EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Moving Up the Food Chain Efficiently: Oceans and Rangelands

During much of the last half-century, the growth in demand for animal protein was satisfied by the rising output of two natural systems: oceanic fisheries and rangelands. Between 1950 and 1990, the oceanic fish catch climbed from 19 million to 85 million tons, a fivefold gain. (See Figure 3–3.) During this period, seafood consumption per person nearly doubled, climbing from 8 to 15 kilograms. 18

This was the golden age of oceanic fisheries. Never before had the world seen such growth in an animal protein source. It grew rapidly as fishing technologies evolved that helped fishers bring in their catch more efficiently and as refrigerated processing ships began to accompany fishing fleets, enabling them to operate in distant waters.

Unfortunately, the human appetite for seafood is outgrowing the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries. Today 70 percent of fisheries are being fished at or beyond their sustainable capacity. As a result, many are in decline and some have collapsed. In some fisheries, the breeding stocks have been mostly destroyed. A 2003 landmark study by a Canadian-German science team, published in Nature, concluded that 90 percent of the large predatory fish in the oceans had disappeared over the last 50 years. 19

This ambitious, 10-year assessment drew on data from all the world’s major fisheries. Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist at Canada’s Dalhousie University and lead scientist in this study, says, “From giant blue marlin to mighty blue fin tuna, from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left.” 20

Fisheries are collapsing throughout the world. The fabled cod fishery of Canada failed in the early 1990s. Those off the coast of New England were not far behind. And in Europe, cod fisheries are in decline, approaching a free fall. Like the Canadian cod fishery, the European fisheries may have been depleted to the point of no return. 21

Myers goes on to say, “Since 1950, with the onset of industrialized fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10 percent—not just in some areas, not just for some stocks, but for entire communities of these large fish species from the tropics to the poles.” In contrast to the rapid rise in seafood consumption per person during the last century, the world’s still-growing population is now facing a substantial decline in seafood catch per person. 22

Rangelands, like the oceans, are also essentially natural systems. Located mostly in semiarid regions too dry to sustain agriculture, they are vast, covering roughly twice the area planted to crops. 23

Perhaps 180 million of the world’s people depend entirely on livestock for their livelihood. Most of these are in the pastoral communities of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Mongolia, and northern and western China. As these populations grew, so did their livestock populations. Environmentally, nearly all these pastoral societies are in trouble. Since rangelands are typically owned in common, there is no immediate reason for individual families to limit the number of cattle, sheep, or goats. The result is widespread overgrazing, desertification, personal hardship, and slower growth in livestock production. 24

World beef production climbed from 20 million tons in 1950 to nearly 60 million tons in 2003. But after doubling between 1950 and 1975, growth has become progressively slower, dropping to under 1 percent a year since 1990. Just as oceanic fisheries are being overfished, the world’s rangelands are being overgrazed. As a result, the grasses on which livestock forage are slowly deteriorating. 25

As vegetation disappears, the soil begins to blow. At first dust storms remove the finer particles of soil. Once these have largely blown away, sand storms become the prevailing measure of degradation. As the sand begins to drift, it forms sand dunes; these begin to encroach on farmers’ land, making both grazing and farming untenable.

The world has reached the end of an era with both oceanic fisheries and rangelands. Human demands for seafood, beef, and mutton have surpassed the sustainable yield of these systems. With these two natural systems reaching their limits, future growth in animal protein production will have to come largely from feeding. Producing the feedstuffs, principally corn and soybeans, will put more pressure on the earth’s land and water resources—pressure that is already unsustainable in some countries. At this point, the incorporation of soybean meal into livestock rations to boost sharply the efficiency with which grain is converted into animal protein is indispensable.


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18. Figure 3–3 compiled from FAO, op. cit. note 1, from FAO, op. cit. note 7, and from Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 3; United Nations, op. cit. note 3.

19. FAO, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2002 (Rome: 2002), p. 23; Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature, 15 May 2003, pp. 280–83.

20. Myers and Worm, op. cit. note 19; Charles Crosby, “‘Blue Frontier’ is Decimated,” Dalhousie News, 11 June 2003.

21. Myers and Worm, op. cit. note 19.

22. Ibid.; Crosby, op. cit. note 20.

23. World Resources Institute, World Resources 2000–2001 (Washington, DC: 2000).

24. Number of pastoralists from “Investing in Pastoralism,” Agriculture Technology Notes (Washington, DC: World Bank, Rural Development Department), March 1998, p. 1; FAO, op. cit. note 1.

25. FAO, op. cit. note 1; Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 3.


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