Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

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Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Feeding Seven Billion Well: New Protein Production Systems

Mounting pressures on the earth’s land and water resources to produce livestock, poultry, and fish feed have led to the evolution of some promising new animal protein production models, one of which is milk production in India. Since 1970, India’s milk production has increased more than fourfold, jumping from 21 million to 95 million tons. In 1998, India overtook the United States to become the world’s leading producer of milk and other dairy products. (See Figure 9–2.) 47

The spark for this explosive growth came in 1965 when an enterprising young Indian, Dr. Verghese Kurien, organized the National Dairy Development Board, an umbrella organization of dairy cooperatives. The dairy coop’s principal purpose was to market the milk from tiny herds that typically averaged two to three cows each, providing the link between the growing appetite for dairy products and the millions of village families who had only a small marketable surplus. 48

Creating the market for milk spurred the fourfold growth in output. In a country where protein shortages stunt the growth of so many children, expanding the milk supply from less than half a cup per person a day 30 years ago to more than a cup represents a major advance. 49

What is so remarkable is that India has built the world’s largest dairy industry almost entirely on roughage—wheat straw, rice straw, corn stalks, and grass collected from the roadside. Even so, the value of the milk produced each year now exceeds that of the rice harvest. 50

A second new protein production model, one that also relies on ruminants, has evolved in four provinces of central Eastern China—Hebei, Shangdong, Henan, and Anhui—where double cropping of winter wheat and corn is common. Once the winter wheat ripens in early summer, it is harvested quickly so the seedbed can be prepared for the corn. Similarly, once the corn is harvested in the fall, the seedbed is quickly prepared to sow the wheat. Although the wheat straw and cornstalks are often used as fuel for cooking, villagers are shifting to other sources of energy for this, which lets them feed the straw and cornstalks to cattle. Supplementing this roughage with small amounts of nitrogen in the form of urea allows the microflora in the complex four-stomach digestive system of cattle to convert roughage into animal protein efficiently. 51

These four crop-producing provinces in China, dubbed the Beef Belt by officials, produce much more beef, using crop residues—wheat and rice straw and corn stalks—than the vast grazing provinces in the northwest do. The use of crop residues to produce milk in India and beef in China lets farmers reap a second harvest from the original grain crop, boosting both land and labor productivity. 52

Over time, China has also developed a remarkably efficient fish polyculture using four types of carp that feed at different levels of the food chain, in effect emulating natural aquatic ecosystems. Silver carp and bighead carp are filter feeders, eating phytoplankton and zooplankton respectively. The grass carp, as its name implies, feeds largely on vegetation, while the common carp is a bottom feeder, living on detritus. These four species thus form a small ecosystem, with each filling a particular niche. This multi-species system, which converts feed into high-quality protein with remarkable efficiency, yielded some 13 million tons of carp in 2002. 53

While poultry production has grown rapidly in China, as in other developing countries, it has been dwarfed by the phenomenal growth of aquaculture. Today aquacultural output in China—at 29 million tons—is double that of poultry, making it the first major country where aquaculture has eclipsed poultry farming. The great economic and environmental attraction of this system is the efficiency with which it produces animal protein. 54

Although these three new protein models have evolved in India and China (both densely populated), similar systems can be adopted in other countries as population pressures intensify, as demand for meat and milk increase, and as farmers seek new ways to convert plant products into animal protein.

The world desperately needs more new protein production techniques such as these. A half-century ago, when there were only 2.5 billion people in the world, almost everyone wanted to move further up the food chain. Now that number may have doubled. Meat consumption is growing twice as fast as population, egg consumption is growing nearly three times as fast, and growth in the demand for fish—both from the oceans and from fish farms—is also outpacing that of population. Against this backdrop of growing world demand, human ingenuity in producing animal protein in ever-larger quantities and ever more efficiently will be tested. 55

While the world has had many years of experience in feeding an additional 70 million or more people each year, it has no experience with some 5 billion people wanting to move up the food chain at the same time. For a sense of what this translates into, consider what has happened in China since the economic reforms in 1978. As the fastest-growing economy in the world since then, China has in effect telescoped history, showing how diets change when incomes rise rapidly. 56

As recently as 1978, meat consumption was low in China, consisting mostly of modest amounts of pork. Since then, consumption of pork, beef, poultry, and mutton has climbed severalfold, pushing China’s total meat consumption far above that of the United States. As incomes rise in other countries, consumers there will also want more animal protein. Considering the effect of this expanding demand on global land and water resources, along with the more traditional demand from population growth, provides a better sense of future pressures on the earth. If world grain supplies tighten in the years ahead, the competition for grain between people wanting more biofuels, those living high on the food chain, and those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder will become both more visible and a possible source of tension within and among societies. 57

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