Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Two Weird Tricks For Solving World Hunger

Research shows we can increase food availability up to 70 percent just by using farmland more efficiently.

  • Wheat bending in the wind

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    Researchers say about 45 percent of the calories farmers produce goes to animal feed or biofuels. The good news: we could do better.

  • Global Calorie Delivery Fractions

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    Photo: courtesy of Emily Cassidy et al, from Redefining Agricultural Yields: From Tonnes To People Nourished Per Hectare in Environmental Research Letters

    This graphic illustrates the percent of calories produced on global farmland that becomes food.

  • Heat map of the U.S. showing percent of calories from farmland used for food.

    Image 3 of 6

    Photo: courtesy of Emily Cassidy et al, from Redefining Agricultural Yields: From Tonnes To People Nourished Per Hectare in Environmental Research Letters

    The U.S. uses 67 percent of the total calories produced on farmland, mostly corn, to feed animals.

  • Heat map of the U.S. showing percent of food calories produced on farmland.

    Image 4 of 6

    Photo: courtesy of Emily Cassidy et al, from Redefining Agricultural Yields: From Tonnes To People Nourished Per Hectare in Environmental Research Letters

    Since most of the U.S. calorie production goes to animal feed, only 34 percent of those calories end up in the food system.

  • A graphic shows the caloric efficiency of crops used for animal feed.

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    Photo: courtesy of Emily Cassidy et al, from Redefining Agricultural Yields: From Tonnes To People Nourished Per Hectare in Environmental Research Letters

    Based on USDA data, this table shows how feed crops are converted to calories and protein from edible meat, egg and dairy. Upshot: smaller animals use feed more efficiently.

  • Graphic shows global crops with losses from feed and fuel production.

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    Photo: courtesy of Emily Cassidy et al, from Redefining Agricultural Yields: From Tonnes To People Nourished Per Hectare in Environmental Research Letters

    This graph shows food calorie losses from major crops. Calories delivered are shown in green, and calories lost to meat and dairy conversion or biofuels and other uses are shown in red.

Nearly a third of the world’s land is used for agriculture, but one in eight people in the world are food insecure. According to research from the University of Minnesota, the problem is that we’re not growing food very efficiently, and we’re using the land to make fuel. Emily Cassidy, lead author of the paper and a biofuels research analyst for the Environmental Working Group, said about 45 percent of the calories the world grows on farms ends up as animal feed or biofuels.

“We really need to think about using the land that we are currently using for agriculture more efficiently so that we don’t have to continue to deforest Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil,” she said. By shifting away from intensive meat production — especially beef — and away from biofuel crops that take up massive tracts of arable land, global calorie availability may increase by as much as 70 percent. That’s about 3.88 x 1015 calories, by the way, if you’re counting.

Eat Smaller Animals

Beef production is less efficient by orders of magnitude than other kinds of meat and dairy production. It takes 30 calories of feed to make one calorie of edible beef. Part of the reason is that large animals, including humans, burn more calories just standing around. It takes energy to pump blood out to the extremities and to make large bones, organs and frames. “They have less conversion efficiency because a lot of the calories that we’re feeding them is going into inedible parts of the animals,” Cassidy said.

According to the study published in Environmental Research Letters, 36 percent of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed, but only 12 percent of those feed calories end up contributing to the human diet. “Shifting to grain-fed chicken and pork could reduce the amount of land that’s required to produce the meat that we consume.” When counting calories alone, all meat and dairy is less efficient than plant sources.

Grow More Food

The world’s voracious thirst for biofuels has also taken food out of the breadbasket. From 2000 to 2010, the amount of potential food calories used for biofuel increased more than 450 percent worldwide. In the U.S., the percent of corn used for ethanol jumped from 6 percent in 2000 to 38 percent in 2010. Cassidy said there are promising biofuel alternatives, like perennial grasses, that could be grown on land that wouldn’t be used for food crops, and could be used to stanch agricultural runoff or filter agrochemicals around the boundaries of fields.

She suggested revisiting renewable fuel standards in the U.S. that have promoted conversion of corn to ethanol, which has impinged on the food system. “Corn is the world’s biggest animal feed, and the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn,” she said. “Taking that animal feed and using it for fuel drives up the price of animal feed, which is a big determinant of meat and dairy prices.”

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Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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  • Mike

    Interesting ideas. In addition to these other issues could be addressed. If, rather than paying the farmers subsidies not to grow crops we allowed them to grow everything their farm could manage they would need to hire more people to help in the production. Once this is complete the extra food could be shipped to third world countries that need the food rather than sending them money that gets pocketed by officials. By doing this the transportation industry would be bolstered and jobs would be created, in addition we would need more people to assist in coordination of the process and transportation.

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