Near-record high prices for meat and milk, in the U.S. and around the world, in 2013 and 2014, are clearly hard news for consumers. But there's another school of thought that welcomes high prices, one that sees a simple solution to the problems of feeding a fast-growing global population and rising environmental stress: Eat less meat.
Animal-based products are inefficient, their argument goes, requiring a greater share of our planet's dwindling resources to produce than the equivalent calories of plant-based foods. Besides, they say, these products aren't very good for you. So put down that steak and pass the tofu.
If that sounds simple, remember the immortal words of H.L. Mencken: "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
Why? Let's start with the simple fact that our species evolved eating meat, and for millennia we've shown a pronounced appetite for it and other animal products, such as eggs and milk. And this appetite reflects our bodies' need for the high-quality proteins, vitamins and other micronutrients that these products possess, which is why they're recommended by such authorities as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Poignant evidence of the healthful benefits of animal-source protein comes from a 2007 study in Kenya. It found that children whose diets were supplemented with meat or milk showed improved growth, motor development, levels of physical activity, leadership skills and initiative and test scores. In addition, a 1999 report prepared for The World Bank, showed that in the developing world, "intake of animal source products positively predicted both physical and developmental outcomes in children, illustrating the potential utility of these foods in the diet." And earlier this year, the USDA lifted weekly limits on proteins served at school to give children access to healthy menus.
This isn't to say that people can't get the nutrition they need without eating animal products. But it is clear, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and many other authorities have noted, that it's much easier to do so with meat, milk and eggs.
It's also clear that people want to eat animal-based products. Over the past 150 years, for example, as incomes have risen in many countries, meat consumption has grown rapidly. China certainly provides a dramatic recent precedent. Between 1982 and 2012, meat consumption there quadrupled.
My wife and I have seen this desire firsthand in our work with food banks in the Indianapolis area. Meat, eggs and milk are some of the most demanded items, yet the hardest to supply.
It's simply unreasonable to think that global demand for meat, milk and eggs is going to do anything but rise significantly -- indeed, the FAO projects a 60 percent increase in demand by 2050. So the only way to limit consumption is to limit production, which will inflate prices to a level where only the affluent can afford these products.
Actually, we're already well on our way to this future -- prices for meat and dairy are already at or near 21st-century global peaks, according to the FAO Food Price Index. So in spite of their improving fortunes, the emerging middle classes of Asia, Africa and Latin America (and even the struggling lower middle classes of North America and Europe) could well have to do without.
This is a global injustice.
People in developed countries generally have choices, including foods raised with conventional or organic methods; livestock raised free-range or not; crops grown with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or GMO-free; and so on. And that's great; I'm all for choice.
But ironically, attitudes in the developed world have led to regulations and trade restrictions in both developed and developing countries that reduce local productivity, hinder trade and raise prices beyond what many people in the developing world can afford. These consequences can be unintended; some in the developed world are not even aware of them. Regardless, the result in developing countries is often no choice.
Instead of telling people in the developing world, "Sorry, no meat for you," I propose a more hopeful strategy. I propose offering them a choice.
Doing so, it may surprise you to learn, shouldn't be all that difficult. And we can do it sustainably. All we really have to do is embrace the kinds of innovations that have gotten us as far as we've already come in the production of animal products.
Management - It cannot be stressed enough: A healthy, well-cared-for animal is also a more productive animal. So simply widening the application of best practices in animal husbandry around the world will result in significantly higher productivity. Such practices include better housing, fresh water, improved hygiene, and new management platforms like robotic milking machines and diagnostics.
Innovations - Use of tools like genetics, vaccines, anti-parasitics and even new platforms like biotechnology, genomics and enzymes, as long as proven safe and regulated, will help keep animals healthy, improve animal well-being and enhance productivity.
Trade - Open trade is a key to global food security, because growing food where resources exist and productivity is high increases the availability of food while also making its production more sustainable. We need to reduce and eliminate tariffs, invest in infrastructure and establish science-based regulatory product-approval systems.
These are only a few of the many kinds of changes we can employ to meet the rising global demand for meat, milk and eggs while simultaneously improving animal health and well-being.
Since the dawn of humanity, human beings have benefited from eating animal products. Before we deny these benefits to hundreds of millions of people, shouldn't we give these innovative strategies every opportunity to succeed?
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