if you feed that 140 million tons of grain to people instead of chickens …

  3. I suspect that the optimal amount of meat (from a health perspective) humans should eat per year is actually a lot lower than the Dutch level.

  4. I was vegetarian for six years but took up eating meat again in 2004 after deciding it hadn’t made me healthier. About a year ago I gave up most grain based food (pasta, rice, bread, cereal) as well as potato and substantially increased my intake of meat (especially for breakfast which is now usually eggs fish or kangaroo). I lost 17kg in 4 months (about 1kg per week) and with this new diet and some weight training I’ve had no trouble keeping the weight off. I don’t claim any expertise but I’d rather eat the cow or chicken than the grain it might be raised on.

  5. If you get your eggs from a plant then I may conceed they aren’t meat. Until then, an animal embryo and its fat and protein store is meat to me.

    Fran, sugar provides kilojoules. There are lots of people in the world today who would be a lot better off if they ate exactly what they eat now, plus 100 grams of sugar a day. But very few of these people live in Australia. Sugar cane is the world’s largest crop and one of the most productive, if not the most productive, in terms of food kilojoules produced per square metre. It also grows in high magnesium soils which aren’t good for most other crops. We can’t really get rid of it at the moment, but people in places like Australia could certainly get by on less.

    Personally I am hopeful we can get bacteria to excrete proteins at a lower feed cost than chickens. While it is possible to use light or an electrical gradient as a power source for this process, at the moment we are probably looking at sugar. The protein could be used as a meat extender in sausages, mince, seafood products, and anything with the word Mc in front of it. I’m already working on the marketing campaign. I’m thinking of calling it Poretabla – “Straight from the bacterium’s pore, to your table.”

  6. @Ronald Brak

    Fran, sugar provides kilojoules. There are lots of people in the world today who would be a lot better off if they ate exactly what they eat now, plus 100 grams of sugar a day.

    They’d be even better with a kilo of complex carbohydrates. Sucrose contributes nothing but kilojoules — no protein, no fibre or enzymes, no high density lipoproteins, no vitamins or minerals — nada. The places where sugar is grown could support other food crops — fruits for example. These can be dried and shipped anywhere.

    Sugar is a luxury condiment. Until about the 17th century is was unknown in Europe and it lies at the heart of major nutritional epidemiology, along with LDLs. While I don’t agree, finally, that even using sugar crops for biofuels is good policy, it would be less worse policy than having people use their digestive tracts to process it.

    Sugar’s not the only crop that wastes land of course. Tobacco isn’t essential either — quite the reverse. If there were more food and less tobacco, I’m guessing humanity would get by OK. And hiw much land do we need to set aside to raise chocolate, coffee, tea, and the crops from which we raise alcohol? Very little.

    The discussion is moot of course because allocation of land is not done on the basis of needs or priorities but on the basis of market demand. In an unequal world, the luxury of the privileged (or their profits) will always jostle need (and every other consideration) to one side, but in purely technical terms, PrQ is right. If we wanted to feed humanity enough to keep all of us in rude good health with a reduced carbon footprint, we absolutely could.

    In terms of protein, spirulina is excellent protein and can be raised in places where other crops would be doubtful.

  7. Ernestine Gross :
    NZ not consuming any lamb or mutton?

    It seems the Economist has made a mistake there. The data that PrQ linked to shows a value of 23.1 for mutton and goat and places NZ at 4th above spain. But the graphic in the Economist has obviously omitted the m&g category, taking NZ down to 11th place. Whoops. As PrQ says, “it looks accurate enough”…

  8. I note that they did the same with Iceland and Kuwait, resulting in them dropping out of the list altogether.

  9. Yes, but will it be “a better world” for the chooks? Look at the conditions they’re raised in.

  10. Who eats all that pork in Israel?

    New Zealanders eat more “Other” than pork. What’s “Other”?

  11. I suspect the best policies to feed the humans of the world sustainably would be these.

    (1) Stabilise and reduce the world’s human population.
    (2) Feed all grain directly to people.
    (3) Allow meat/milk/egg producing animals to forage.
    (4) Supplement this foraging with food scraps and other wasted food on a basis appropriate to the animal’s natural diet. (E.g. No animal products to herbivores.)

    While people forget that the world’s population needs to be stabilised and reduced, they are failing to act on the key condition for sustainability. Most footprint analyses indicate we have already seriously overshot the world’s carrying capacity. Given the damage this overshoot is doing to the biosphere, the only possible outcome is a major collapse in human population. We can try to manage and ameliorate this collapse with pre-emptive action or we can ignore the signs and thus invite a catastrophic uncontrolled collapse.

  12. Fran, you suggest we get rid of the world’s largest crop that provides about 10% of the world’s food kilojoules and replace it with less productive per area fruit. And you seem pretty sure this is a good idea. I’m guessing you’re a big idea sort of person. I think about getting rid of sugar cane and see lots of problems, but maybe you see opportunities. Personally I would first consider a bottom up approach and think about the difficult task of encouraging people in countries such as Australia to improve their nutrition and then let that affect sugar demand, while you seem to be suggesting a top down approach of replacing sugar cane. I seem to recall you recommending a top down approach in one or two other areas as well. I think there might be a major difference in how we approach problems.

  13. @Ronald Brak

    Fran, you suggest we get rid of the world’s largest crop that provides about 10% of the world’s food kilojoules and replace it with less productive per area fruit.

    Strictly speaking, I don’t. I was merely following PrQs lead on biofuels which salso wasn’t a call to legislate this out of existence but to simply pose a counterfactual to explore the technical feasibility of feeding the world. As I noted above:

    The discussion is moot of course because allocation of land is not done on the basis of needs or priorities but on the basis of market demand. In an unequal world, the luxury of the privileged (or their profits) will always jostle need (and every other consideration) to one side, but in purely technical terms, PrQ is right.

    I doubt that anything like 10% of the world’s nutrition demands refined sucrose, though I would accept that a lot more of the world’s problems with overweight and obese and diabetes were (directly and indirectly thorugh the rendering palatable of other non-nutritional digestible materials).

    I’d like to see some substantial changes in health promotion relating to food policy, but I’m off to class now, so this will need to wait.

  14. It is a “bottom up” process (democracy) which chooses democratic government in the first place. It is thus logical to argue (as Fran implicitly does) that democratic government should not abrogate its mandate and responsibility to act in a formal and effective “top down” manner. If we decide, as a democratic society, that market mechanisms and the corporate industrialisation of food production are failing us, as they clearly are, in the matter of producing a healthy diet outcome sustainably, then we are fully correct and justified in mandating targeted democratic over-rides of the market and corporate systems.

    For my part, I would advocate removing GST from all food and implementing Pigovian taxes where all additives (legislatively defined) including salt and sugar attracted tax rates sufficient to significantly alter consumer behaviour. Any arguments that such taxes infringe upon or distort individual liberty fail. Such taxes simply seek to modify incentives for decisions which are still freely made. Adding salts and sugars to foods is also a method of modifying incentives for decisions which are freely made. To allow self-interested corporations the power to modify incentives to eat unhealthily (by adding salt and sugar) but to deny publicly-interested, democratically elected government the power to also modify incentives (by adding taxes) in favour of fresher, healthier produce is philosophically inconsistent and indeed insupportable.

  15. I haven’t read the book yet, but Bryan Walker’s review of “Consumptionomics” is interesting.


    As I understand it, the author wants Asia to avoid the Western free-market fundamentalist model as too flawed to provide a sustainable level of health and wellbeing.

  16. Maybe we should encourage diets similar to those found in the countries with the longest lifespans? Hmmm… Australia is near the top of that list. Beer, fat, sugar, and vegemite for everyone!

  17. The animal welfare problems associated with raising chickens arise, as far as I can tell from pressure to cut labor costs and space requirements. The estimates I’ve given would work just as well with free-range chickens.

  18. Any arguments that such taxes infringe upon or distort individual liberty fail. Such taxes simply seek to modify incentives for decisions which are still freely made.

    So a tax on homosexual acts wouldn’t be a violation of individual liberty. And a tax on publications that advocate a specified view point about the government would not be a violation of individual liberty. And a higher tax on soccer than AFL would not be a violation either. Interesting that you can bend society as far as you wish with incentives and claim that liberty remains unviolated.

  19. TerjeP, the man who put “glib” into “glibertarian”. What Ikonoclast is suggesting is rather more like taxing tobacco than soccer. I daresy you disapprove of that as well, though, simply because it’s a tax.

  20. From a heath perspective read meat is something you would want to minimise. Several good studies have found their cohort with the highest red meat proportion in their diet have like 20% higher cancer death risk and 30% (male) or 50% (female) risk of cardiovascular deaths. This includes controlling for other major lifestyle factors like smoking and exercise. In comparison, chicken is about neutral and fish is mildly beneficial.

    You also wouldn’t want to replace the meat with the grain used to produce it. While farmed grains provide a major health improvement when they make an adequate energy intake possible, they are a problem for us. A higher vegetable low-carbohydrate diet has about a 20% reduced all mortality hazard risk.

    These studies are done on middle aged and older people who have real risk of death from age related diseases. When you’re young you can eat just about anything and won’t notice for some time but if you want maximise your genetic potential eat chicken, fish, vegetables and fruit, and minimise sugar, grains and red meat.

  21. @John Quiggin

    The estimates I’ve given would work just as well with free-range chickens.

    That’s true. Of course, if we radically reduced the raising of fowl for food then we would sharply decrease also the likelihood of avian influenza. Raising animals at industrial scale is also a significant impact on GHGs.

  22. @Ikonoclast

    For my part, I would advocate removing GST from all food and implementing Pigovian taxes where all additives (legislatively defined) including salt and sugar attracted tax rates sufficient to significantly alter consumer behaviour.

    I’ve no problem in principle with having a G&ST on food, and whatever one does with taxes one wants the system not to be too complex or costly to administer. One might however have differential G&ST on foods falling below a certain nutritive value. One could consider questions such as the proportions of calories per 100g serving that were LDLs or refined sugars; the presence of salt above trace amounts, artificial colouring or flavouring and whether the product was being promoted by the use of “pack ins” or “pack ons” (typically toys or other cheap merchandise). Each product would get a rating. Confectionery and confectionary style breakfast cereals would score especially poorly. The measures would apply to food served in restaurants and take-aways.

    Surplus funds raised in this way could be used to fund local food purchase co-ops who could supply quality food staples at group purchase rates, and perhaps even run restaurants with low cost high quality meals. People could be given means-tested access to these, and staff there could run food preparation courses (cost of materials only) for those interested on site. You might even have a before and after school care facility on the same premises. Some of the older children (say 15 years+) could be allowed to pitch in and be paid a wage for working there.

    We need both a disincentive — the price increment on non-foods — and an alternative — quality food at reasonable prices, practical education in nutrition; if we are to break the cycle in which people on low incomes eat the least nutritious food merely because it’s convenient and cheap.

  23. Katz :
    Who eats all that pork in Israel?
    New Zealanders eat more “Other” than pork. What’s “Other”?

    I’d be tempted to say “Other” included fish, but the Japanese total for “Other” is pathetically small.

    Possum is not widely eaten. Deer?

    As for the first question, I’m guessing Christians and non-pratising Jews.

  24. @TerjeP

    TerjP draws the long bow that my advocacy for a pigovian tax on unhealthy food additives, including added salt and suger, is tantamount to, or logically leads to, an advocacy for a tax on homosexual acts. I’ll point out first that homophobia tends in general to be an attendant characteristic of the aggressively low-tax and excessively individualistic right and not the community minded, democratic socialist left. So it is not likely that a democratic socialist advocating a pigovian tax on unhealthy food additives (from the basis of nutrition science) will be likely to abandon an overall objective, socially aware and tolerant stance to suddenly take a subjective, moralistic and judgemental stance on people’s sexual behaviour.

    Indeed, it is much more likely that the logical and rational democratic socialist will cearly see both the health and population control advantages of removing the GST from condoms and other birth control and sexual health related products. And indeed that it what we saw from the Green Left Weekly, for example, as far back as 2000 in the Rally against GST on tampons, pads and condoms.

    In more general terms, I would advance the argument that TerjeP neither understands nor has any respect for any form of democracy other than the completely faux democracy of “voting with your money” where the billionaire gets almost innumerably more votes than the aged pensioner.

  25. @John Quiggin

    Assuming that bar graph is right, while it’s certainly a lot better than lamb or beef, it’s still 2.6 times that of rice — the world’s most important protein source, and more than htree times that of legumes such as lentils, beans and tofu. I’d call that significant.

    Bear in mind also that chicken requires refrigeration, whereas rice and lentils do not.

    FTR, as I’ve noted here before, it is technically possible to have quite low cruelty and low environmental impact raising of meat. (see the “grass farmer” movement, Polyface Farms for example) It’s just that it is very labour-intensive and would be very much a boutique product in practice. In that situation, meat would be an absolute rarity in diets.

  26. @Fran Barlow

    A logical tax system would implement all ancillary taxes as pigovian taxes. The single fundamental or foundational form of tax is the tax on income whether that income be earned from personal effort or from the ownership and use of capital. This is arguably a non-pigovian but still fundamentally necessary tax if you are going to fund an effective government. Beyond this fundamental tax, taxes that broaden the tax base and have the potential to control objectively deleterious products and activities are best implemented as pigovian taxes. There is probably no reason for non-income related taxes to be anything but pigovian.

  27. Ronald Brack

    Australia is at the top of the list of healthy countries; it seems that this is because of our Asian population who eat a traditional Asian diet; if this group is removed our position on the list is lower. There was a piece on this on RN a few weeks ago.

  28. @Ikonoclast

    And much the same could be said of taxes on alcohol. I’d certainly favour taxes that took account of both the alcohol content and the sugar/sweetness attributes of drinks, putting them on a sliding scale.

    I had this argument repeatedly during the discussion back in 2008 on RTDs …

  29. Julie – Oh, I see. So it should be short grain rice, squid, cabbage, pickels, and moderate amounts of saki for everybody. And vegemite. And maybe some pokkie if we’re good. Or bad. I never really liked them that much.

  30. @Julie Thomas
    Not sure I’d agree with that. They do eat more fish (typically) – at least the Japanese do – which is a good thing, but typical Chinese marinades and sauces are often quite rich in sugars and sweeteners. The southern Chinese & Thai, cuisines are probably the tastiest around IMHO. Of course, take that with a few grains of salt & pepper spicing 😛

  31. I want the tax on fat to be lower when it’s cold. Actually, why not individualise it? Pop down to the doctor’s, post a thousand dollar bond, get a monitor implanted under your skin, and when you deviate too far from healthy living you get buzzed and fined in real time.

    What about people who can’t afford a thousand dollar bond? Well, maybe you can get one that just gives electric shocks, but if this actually turns out to be a cheap way to maintain health it might end up subsidised. Actually there might be no need to fine or shock people. Just turning it into a game with points might be enough for many people. As smart phones get less dumb I’m sure we’ll see a lot of health management done through them. Smart phones that will listen out for the sound of you eating and keep track of what you buy. The people who make the hardware might love this as so many smart phones will get the hammer treatment as a result. But since many people like their phones more than many of their relatives and most relatives avoid the hammer treatment, maybe not many will be destroyed.

  32. Asians also eat all of the beast, they are very economical. Australians and other westerners have become very squeamish about their meat and have grown up thinking that they should only eat prepared cuts out of shrink wrap packets. We have become obsessed with germs and convenience to the detriment of quality.

  33. While I’m generally in favour of Pigovian taxes, it’s worth remembering that you need people who are sufficiently free from stupidity, addictions and mythologies (a lot of overlap there) to be able to respond to them. Raising the cost of tobacco slows smoking but it there’s the issue of elasticity. It adds a fairly regressive tax onto people with addictions that often don’t have much capacity for change. A Pigovian tax would be appropriate for CO2 abatement but we might treat cigarette, food, etc, addictions using a more complex best-science model with carrots, sticks, education and interventions.

  34. As my comment is in moderation ( the link I guess) I repeat that “meat” can include camel, hare, goat and a variety of beasties. It also includes many of the body parts. Suffice to say “meat” is a wide term.

    A meat product (say a pie) must contain a certain percentage of meat. If the pie says “produced in Australia” it allows for the meat to be imported but the pie being constructed in Australia.

    The composition of the imported meat may include other beast?0

    I guess that is why these products are so cheap.

  35. The trouble with chicken is that they don’t grow wool (a useful ‘byproduct’ of meat that helps keeping warm in cold weather) and they don’t grow skin suitable for leather.

    And then there is the risk of specilisation of meat production. What if 80% or more of the environmentally friendly birds become affected by bird flu or some other sickness?

    Are there statistics on death from boredom (“chicken with rice” followed by “rice with chicken” and vegies and fruit)?

    Personally, I hope top-down global planning is as unsuccessful as the implicitly top-down ‘one global market’.

  36. Chicken with chillies, oh the chillies man, as in Chicken Tindaloo, for those who find the Beef Vindaloo mild (menu item from Jasmin’s, Hindmarsh Square, Adelaide). Not in the slightest bit boring, Ernestine Gross :-;

  37. TerjP draws the long bow that my advocacy for a pigovian tax on unhealthy food additives, including added salt and suger, is tantamount to, or logically leads to, an advocacy for a tax on homosexual acts.

    No I simply rejected your suggestion that taxing stuff has no implications regarding liberty. And I offered examples to make the point. You can choose to be against liberty, or against liberty in certain circumstances but it is quite dishonest of you to say there is no issue of liberty associated with taxing selected consumer activities because people are still free to pay the tax. If that were true then a tax on homosexual acts would have no impact on liberty because homosexuals would be free to pay the tax. I’m not saying that a tax on salt leads to a tax on homosexual acts or that the two taxes are equivalent but I do reject your notion that taxes have zero impact on liberty. If I wish to consume salt it really is none of your damn business.

  38. Megan – I’m a minarchist not an anarchist. I’m not convinced that having no tax will maximises liberty. I do think zero tax is a closer approximation to the optimal tax rate than what we have today. However that isn’t the issue. My point is that it is stupid to pretend that taxation entails no infringement of liberty. By all means advocate infringing liberty for some “higher cause” like reducing salt consumption but don’t be so dishonest as to claim that there is no infringement.

    Liberty is about process. It says that our interactions as humans should be voluntary. Utility is about outcomes. You might argue that it is worth setting aside liberty and using coersion to achieve a reduction in salt consumption because you believe this increases overall utility. That would be intellectually honest. But Ikonoclast didn’t opt for intellectual honesty but instead tried to use sly language to pretend that using force to get people to lower salt consumption doesn’t entail any use of force.

  39. @TerjeP
    I can’t quite understand your position, maybe you could clarify:

    If Telstra ups the cost of a phone call does that have implications for liberty?

    If your corner shop increases their markup on bread?

    Thanks. It seems to me that it would be inconsistent not to accept these kind of implications but I’m not sure what a libertarian would think.

  40. @TerjeP

    In my opinion, tax do change people’s behaviour over the choice they make. However, people can have relatively more freedom than they might have now but in a sense “real freedom” is something that can never be achieved as long as they are alive.

    The fact is that freedom have trade-offs, e.g. tax free on alcohol, tobacco or freedom in dangerous addictive drug usage will likely to cause harm to people’s health and thus reducing their freedom towards healthiness and independent from medical drug and treatment. The same also applies to crime and tort.

    The important thing that I think most commentators here (including myself) believe in, is finding the best balance in freedom, e.g. freedom from excessive financial constraints for low income earners, freedom from diseases etc. Unfortunately, these things does not come naturally in an absolutely unregulated society. The example I love using for trade-offs in freedom is the US.

    Do you really believe that there more freedom in the US (not much different in Australia as well) when the young generation are advised to “get a degree that will earn you money to live”, instead of the freedom to chase their dreams and still have relatively less financial constraints on living in a more regulated economy such as Denmark. I’m pretty sure that for someone who has being chasing freedom for such a long time like you would of thought about the trade-offs between freedom.

    Back to the topic, I personally against putting up a tax on sugar and salt because I love using them in cooking. Besides, they aren’t something that is as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco. However, I think if fruit and vegetables can be off from GST; that price distortion should provide an incentive for more people to consume them along with meat which should improve the general health from balanced nutrient consumption.

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