Food security

Food security

A key food security issue went through without much comment in a recent Alloporus post on meat.

Via a calculation on the carbon footprint of omnivory, an estimate of the amount of productive land needed to provide all the humans on the planet with enough calories from plants to meet their daily needs came out at 4 million km2.

Next to this number we can put the FAO estimate that says there is roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth and a simple conclusion is reached: we should be fine.

All we have to do is eat plants.

According to this juxtaposition of area estimates, we have 10 times the land area we need to grow enough food to feed everyone. Surely all the chatter and concern about food security is unnecessary.

We grow more than we need, waste a whole bunch, and still have land to spare. Get over it.

There appears to be more than enough productive land to meet human needs. Perhaps as much as an order of magnitude more meaning we could go beyond needs towards our wants too… rib-eye and chocolate moose anyone?

Well perhaps.

Thanks to energy inputs, technology and a global supply chain there is remarkable capacity to feed people – the global requirement for roughly 14 trillion calories per day is a lot of food. That this happens every day with a declining failure rate is miraculous. Yet it happens and this supply seems to be keeping up with increasing demand. All the indices of poverty, hunger, the size and frequency of famines are heading in the right direction. Proportionally fewer people go hungry today than 5 years ago and serious regional famines are historical.

There is always more to do of course. Hunger and poverty still exist, even within wealthy societies, but the pragmatist will see food security as a social or political problem, not a problem of production.

So why does a Google Scholar search on food security pull up 729,000 research articles from the last 5 years alone with 60,000 of these published in the first 9 months of 2018?

Presumably a lot of researchers and the people behind the systems that fund their work believe we have a problem. Perhaps we need to go deeper than simple ratios.

The first confounding factor is in the 4 million km2 calculation where all the calories come from plants, the most energy efficient food source.

We know that people like to eat animal products in all their myriad forms. If a quarter of the required calories for each person’s daily needs come from animals (meat, milk and eggs) then the area requirement jumps dramatically thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. Meat contains calories but the animal also needed calories to maintain itself and grow before it gave up its tissues to the food chain.

This energy requirement is roughly 9 to 1.

So if a person eats 600 calories worth of meat and dairy products per day, then the animals that created this protein needed to consume 5,400 calories. They get this from plants (and the occasional meat based protein pellet).

If everyone consumed a quarter of their daily calories from animals instead of plants then the 4 million km2 requirement becomes 13 million km2. This is 27% of the available area.

Still plenty of buffer, right?

Well yes and no. The original calculation assumed that production was efficient. Crops produced predictable yields at near average levels. Averages are a useful metric in this type of calculation because they absorb the inevitable variation from one region to another, one landholding to another and even among fields.

Just as important though is the variance in production.

Suppose that the average yield of wheat is 3.0 t/ha, near enough the global average. However, in the low input, low output production systems of Australia the average is 1.9 t/ha, whilst the global average is 3.3 t/ha Yield is double. A drought or a widespread plant disease in Germany, where wheat production is over 24 million tonnes and the average yield over 9 t/ha, would have a disproportionate effect on global production than dry times in Australia.

Also averages can change over time. It happens that average grain yields have risen consistently for several decades at up to 1% per year for some commodities. More security you would think. Only there is a physical limit to yield, and, in time, averages could easily decline for any number of reasons. There is also the risk of catastrophe.

Among the many interesting numbers generated by the FAO is a critical one for our calorie count. The FAO report that 40% of soil in production systems is degraded. Below average in other words.

So let’s suppose than over the next decade yield averages decline on these degraded soils, let’s say by 50%. The 13 million km2 to grow enough calories becomes 15.6 million km2 and we are up to a third of the available area.

Then there are the climate change effects that will mess up average yields as well as increase catastrophic risk from drought fire and flood. If 2 million km2 of production area fails due to local catastrophe there is a 15% shortfall in calories. This amount will be hard to even out across the global supply chains.

These are enough production side challenges to tweak nerves. Next though we have to look at demand. First is the 1 billion or so people who consume far more than 2,400 calories per day; the average American ingests 3,600 calories. This pushes the area up to 19.8 million km2.

Not to forget the 8,000 new souls every hour of every day.

All this doom and gloom calculator craziness can go on and on. There is still a land buffer. At the moment there is land to spare and to absorb all the inevitable inefficiencies.

However, the 200 research articles per day on food security through 2018 is both reassuring and an alert. We need sharp minds on this real and present risk.

Think about all of this the next time you see a kilo of onions on sale for a dollar.



“Less Meat Less Heat (LMLH) is a grassroots, non-profit organisation dedicated to shifting societal attitudes towards meat consumption and as such curtailing agriculture’s damaging influence on the global climate. Our work encompasses educating the public through sound science about the massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb. Through helping individuals transition to low-carbon eating habits we aim to leverage the power of individual action as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.

From the home page of Less Meat Less Heat website

Cows belch often.

They are ruminants, mammals that enlist microbes to ferment plants they ingest in a specialised stomach prior to digestion. This symbiosis means they able to exist on a diet high in cellulose, a key constituent of grass.

Only it also means that cows belch a lot. The bacteria that assist the cow to digest cellulose include methanogens that produce methane as a metabolic byproduct. This gas builds up and has to be let out. It’s similar for us only we tend to fart more than belch.

The problem for the climate change conundrum is that methane is a greenhouse gas over 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And methane is what ruminants burp.

An average dairy cow puts out around 100 kg of methane each year. Depending on how you calculate it, this is roughly equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from a car. Beef cattle belch a little less so it takes two to match up to a car. The global numbers are interesting though. There are a little over 1 billion cars on earth and somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 billion cows.

As far as the greenhouse gas balance goes, human consumption of meat and dairy products is roughly equivalent to the impact from our cars.

Note that this is without counting emissions from the clearing of woody vegetation to find or grow enough grass for the livestock.

Methane from ruminants (cattle, goats and sheep) makes up over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and up to 14% of all global emissions.

This is a big deal.

So much so that some people, such as those responsible for the quote above, are adamant that meat from cows and sheep is an environmental disaster. Only there is a significant reason why agriculture is often left out of any national carbon accounting even though it is the source of a third of global emissions.

People have to eat.

In the next hour as souls depart and new ones join the human diaspora there will be a change. In an hours time, there will be at least 9,700 more souls on the planet than we have right now. Funerals and births are not yet in balance.

Assuming that these souls are nourished around 500ha of productive land will be needed to grow enough calories for their daily needs.

A year from now when 83 million new souls have joined, the planet has to give up 4.6 million ha of productive land to feed them.

This crude calculation makes some simple assumptions. Calorie intake is 20% more than is needed to avoid starvation but half that consumed by the average US citizen. Calories come from growing wheat, and not from animal products. All else is equal, so the 7.5 billion souls already here are being fed and watered too.

Having meandered away to the big picture reality, let’s look again at the “massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb” and “low-carbon eating habits… as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.”

If we all grew dreadlocks and avoided meat, then the calorific conversion from land to the plate would be improved. No need for the respiration of animals burning the calories before we got at them. And no need for their nasty methane emissions.

But we still need 2,500 calories per person per day.

If all this energy came from plant products, agriculture was near perfect efficiency and all else was equal, the 7.5 billion souls need a little over 4 million km2 of productive land to generate enough vegetarian calories.

There are roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth, so we should be fine. Plus there are ever more sophisticated technologies that can intensify food production to deliver greater yield from smaller areas. Hydroponics is a fine example.

So in theory at least there is enough land to feed perhaps 9 or even 11 billion souls. No worries and no fuss.

And as ‘less meat, less heat’ proclaim, without meat, we can mitigate the threat of climate change.

If only it were that simple.


banana pancakes Back in the day some genetic conditioning had me realize that “he who provides will find a mate” a confused confusion if ever I heard one.

So I learnt to cook.

Not to the Masterchef skill level but enough to hopefully impress the ladies. I can remember a few horribly lame attempts in the early days — meat and two veg is never going to cut it. And then I discovered pancakes.

Now we are not talking about the sickly sweet variety that begins life as powder in plastic bottles on supermarket shelves.

These are proper pancakes with whole meal flour, eggs, a dash of milk and a layer of lightly stewed apples with just a little too much cinnamon. Topped with real maple syrup this works a treat, as my beautiful wife will attest.

After more than a decade of happy togetherness I am still grateful to the whole meal pancake.

Then a problem emerged when a year ago we made a family decision to give up eating wheat. Well almost because I challenge anyone to give up pasta made at home by an Italian.

Once in a blue moon a home-made pizza also makes it onto the dinner table but bread has gone the way of pastries and other commercial grain products. We pass on any processed foods with flour.

It is remarkable what a difference that decision has made to our health and, dare I say, wellbeing. And that is a big call from a crusty bread and jam addict.

It is also remarkable how restrictive it is being truly wheat free when out and about. I have often stared at the display cabinet in a café and failed to find anything that I could order.

But I digress. Back to pancakes.

Was it too much to also give away that small but significant token of affection? Of course it was for it is not the cooking that matters at all. It is all about the action of providing food from a loving place.

So I needed an alternative to the whole-wheat delights and found it in a fruit.

Banana pancakes

Yes, banana pancakes. They are  truly worthy and although the recipe is modest there is enough technique to demonstrate that you really do care.

  • 4 bananas [green tinged skin are ideal as you need firm flesh]
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 generous tablespoons of almond meal
  • half a teaspoon of baking powder
  • coconut oil
  • berries
  • maple syrup

Here is what you do

Add everything to a big bowl and blend with a stick mixer until you can get a lava like consistency to the mixture. There is no risk of over doing it.

While this is going on put the heat under the biggest and baddest non-stick fry pan you own. Not too much heat though. The trick to the banana pancake is long and slow for they are usually thick, more a pikelet than a pancake, and too much heat produces burnt mush.

The other secret weapon is coconut oil. You can use the spray can version but the solid stuff that comes in a jar is best

Let about half a teaspoon melt in the pan and spread it with a spatula.

Now add the pancake mixture one tablespoon at a time with space between the blobs.

They are ready to turn when a shake of the pan sees at least one of them moving.

Flip with said spatula for any attempt to impress with fry pan dexterity will end badly.

Serve on a big platter topped with berries of your choice — blueberries for the sweeter tooth and raspberries for those who prefer the tart taste.

Have plenty of real maple syrup to hand and present with two spoons. Eat directly from the platter remembering that although you are the bloke, under no circumstances eat more than half the pancakes.

This is such a winner that it may even be better than the original cinnamon-apple version.

formerly banana pancakes s

Minions will love it too.