Rising Meat Consumption Takes Big Bite out of Grain Harvest
World consumption of animal protein is everywhere on the rise. Meat consumption increased from 44 million tons in 1950 to 284 million tons in 2009, more than doubling annual consumption per person to more than 90 pounds. The rise in consumption of milk and eggs is equally dramatic. Wherever incomes rise, so does meat consumption.
As the oceanic fish catch and rangeland beef production have both leveled off, the world has shifted to grain-based production of animal protein to expand output. With some 35 percent of the world grain harvest (760 million tons) used to produce animal protein, meat consumption has a large impact on grain consumption and therefore global food security.
The efficiency with which various animals convert grain into protein varies widely. Grain-fed beef is one of the least efficient forms of animal protein, taking roughly 7 pounds of grain to produce a 1-pound gain in live weight. Global beef production, most of which comes from rangelands, has grown by about 1 percent a year since 1990.
Pork production has grown by 2 percent annually since 1990. World pork production, half of it now in China, overtook beef production in 1979 and has widened the lead since then. It requires more than 3 pounds of grain to produce each 1-pound gain in live weight.
Poultry production has grown even more quickly: 4 percent annually in recent decades. It eclipsed beef in 1995, moving into second place behind pork. Poultry is even more efficient, requiring just more than 2 pounds of grain to produce a 1-pound gain in live weight.
Fish farm output may also soon overtake beef production. In fact, aquaculture has been the fastest-growing source of animal protein since 1990, expanding from 13 million tons to 56 million tons in 2009, or 8 percent a year. For herbivorous species of farmed fish (such as carp, tilapia and catfish), less than 2 pounds of grain is required to produce a 1-pound gain of live weight. Although farming carnivorous fish such as salmon can be environmentally disruptive, worldwide aquaculture is dominated by herbivorous species. This represents great growth potential for efficient animal protein production.
There are a number of ways to make animal protein production more efficient. Combining protein-rich soybean meal with grain dramatically boosts the efficiency with which grain is converted into animal protein, sometimes nearly doubling it. Virtually the entire world, including the three largest meat producers—China, the U.S. and Brazil—now relies heavily on soybean meal as a protein supplement in feed rations. Promising new livestock and dairy systems based on roughage rather than grain, such as India’s cooperative dairy model, boost both land and water productivity.
Achieving food security depends on changes on the demand side of the equation as well as the supply side. Along with moving to smaller families to curb population growth, this means cutting individual consumption by eating less grain-intensive livestock products and eliminating waste in the food system. An American living high on the food chain with a diet heavy in grain-intensive livestock products, including red meat, consumes twice as much grain as the average Italian and nearly four times as much as the average Indian. By adopting a Mediterranean diet, Americans can cut their grain footprint roughly in half, improving health while increasing global food security.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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