CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Can We Continue to Feed the World? by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Our current global population, currently about 6 billion people, is expected to increase by more than one quarter over the next two decades. We must find ways to increase food production to sustain growing populations in developing countries. But this challenge must be accomplished without major increases in the amount of new land under cultivation, which would further threaten forests and biodiversity, and without resorting to unsustainable farming practices.
Ian Johnson

One of the most sacred illusions of America is that its agriculture is above all reproach. Not only is the United States the "breadbasket of the world", but the developing world is somehow incapable of emulating America's productive farming methods. There is one thing Americans are sure about, without their food and generosity, much of the rest of the world would starve.
Unequal Trades in Agriculture

Many people see the consumption of meat as a symbol of affluence; the more meat we eat, the better off we are. Others would advocate that we stop eating meat altogether. Those that suggest we stop eating meat generally do so for one of two reasons. Many believe it is morally wrong to eat meat, citing that animals have rights just like the rest of us, while others maintain that it is more environmentally friendly to not eat meat. Not eating meat could extend the world's food supply.

If we look at data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations we find that as of 1998 on average every man, woman and child on the earth eats 37.7 kg of meat per year, which includes beef, pork, poultry and other meats. So we ask the question, is 37.7 kg per person per year a large amount of meat and could we feed more people if we didn't eat it? Without any point of reference it's difficult to answer this question. So, let's for a minute assume that the 37.7 kg is all beef, which is about 83 lb per year or about 0.23 lb per day; roughly a quarter-pound hamburger per day. There is however, great disparity in the amount of meat consumed around the globe. For example, meat consumption in Bangladesh is about 1/11 of the world average, while that in the U.S. is approximately 3 times the world average.

Raising livestock for human consumption requires enormous amounts of grain. For the last forty years approximately 37% of the world's annual grain harvest has been fed to livestock. However, in the United States the percentage of grain (excluding exports) fed to livestock is closer to 90%. The same is true for other affluent developed countries. David Pimentel in his book Food, Energy and Society (University Press of Colorado, 1996) suggests that rather than feed grain to livestock, we should let the livestock eat grass and divert the grain to human consumption. He estimates that for every 130 million tons of diverted grain we could feed an additional 400 million people. In other words, we could feed an additional 2 billion people worldwide if grain fed to livestock was diverted to human consumption.

As economies expand, citizens have higher expectations for themselves, their families and their governments. They also have more money to spend and as a result expect to be able to consume more meat and meat products. The Chinese government would like to double the per capita consumption of eggs by the Chinese people from 100 to 200. In order to meet this new demand, China would have to have approximately one egg-laying chicken per person or about 1.5 billion chickens. As a result, China's demand for grain to feed those chickens will eventually outstrip the world's total supply of grain.

This entire analysis though, ignores the fact that raising livestock, whether grass-fed or grain-fed, creates huge environmental problems. In the state of Oregon, 25,000 dairy cattle produce 300,000 gallons of waste every day! Many of the area's oyster growers blame contamination from the manure for closing shellfish harvesting for 50 to 90 days a year, thus directly affecting their livelihood. During a storm in the summer of 1995, 25 million gallons of concentrated swine manure and urine contaminated the New River in North Carolina as well as the New River Estuary. Increased oxygen demand and enormous blooms of algae thrived for three months after the discharge killing thousands of fish along the river and some 10,000 Atlantic menhaden at the site of a Pfiesteria outbreak.

Undoubtedly, the farmers of the world, including large corporate farming empires, need to strike a balance between feeding the masses and destroying the land on which their business depends. Let's hope it isn't too late.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. Questions
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
    A very informative site with a large amount of data available in searchable databases, though the databases could be a little more user-friendly.
  • United States Department of Agriculture
    When President Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture in 1862, I'm sure he never envisioned his "people's Department" as reaching the people quite so easily as through the Department's website. Lot's of information here, including sections on food safety and the new 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (i.e. the Farm Act).
  • EarthTrends at the World Resources Institute
    This is an excellent site with more information in searchable databases than you could ever imagine needing. For environmental data this is usually the first place I look.
  • Unequal Trades in Agriculture
    This is a synopsis of the book "Unequal Trades in Agriculture" found at the site of the Institute for Economic Democracy. The article does a good job of making the case against U.S. agricultural products.
  • Ecological and Economic Consequences of Meat Consumption
    This is a well-written article on the consequences of eating meat. The author outlines several problem areas, including the destruction of forests by manure, the destruction of water and the over-acidification of the soil.
  • Humanity's Evolutionary Diet and Ape Diets
    This article tries to dispel the vegetarian point of view that humans were not designed to meat eaters. The article is a transcript of an interview with Ward Nicholson the founder of the Natural Hygiene movement. Interesting reading.
  • New Study Reveals That Environmental Damage Threatens Future World Food Production
    According to the website, by using analysis of satellite-derived data, digital maps and new ways of mapping global agriculture, this report is the first comprehensive audit of world agriculture's ability to provide sufficient food for sustaining human life.
  • Organic Farming Will Feed the World
    The author describes how organic farming is more productive than high-tech agriculture, but loses points from me for sounding a bit too conspiratorial.
  • U.S. Food and Agriculture Policy: A Failed Concept or a Conspiracy?
    Leonard Schnell is a retired farmer and in this article gives his take on the U.S. farm industry and the steps necessary to fix it. Addressing the many farm recessions that family farmers have had to face, he says, "Like a hot wind in summer, it brings with it a new plague, a pestilence of plenty, that threatens the independent status of the farming industry." An interesting perspective.
  • Disturbing Facts On Factory Farming & Food Safety
    This is essentially a laundry list of facts about the relationship between factory farming and antibiotics, water pollution, animal welfare, economics, public health and sustainability. All of the facts listed have source citations where more information can be found.
  • Animal Farming and the Environment
    Found on the Oxford Vegetarians Website, this article gives more facts and figures about the environmental damage caused by animal farming. The article also offers some solutions to the problems.
  • Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Agriculture and Food Supply
    In this article from the online journal, CONSEQUENCES, the authors, rather than report on how farming affects the environment, describe the effect of the environment on farming. The article paints a rather interesting scenario.
  • Food and the Environment
    In several articles, the Union of Concerned Scientists takes a look at large-scale industrial agriculture, genetic modification of food, organic farming and sustainable agriculture. This is an excellent site and as usual the UCS does a great job of giving us a clear picture of what's going on.
  • Organic Farming: Facing Choices at the Crossroads
    In this article, Dr. Charles Benbrook of the University of Guelph gives an excellent treatise on organic farming.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003