Crops grown for food (green) versus for animal feed and fuel (purple)
Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people. Another 36 percent is used for animal feed. And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses…
The proportions are even more striking in the United States, where just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California. By contrast, more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.
Some of that animal feed eventually becomes food, obviously — but it’s a much, much more indirect process. It takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef, for instance.
The map itself comes from Jonathan Foley’s fascinating, visually rich exploration in National Geographic of how we can possibly feed everyone as the world’s population grows from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century…
There are lots of possible strategies here. Farmers could increase agricultural productivity by boosting crop yields — either through new farming techniques or through improved crop genetics. But even if the rapid rate of improvement in crop yields over the 20th century continued, that still wouldn’t produce enough food for everyone…
One implication of that is that, as countries like China and India grow and consume more milk and meat, the pressure on global farmland will grow. But, alternatively, if the world shifted even a small portion of its diet away from resource-intensive meats or grew fewer biofuels, we could wring more food calories out of existing farmland.
There are many more strategies – which almost always fall under the category of tweaks. Poisonally, I’d rather see the production of flavorful vegetable-based protein continue to move forward, become practical and affordable. Yes, flavorful means “tastes like meat, tastes like chicken, tastes like fish”.
I think philosophical discussions about the life and death of animals that evolved along omnivore humans won’t change public opinion anymore in the next couple of centuries than was achieved in the last couple. Make veggie-based stuff that consumes fewer calories of potential energy and tastes like the stuff we grew up consuming, furry, finned or feathered – and costs less – and you have a winner.
Fortunately, there are a number of folks working on that. That’s the side I’m on.