HEALTH COLUMN | King: Innovation needed in food technology

An estimated 9 billion humans will live on Earth in 2050, effectively adding two Chinas to our current population. Meanwhile, international food reserves are dangerously precarious — reportedly at their lowest levels since World War II — a situation further exacerbated by the conversion of arable lands into palm oil and soya plantations that feed biofuel production. This surging populace will require that our current food production be doubled within the next 40 years.

But our current food production methods are wasteful and energy-inefficient. A land area nearly the size of Texas is lost to food production each year for a variety of reasons, including anthropogenic climate change, livestock practices and biofuel production policies. Moreover, food production itself contributes to greenhouse gas emission. The world must begin to understand the negative environmental impact of livestock emissions on climate change — particularly since more than half of Amazon deforestation will be converted into land for animal feed.

Agricultural emissions, mostly from livestock animals raised on factory farms, generate 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Globally, agriculture generates account for over 50 percent of emissions in countries with large industrial livestock and feedstock agribusinesses such as Brazil, Australia and New Zealand — outdoing the carbon impact of emissions from cars, planes and coal-burning power plants.

Agricultural practices, particularly in developed nations, not only generate copious emissions but also reduce carbon sequestration. (Carbon sequestration is the process of taking existing carbon out of the atmosphere.) Reforestation projects popularized by carbon offset programs are the most widely known method of carbon sequestration, but sequestration may also be achieved via other means, such as soil and grassland restoration. Scientists examining the climate change-agriculture relationship have estimated that changing our current methods of producing and processing food, particularly meat, could reduce emission by 30 to 70 percent.

Viewed through the lens of greenhouse gases, livestock become living smokestacks spewing toxic gases deleterious to both the climate and the environment. This is all the more troubling considering that global meat consumption is expected to double by 2050.

Beef production creates 11 times more greenhouse gas than a pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots. Since most omnivores remain uninformed that every step of meat production generates emissions, a first step toward raising awareness might be the adoption of standardized green labeling for meat. This may encourage those who choose to eat meat to seek “green” meat with a lower environmental impact.

The cruelest paradox of climate change is that nations producing the fewest emissions will suffer most. Sub-Saharan Africa is presently food-insecure; crop yields have increased by 50 percent, while the population has doubled over the past 25 years. The warming of the Indian Ocean could cause a 25 percent decrease in rainfall in southern and eastern Africa, leading to a 10 to 20 percent reduction in food production by 2020 as the population continues to surge. No human population could maintain such a lopsided food imbalance — least of all one already facing starvation.

Famine, the third of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, carries a weighing scale. Daily food staples such as wheat and barley have exorbitant prices, while luxury items such as oil and wine remain exempt. The scale thus represents the injustice inherent in most famines— the poor disproportionately suffer. Current global meat production practices may indeed cause a famine of Biblical proportions, one felt most acutely by the world’s poor, unless the livestock industry adopts another interpretation of the third horseman’s symbol: balance.

Leslie King, MD, MPH, is the Founding Director of Flying Physicians International. She is currently completing a one-year master’s degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, focusing on communicating the impact of climate change on human health.