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9 Billion Mouths To Feed: The Future Of Our Food

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Cows from left to right: Davidoff, Goliath en Gabane from the Bremberg, winners in a cow contest

One in five human beings is overweight. One in seven is hungry. By 2050, we will have another two billion mouths to feed. How can agriculture meet this challenge? Should we take meat off the menu for good?

“How to feed and not to eat our world?” The title of Ruben Boonen’s PhD in bioscience engineering does not leave much to the imagination. “There is more than enough food on earth today”, Boonen explains. “2,770 kilocalories are available per person per day – more than enough. And yet, we see that one in seven human beings is hungry. In other words, hunger is not a matter of global deficiencies, it cannot be solved with more food. What has to change, here and elsewhere, and what will happen when there are another 2 billion people by 2050?”

“My starting point was the 6F framework for agriculture (see attention box). The framework distinguishes six different functions of agriculture and examines potential conflicts. Animals are a crucial factor in our agricultural model, but is it always ethical to keep animals for human consumption? Is animal feed not problematic if it causes the loss of food for human beings? To answer that question, the first thing you need to know is this: is it always less efficient to eat meat than to eat the animal feed?”

That sounds plain and simple: you never get more food out of an animal than you put into it?

Ruben Boonen: “That’s what you would expect. But you have to look at the bigger picture. Ruminants such as cows and sheep get a large proportion of their food from pasture, which is useless to human beings. Furthermore, a lot of animal feed is made from by-products. Just think of the potato peels for our fries, or the residual product of rapeseed for the production of oil.”

“In 1975, Aren Van Es calculated the efficiency of our animal production. Value 1 means that you get as much out of it as you put into it. For values under 1, it is more efficient to just eat the animal feed. In 1975, all protein efficiency scores were well below 1, except for milk cows. Forty years later, I have recalculated these values for our traditional Belgian stock: beef, poultry, and pigs. And then you see that the protein efficiency has dramatically increased. Milk cows even have a protein efficiency of almost 11: they yield more than ten times as much proteins as they consume. Pigs are quite a different story: even today, they are by far the least efficient way to produce meat for human consumption.”

“The energy efficiency, by contrast, has declined, but that is not such a problem in itself. Animal products are not eaten for their energy – quite the opposite: we want leaner meat.”

So what is the message? Our meat production is increasingly efficient, so it’s all right?

Boonen: “ Not quite. We tend to overfixate on the efficiency of keeping traditional stock: cows, pigs, chicken. For a really clever switch, you’d have to pick the most efficient meat source. Eating insects, for instance, would be a great idea, because they score well in terms of energy and proteins. That sounds gross, of course, but you can also frame the question differently: what would you least mind killing, cute calves or an annoying fly (laughs)? But I am not naive: we are creatures of habit, and as long as it is not necessary to trade meat for insects, we won’t do it.”

Could vegetarianism be the answer?

Boonen: “I am not a vegetarian myself, so there’s your answer (laughs). No, I think that meat can still be a part of our diet. After all, a vegetarian world still requires animals for milk, for eggs. These animals will die at some point. It would be a waste not to use them. Veganism? Perhaps. But then you would have to set up an agricultural system that is exclusively based on flora. That is more complicated than it sounds. The farmland has to be sufficiently fertilised, for one thing, and that fertiliser largely comes from animals. The entire shift would take decades.”

When you grow your own fruit, you are proud to eat that apple from your own backyard, even if it has three bruises.

“No, I don’t think the extremes are the answers. Vegetarianism in itself is not the answer. In the West, we could start by reducing our meat consumption to 100 grams per day. That would already make a big difference. Any way you look at it, meat still has a number of advantages: it is a relatively ‘easy’ way to get enough proteins.”

What are we doing wrong?

Boonen: “You know, for me, it is mostly a matter of respecting our food again. We have lost touch with where our food comes from. We just consume, and we no longer know the intrinsic value of products. When you grow your own fruit or vegetables, you are proud to eat that apple from your own backyard. It may have three bruises, but you still eat it with relish. In the supermarket, the tiniest spot is reason enough for us not to buy that apple.”

“I raise bantam hens, and I eat of some of them myself. They don’t have a lot of flesh, but I clean the bones. I sometimes see friends throwing away leftovers of roast chicken that have more meat left on them than my entire chicken ever had. That makes me think: perhaps it would not be a bad thing if everyone started producing half of the meat they consume, to make them aware of what it means.”

We still have a long way to go. While others are starving, we throw away a third of our food.

Boonen: “Mind you, that’s not just us. In Europe, we have a lot of supermarket waste, and consumers throw away a lot as well – that yoghurt in the fridge, for instance, which is still perfectly edible after the expiration date. But in Africa, there is waste as well, just a different kind. When you don’t have a fridge, the milk that you do not drink right away goes sour. Of you cannot harvest all the grain because you still harvest by hand.”

Eating insects would be really efficient in terms of energy and proteins.

“Some say: load our surplus food onto a ship or a plane and drop it where it is needed. That is not only unfeasible, it does not really solve anything either. In the long run, you will still have to make sure that enough food can be locally produced. I believe that is a significant part of the answer to feed the world: fix the flaws of our current system, make sure that people elsewhere have the knowledge and technology to make the most of agriculture as well. And tackle our overproduction and overconsumption.”

What if the rest of the world were to adopt our Western meat consumption?

Boonen: “Then we’d have a problem. It is already happening, by the way: thirty years ago, the Western countries consumed two thirds of the meat, the other countries one third. Today, the reverse is almost true: one third here, two thirds in the emerging economies. The meat consumption per person has not gone up dramatically, and is still far below ours, but the populations are very large. Who are we to say that a small increase is not allowed, when we still consume between 80 and 100 kilograms of meat per year ourselves?”

Can we, as individual consumers, change anything at all about the agricultural system?

Boonen: “Theoretically? Yes, of course. There are approximately half a billion Europeans. If they all change their eating habits overnight, agriculture has no choice but to follow. But the situation is indeed more complicated. Meat is cheap, we like it, and we don’t consider the consequences. What if we were to pursue a deliberate price policy, what if insect burgers were four times as cheap as hamburgers? I also don’t think the message should be that meat is bad by definition. I think we should send a positive message: eat more fruit and vegetables. And then you will automatically eat smaller portions of meat.”

Another question you ask is this: is it ethical to feed meat to your pets?

Boonen: “The question is certainly legitimate. Is het normal that we keep more and more carnivorous pets? That we feed lamb, salmon, or rice with chicken and vegetable to cats and dogs, while people on the other side of the world have no rice, chicken, or even vegetables? Shouldn’t we be keeping herbivorous pets, such as rabbits? You can house-train them as well (laughs). That, of course, is not the ultimate solution to all problems, but it is yet another small step in the right direction.”

Shouldn’t we just give up pets altogether?

Boonen: “They are part of the fun factor of agriculture. That may sound unnecessary, but it’s not. In some countries in Africa, they have nothing, but they still brew banana beer – purely for fun. That is human nature: life is more than just efficiency. You could call everything except the nutritional value of food ‘fun’. The alternative would be some kind of dry dog food for human beings: food with all the nutrients we need, in neatly measured quantities. No more, no less. But let’s be honest: who’d want to eat that?”


The 6f framework for agriculture

The 6F framework was developed by bioscience engineer Stef Aerts (KU Leuven). The six Fs stand for the functions of agriculture for human beings: Food (for human beings), Feed (for animals), Fuel, Fibre (for clothes), Flower (ornamental plants), and Fun.

The framework shows how ethical discussions can come about when one function interferes with the other. Can you produce crops for biofuel – which comes down to almost literally burning food – in a world where some people are starving? Is it acceptable to keep carnivorous pets (Fun)? Is it not wasteful to grow crops for animal feed instead of for human consumption (Food)?

In his doctoral dissertation, Ruben Boonen proposes to replace Flower with Foster, “because the fostering role of agriculture will become increasingly important for the next generations.”


Ruben Boonen: conducted his research in the context of the Boerenbond Chair for Agriculture and Society.

Source: KU Leuven Newsroom (University of Leuven)

Content Curation: The content curation research for this article was funded by Flemish companies PAUWELS and GEVERS.

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