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Less Is More: Eating Less Meat Today Could Help Us Avoid Future Shortages

Scientists warn that a combination of drought, population growth, overeating and food waste could cause meat shortages in the years ahead.

In case you haven't heard, you might want to get your fill of BLTs this month, 'cause a global bacon shortage is a-comin'. That's according to estimates out of the European Union, where drought has resulted in less animal feed and thus a downgrading of pork estimates. (The USDA, on the other hand, insists there will be plenty of bacon for all.)

While global droughts are being blamed for the shortage, the blame is probably better placed at our bacon-loving feet. According to a recent report by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), given how water- and energy-intensive it is to produce animal-based food products, the world is simply consuming more meat than we can sustainably produce. In other words, unless we want to see a real bacon shortage in the next couple of decades we'd better curb our intake now.

The SIWI report puts average human meat intake at about 20 percent of calories, but notes that, given estimates that the world's population will swell from 7 billion today to over 9 billion by 2050, that level of consumption cannot be sustained by the earth's resources. "There will be just enough water if the proportion of animal-based foods is limited to 5 percent of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a … reliable system of food trade," the report states.

It's not just that we consume too much, but also that we waste a lot. A recent McKinsey report puts global food waste at about 30 percent of all food produced at the moment, and the SIWI report says it could be as much as 50 percent. Unfortunately, food waste is not a new problem. An FAO report released 30 years ago stated that "It is distressing to note that so much time is being devoted to the culture of the plant, so much money spent on irrigation, fertilisation and crop protection measures, only to be wasted about a week after harvest."

Since that report was released, resources have continued to become more constrained and little has been done to eliminate waste from food production processes. Meanwhile dietary trends have moved toward more water-intensive food items, and larger quantities of them.
At the same time that we're consuming more than we can produce, and wasting more than we should, meat production is also generating greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change and, in turn, extreme weather like monsoons and--you guessed it--drought. The good news is that the same solutions that will help us conserve water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will also help us satisfy bacon cravings for decades to come and, more importantly, keep all 9 billion humans on our planet healthy and well-fed.
"There is more than enough food produced and available on the market to feed the entire world population," says Jan Lundqvist, senior scientific advisor at SIWI. "One basic problem is poverty: people with no or very little money simply do not have access to the food that is available. However, it should also be noted that overeating is a much more prevalent phenomenon than under-nutrition, with about 1,500 million people overeating as compared to about 900 million people under-nourished."
In addition to various technologies that will help make agricultural production more water- and energy-efficient, we can start to address this problem--and stave off a future meat shortage--today simply by consuming and wasting less.
There are a handful of initiatives currently underway that are helping consumers and businesses to do exactly that. The European Commission passed a resolution in January 2012 to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2025. The Commission expects countries to attain this goal via measures such as small- and medium-scale farming and crop production that is geared to local market demand.
The Commission is also encouraging nations to rethink expiration dates on packaged foods and opt for only "use-by" dates rather than "sell by" dates. Although food is still safe for consumption on the sell-by dates, consumers tend to think it isn't, leading stores to dispose of perfectly edible food. The EU has also called on member nations to run awareness campaigns to promote the idea of using food sustainably and has designated 2014 as the "European Year against Food Waste".
Lundqvist also points to the UK organization WRAP as an example of progress made on reducing food waste. Although much of WRAP's work centers on reducing food packaging waste, the organization has also helped to divert 670,000 tons of food waste from landfills since its inception in 2000. Its site Love Food Hate Waste helps consumers find ways to reduce food waste, via recipes and tips. The organization works with businesses and government organizations, and also runs various consumer awareness campaigns, all with the aim of reducing waste.
As food waste is reduced, we should see less pressure on the water, land, and energy resources required to produce food, as well as a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Even leaving the climate change bit out of the equation, the United States alone has an established—and expensive ($190 billion in healthcare costs according to the nonprofit Campaign to End Obesity)—obesity problem. If tackling that problem also delivers water and energy savings, and helps more people out of hunger, it's a win on all fronts.
Image (cc) flickr user SaucyGlo\n

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