An Urban's Rural View

Do Calls for Radical Diet Changes Repeat the Malthusian Mistake?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Where you stand depends on where you sit. That's how Rufus Miles, a perceptive bureaucrat, encapsulated the idea that organizations advocate policies that reflect their institutional perspectives. (…) For an example of Miles' Law at work, we need look no further than "Food Planet Health," a report spearheaded by EAT, a Stockholm-based organization that says it was "established to catalyze a food-system transformation." (…) Faithful to Miles' Law, EAT's report finds that a radical transformation of the world's food system is needed -- now.

The report was the work of a group of agriculture, public health and environmental experts that EAT assembled. Their report proposes to save the planet and greatly improve human health through a massive change in almost everyone's diets.

Groups of experts issue reports all the time, of course, and most of these reports are soon forgotten. This one is worth farmers and ranchers' attention. Were the world to embrace it, farmers everywhere would be forced to make drastic changes in what they produce.

The proposed "food-system transformation" is very much in keeping with the spirit of our era. Nutritionists have been telling us for decades to eat less meat, sugar and refined grains and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. This report recommends cutting worldwide sugar and meat consumption by 50% (much more in North America, which consumes 6.5 times the recommended amount of red meat) and doubling consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Yet even more than the drastic recommendations to eat only one egg a week and 1.5 chicken nuggets a day, what stands out in this report are the claimed benefits: 11 million fewer deaths a year and slower global warming.

"Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth," the report says. Without a radical transformation in diet, "the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, and today's children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease."

The knowledgeable people who worked on this report -- some 37 scientists from 16 countries -- deserve to be taken seriously. That doesn't mean they can't be questioned. Here are a few questions that came to mind reading the report.

-- Is it realistic to think large numbers of people will adopt this diet? The authors seem to be counting on governments to make it happen -- by, for example, "making healthy foods more available, accessible and affordable in place of unhealthier alternatives, improving information and food marketing, investing in public health information and sustainability education, implementing food-based dietary guidelines, and using health care services to deliver dietary advice and interventions." But would that really be enough? Would governments instead need to stiffen those "dietary guidelines" into laws? What steps would they be prepared to take if their stiffened steps met massive public resistance?

-- Is this diet really the only healthy one? Consider that Australia leads the world in per capita meat consumption (…) and still ranks fourteenth among the world's 224 countries in life expectancy at 82.3 years. (…) Japan, which ranks second in life expectancy at 85.3 years, has a refined grain -- white rice -- as its staple food. (In case you were wondering, the U.S. ranks second in meat consumption and 43rd in life expectancy. Israel is third in meat and 12th in life expectancy.)

-- Is this diet really essential to saving the planet? There's no question that a human population of 7 billion, heading for 10 billion in 2050, stresses the environment. But is agriculture really the most important stressor? And even if it is, how much of that stress is due to methane emissions from cows? Might there be ways -- like adding seaweed to their feed -- to reduce those emissions without drastically reducing the cow population? (…).

More generally, does everyone really need to subsist on broccoli and almonds to reduce agriculture's impact on the environment? Have farmers really exhausted all the possible environmentally friendly ways of growing existing crops? Aren't scientists working on new ones even now?

It has been 220 years since Thomas Malthus wrote that "...the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." (…). History suggests Malthus underestimated the ability of agricultural technology to keep pace with population growth.

So, my final question is this: Could the authors of this report be repeating a variant of the Malthusian mistake? Aren't they underestimating future technological improvements that could enable farmers and ranchers to produce more food on the same amount of land with less environmental impact?

When, a la Miles, experts start with the aim of catalyzing a radical food-system transformation, it isn't surprising that their reading of the research concludes that a radical food-system transformation is necessary. They may be right. But they have some questions to answer first.

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Urban Lehner
2/22/2019 | 9:54 AM CST
Thanks, Mr. Runholt. I saw that Economist article and was planning to do another blog on the subject of population estimates. But you've already written it for me! As you point out, the key long term is education of women and girls.
Thomas Runholt
2/18/2019 | 8:11 AM CST
"EAT" is indeed presumptive as was Malthus in projecting population growth. Population is no longer increasing geometrically and overwhelming our food supply. A quick perusal on Google shows the lifetime fertility rate for women worldwide now to be below 2.5 births; a number dropping rapidly to less than half the world's fecundity in 1960. The Economist in issues dated Jan 19 and Feb 2, and the WSJ on Feb 7 also add color to this in articles and book reviews. The Economist points to a recent anomaly in Africa where high birth rates are most worrisome. Even a grade school education for girls substantially reduces desired lifetime births in every society as well as outcomes for their children. Primary education rates dropped for African girls born around 1980 leading to an increase in the barefoot and pregnant in the 90's and early 2000's. That education deficiency now appears to have reversed, and their children likely will be less fertile than their mothers and reproduce at a rate closer to world norms. Educated guesses by astute demographers now look to a peak world population of 9.4bn in 2075 and a drop to 7bn in 2100. Low birth rates are already changing the interface of the world's cultures and may be the defining issue of this century, much as astonishing population growth fueled what the world came to be in the 20th. The "EAT" gurus, in my opinion---prey to their own prejudices---want to change our diets so drastically that most of us would like to see them isolated in straitjackets. We are omnivores and like meat, even if we know that moderation in consumption would be desirable. Another Economist article pegs grain conversion for chickens at 1.3 kg of feed per kg of gain, so we certainly don't need to hold back on chicken and eggs. Also ruminant animals convert grass we can't eat into meat so it is dumb to say we can't eat beef. Our current breeds also are optimized for choice finish utilizing our abundant grain supply. We now convert twice as much corn to ethanol, DDG's and corn sugar as we export, giving us about a 4bn bushel corn slush fund that could be fed directly or exported if needed. That cheap fructose sweetening unlimited soda pop---not animal fat and protein---may be the biggest contributor to obesity, increasing morbidity, and ill-health in our country. Regarding grain supplies to feed over-crowded countries with too-fast population growth: A rough rule of thumb is that 400 lb of food grain per capita is enough for basic nutrition in places where meat is mostly un-affordable, and most protein needs are met by legumes. Here, we consume about a ton of grain per capita directly as flour and rice and indirectly as meat. That number continues to go down as science is applied to animal agriculture. Also we get more efficient over time and concurrently can be more conservation minded with little effect on productivity. More foodstuffs can be diverted from the surplus in the developed world to food to food deficient areas. Certainly as important, parts of Africa and Pakistan where we see the most need for more food are among the least efficient of the world's areas in food production. There is a need for a Marshall Plan like effort in food deficit places for local food-centric as opposed to export crop oriented agricultural development. This, along with an emphasis in all poor areas on improving education for women and girls which is the best antidote for a plague of too many babies bringing perpetual poverty.