February 13, 2010

Science Saturday

It's taken as somewhat gospel in certain circles that reducing meat consumption in the U.S. and globally would be a good thing for reducing waist lines, the impact of climate change, etc. And, based on my limited understanding of these various issues, that seems logical and I generally agree.

But I found this news story from the journal Science to be quite interesting.

Although cutting back on meat has many potential benefits, [food-security researchers] say the complexities of global markets and human food traditions could also produce some counterintuitive—and possibly counterproductive—results. "It's not this panacea that people have put forward," says Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRPI) in Washington, D.C. One provocative forecast: If people in industrialized nations gave up half their meat, more Asian children could become malnourished.

The effect on climate change has been one of the biggest arguments in support of eating less meat, because a reduced demand for meat would, presumably, reduce the need for those big-arse factory farms where all of those cows are spouting all of that warm-air trapping methane out of their behinds. But this article comes at the issue from the angle of "food security," that is, the ability of different countries/regions to grow/secure enough food to feed their people. And some researchers with grant dollars have developed a sophisticated computer model to estimate what might happen if meat consumption declined precipitously in developed countries like the U.S.

First, the simulation found that as demand for meat fell, prices declined and meat became more affordable worldwide. As a result, in the developing world, per capita meat consumption actually increased by 13% as poorer consumers could buy more. ...

Surprisingly, however, when the rich halved their meat habit, the poor didn't necessarily get that much more grain—their largest source of calories. According to the model, per capita cereal consumption in developing nations rose by just 1.5%. That's enough grain to ease hunger for 3.6 million malnourished children—but nowhere near the kinds of gains many expect from curbing meat consumption.

The simulations even showed that reduced meat consumption could lead to malnutrition increases in developing countries like India. Yes, these are computer simulations, but that's an important part of what science is these days. And the environmental benefits have to be figured into the equation, so to speak, particularly if the movement from factory farms to more sustainable farms can be vastly accelerated.

Yes, grass-fed cows also spew a lot of methane. But fewer of them can be kept on any given farm, and when done properly, a farm with grass-fed cows and other free-range animals is its own little self-sustaining ecosystem that has multiple benefits from a nutrition and environmental standpoint.

It's all food for though, eh?