By Gidon Eshel
Global agricultural policies have prevented famine, but have also increased disease, environmental degradation and climate change, while wasting natural resources and undermining biodiversity. The need to rethink those policies has been clear for decades, but little has changed. Just as it would be a shame to waste the Ukraine crisis by not rethinking energy policies, it would be equally disheartening if we don’t use this war as an opportunity to rethink our agricultural policies.
Famine appears to be inevitable in countries around the world, most markedly in Africa. It stems from the alleged loss of Russian and Ukrainian wheat production – about 100 million tons a year or a quarter of the world total – and Russia’s nitrogenous fertilizer exports – about 7 million tons a year before the invasion or 7% of global use–.
In April, the food price index published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations rose 30% from a year earlier. While world fertilizer prices increased by 125% year-on-year in January and another 17% between the beginning of the year and March.
Given the seasonality of agricultural production and persistent problems in supply chains, no policy change can combat this year’s shortage. But famine is still avoidable.
The United States and Canada now have about 44 million tons of wheat in their reserves. North American coarse grains double these reserves to levels that can fully support 45 million people for a year.
The pulse and nut stocks of rich nations bring this to 50 million people a year just months before the next North American wheat harvest.
And then there is the feeding of the cattle. More than 250 million tons of wheat, barley, oats and other cereals are used worldwide for feed, of which more than 90 million are used in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australia alone. This investment offers surprisingly little.
One hundred kilograms of protein feed to feed cattle produces between 10 and 15 kilos of protein from poultry, eggs, dairy, or only 3 kilos of protein from beef. Thus, the world sacrifices annually for livestock production at least 220 million tons of nutrient-rich cereals, more than double the wheat deficit of Russia and Ukraine.
The expected wheat famine in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen this year, as well as the political unrest that such food shortages sometimes cause, could be prevented by using existing grain and pulse stocks and redirecting grain from livestock feed to food. emergency humans. But such measures are inherently temporary. What about the long-term future?
Let’s look at the diets of two hypothetical people. The first consumes the average diet in the United States, in size and composition. The other person’s diet is identical in every way, except that the beef Americans normally consume (about 50 to 70 grams daily) has been replaced with a diverse and nutritious mix of plant-based alternatives.
If we compare the resource needs of beef alone or its plant-based alternative, that portion of the diet annually requires about 1,200 square meters of farmland and more than 12 kilograms of nitrogenous fertilizer for the person consuming the diet. with meat, but about 400 square meters and 3 kilos of nitrogenous fertilizer for those who eat the vegetarian diet.
We can replace meat with plant-based foods to offset future wheat shortfalls like the one caused by the invasion of Ukraine. With annual wheat yields of about 1,300 to 1,400 kilograms per 4,000 square meters in the United States and Canada, and 2,700 to 3,600 kilograms in northwestern Europe, fully offsetting the shortfall by producing an additional 50 million tons of wheat on each continent it requires between 360 billion and 380 billion hectares and between 140 billion and 190 billion hectares, respectively.
Each person who replaces beef with plant-based foods saves almost 25 square meters, which would free up this land. To fully offset a shortage like the one caused by the Ukraine invasion, 215 million to 250 million North Americans and Europeans are required to transition from beef to plant-based foods, which will reduce current meat consumption of beef in North America and Europe between 42% and 45% and between 14% and 18%, respectively.
Such a transition would be fertilizer neutral, as the change in diet would save enough fertilizer to offset the high additional demand for wheat to offset famine in Ukraine. Given that the transition from beef to a vegetarian diet saves about 10 kilos of fertilizer per person, the 215 million to 250 million people who now eat a plant-based diet will save 2.2 million to 2.5 million tons of nitrogen.
The additional fertilizer that the added wheat acreage would require is the median nitrogen fertilization rate for US and EU wheat – 41 and 56 kilograms per 100 square meters per year, respectively – multiplied by the 36 million to 38 million and the 14 million to 19 million new hectares of wheat required, and between 2.3 million and 2.6 million tons of fertilizer.
Transitioning from beef to a plant-based diet would save almost all fertilizer costs to produce the extra wheat to fight war-induced famine in Ukraine, which is essential in light of the 7 million tons of food shortages. Russian fertilizer exports.
Beyond saving millions of people from starvation without additional fertilizer needs, the partial change in diet will reduce death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer by 10% to 18%. Those who go the extra mile and forgo meat altogether will enjoy even greater reductions, as well as lose weight and lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
If, as projected, millions of people soon experience famine, it will not be a “Putin famine,” but an easily preventable famine by choice, caused because the people and leaders of wealthy nations have decided that preventing it is too inconvenient.