EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Moving Up the Food Chain Efficiently: Up the Food Chain

For those living at subsistence level, 60 percent or more of calories typically come from a single starchy food staple such as rice, wheat, or corn. Diversifying this diet is everywhere a high personal priority as incomes rise. One of the first additions people make is animal protein in some form—meat, milk, eggs, and fish. 2

Since 1950, world meat production has climbed from 44 million to 253 million tons, more than a fivefold jump. Except for 1959, it has risen every year during this period, becoming one of the world’s most predictable economic trends. (See Figure 3–1.) Worldwide, the average person consumed 41 kilograms of meat in 2003, more than double the figure a half-century ago. 3

Comparing grain use per person in India and the United States gives us an idea of how much grain it takes to move up the food chain. In a low-income country like India—where annual grain production falls well short of 200 kilograms per person, or roughly 1 pound a day—nearly all grain must be eaten directly to satisfy basic food energy needs. Little can be converted into animal protein. Not surprisingly, the consumption of most livestock products in India, especially meat where religious restrictions also apply, is rather low. Milk, egg, and poultry consumption, however, are beginning to rise, particularly among India’s expanding middle class. 4

The average American, in contrast, consumes roughly 800 kilograms of grain per year, four fifths or more of it indirectly in the form of meat, milk, eggs, and farmed fish. Thus the grain consumption, direct and indirect, of an affluent American is easily four times that of the typical Indian. 5

Ironically, the healthiest people in the world are not those who live very low or very high on the food chain but those who occupy an intermediate position. Italians, eating less than 400 kilograms of grain per person annually, have a longer life expectancy than either Indians or Americans. This is all the more remarkable because U.S. expenditures on health care per person are much higher than those in Italy. Italians benefit from what is commonly described as the Mediterranean diet, considered by many to be the world’s healthiest. 6

People in some countries live high on the food chain but use relatively little grain to feed animals; Argentina and Brazil, for instance, depend heavily on grass-fed beef. Japanese also live high on the food chain, but use only moderate amounts of feedgrains because their protein intake is dominated by seafood from oceanic fisheries. 7


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2. Food balance sheets from ibid., updated 27 August 2004.

3. Figure 3–1 compiled from FAO, op. cit. note 1, and from historical statistics in Worldwatch Institute, Signposts 2002, CD-Rom (Washington, DC: 2002); average per capita consumption from FAO, op. cit. note 1, and from population in United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision (New York: 2003).

4. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, at www.fas.usda.gov/psd, updated 13 August 2004; United Nations, op. cit. note 3.

5. USDA, op. cit. note 4; United Nations, op. cit. note 3.

6. USDA, op. cit. note 4; United Nations, op. cit. note 3.

7. FAO, op. cit. note 1; FAO, FISHSTAT Plus, electronic database, viewed 13 August 2004. 

Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute