More calories from fewer sources means more profit and less nutrition

‘Meatification’. Eduardo Amorim , CC BY-NC-SA

“The optimist”, wrote American fantasy fiction writer James Branch Cabell, “proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” Reading about the global food economy today one is reminded of this quip. On one hand, there is no doubting that the transformation of the food system has been one of the most dramatic, far-reaching events in modern history – less than two centuries ago the majority of the world grew their own produce for consumption. Since then, key developments in mechanisation, synthetic fertilisers, “high yielding seeds”, pesticides and herbicides, have all generated an explosion in agricultural production.

Modern agriculture has been able to feed a fast growing population with a wide variety of products even as agricultural labour was performed by far fewer hands. And now, for the first time, the majority of the world resides in urban centres. For many of these citizens, food is a commodity like any other: it is purchased in a marketplace, removed from the conditions of its production. Gazing at the packed shelves in urban markets or leafing through gourmet cookbooks by celebrity chefs it is easy to see how dreams of abundance prevail. It seem we have conquered nature to provide plenitude for all.

But scratch the surface a little and one finds a rising vanguard of pessimists who look sceptically at such claims. At best this optimism is grossly amnesic about the systemic failings of the food system. Indeed for all its vaunted successes our global food provisioning system has failed to feed everyone adequately. More than 852m people go to bed hungry at night, while globally 1.4 billion adults are classified as overweight.

Recent shocks, such as BSE (or mad cow disease) along with avian and swine flu, have heightened public awareness over the health and safety risks associated with an intensive, industrialised food economy. Global spikes in prices for staple foods, riots and mob violence, and the intensification of foreign “land grabs” all indicate that the contemporary food system is under considerable stress.

The ‘meatification’ of diets

But consumers are only one part of the picture. A recent landmark study of worldwide food supplies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America has cast fresh light on worrying trends in global food production. The new findings suggest that human diets are converging across the planet as people consume more calories from fewer sources.

The rising consumption of energy-dense foods, such as palm oil and soy, is particularly troubling. In Indonesia, tropical lowland forests have made way for vast industrial palm oil plantations. As well as destroying habitats for endangered species and displacing local communities, rapid deforestation is known to be responsible for the release of climate-warming gases. The rise of palm oil production means Indonesia is currently the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only China and the US.

In Brazil, industrial soybean production (along with invasive cattle ranching) has punctured huge holes in the Amazonian rainforest, the world’s largest and most diverse tract of tropical woodlands, and an area that ecologists refer to as the “lungs of the planet”. Tearing down these forests to ranch cattle and grow more soya might therefore be likened to the gradual asphyxiation of the planet.

The report also highlights the fact that we are in the midst of momentous global shift in meat consumption – what geographer Tony Weis describes as the “meatification” of human diets. In his recent book Weis employs the concept of the “ecological hoofprint” to stress the enormous but largely hidden social and environmental costs associated with this widespread transformation.

Dietary convergence, Weis makes clear, is a reflection of a food system designed not to meet human needs, but to facilitate capital accumulation and economic growth. Recycling surplus industrial grains through livestock, for example, has the economic advantage of converting cheap (because heavily subsidised) animal feed into higher value proteins in the form of meat and dairy. In other words, by harnessing the metabolic processes of animals, cheap and usable nutrition is replaced with more valuable (but not necessarily better) nutrition, and in the process the problem of price-deflating grain surpluses can be nullified.

Seen this way the industrialisation of livestock production, or “factory farming”, and the global meatification of human diets, “nutrition transition”, are the invariable outcome of capitalist agricultural production. So too is the increased homogeneity of global food supplies. Put simply: what is grown increasingly conforms to what is profitable. According to Weis, “a mere ten crops dominate the world’s arable land and generate about 75% of all plant-based calories consumed by humans.”

Erosion of our genetic library

Sociologist John Bellamy Foster warned more than 20 years ago that we are facing the erosion of our “genetic library”, as “a world system of commodity exchange” surrenders ecological complexity for the “simplicity of the commodified agriculture.”

This simplification of global agricultural is deeply worrying. More calories from fewer sources means agricultural systems are more susceptible to shocks (genetic diversity itself is a defence attacks by pest and pathogens) and poor consumers are more prone to nutrition-related diseases.

The correlation between increased consumption of meat, especially red meat, and rising levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes is well established (though often controversial) and links have been made to cardiovascular disease. This is in addition to the future costs of diverting resources to treat so-called “diseases of affluence”.

The question is whether these trends are avoidable. Certainly, but it means thinking beyond the current fixation on development-as-growth. The very idea of a “nutrition transition” tends to presuppose a certain pathway toward progress that places affluent consumer nations ahead of an imagined historical queue. Seen this way, development is a game of “catch up” and dietary transition becomes an evolutionary indicator, a way of measuring improvements in the lives of others.

Yet scientists have projected that if the entire world was to consume the same amount of resources as the average American we would require at least four additional planets. For this reason author and environmentalist Wolfgang Sachs warns that it is not so much the “failure of development which has to be feared, but its success.” In such a topsy-turvy world perhaps the pessimist who rejects the optimism of the status quo is really the most radically hopeful of all citizens.