Meat on the table cannot be taken for granted

December 09, 2012


The day may come when there simply is not enough meat to go around. Put another way, so much of the world's population consumes meat, it may not be possible to satisfy that hunger in years to come.

Simple economics dictate that meat is bound to become increasingly scarce around the world.

Here's why: It takes 11 kilograms of grain to produce a single kilogram of beef. Thus, future meat output is dependent on the amount of grain set aside for feeding cattle--an issue that is assuming heightened importance as grain is set aside to produce bio-fuel.

There are two main camps when it comes to arguments about a global "food crisis." In one corner, people argue that total global food production will not match overall demand, resulting in a shortage. In the other, people argue that overall production will be sufficient--but with the caveat that food will not reach specific regions due to "disrupted distribution."

Fears of supply shortages are fueled by shrinking resources of safe drinking water and unfavorable weather conditions, such as droughts.

These reflect a number of findings. One includes trial calculations showing that food production will decrease if the average global temperature rises more than 3 degrees. Another concerns a U.N. report that 5 million hectares of agricultural land is being transformed into desert each year.

Conversely, there are those who believe the world still has ample supply capacity.

Hiroyuki Kawashima, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, explained: "Almost 20 percent, or 300 million hectares, of the world's arable land lies fallow. If this, as well as parcels of forested land is cleared, there will be plenty of room for more cultivation. Production technology is advancing, which means production efficiency per unit area is also increasing."

China, with a population of 1.3 billion and a rapidly growing middle class, is developing a ravenous appetite for meat and fish.

Annual per capital consumption of meat in China is expected to top out at close to the 50-kilogram per person range of Japan and not exceed the 120 kilograms or so that the average American consumes in a year.

Like all of Asia, where consumption is rising, Chinese dishes incorporate a range of ingredients, including fish.

For developed countries such as Japan, even if supply shortages occur, as long as distribution in international markets is maintained, demand will eventually be adjusted by price increases.

Over the past few decades the international price of grain had remained within a fixed price range. But since 2006, when demand began to soar with the advent of bio-fuel, prices rose in tandem. They have yet to come down.

In other words, according to a trading company executive, "The most important thing in securing foodstuffs is having the economic capacity to do so."

A disruption in distribution can have unforeseen consequences. From 2007 through 2008, Russia and Ukraine took the bold step of introducing export regulations, which included setting export quotas and imposing duties on the export of wheat and barley.

Japan, which primarily imports these commodities from the United States and Australia, was not particularly affected. But riots and protests erupted in more than 20 countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia and Tunisia.

Many experts cited a lack of food as the trigger for the Arab Spring movement that swept the Islamic world in 2010 and 2011 with calls for governments to embrace democratic freedoms.

As far as Japan is concerned, there is general consensus that the country needs to diversify its sources of food imports to protect itself against disruptions to distribution.

Last year, to help ensure that the implementation of export controls is not so easily repeated, the Agricultural Market Information System was launched. Its first task was to share information on the outlook for production and demand.

Group of 20 countries play a central role in the system, and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization acts as secretariat.

Critics say that because these countries are developed, like Japan, they can maintain sufficient economic strength to battle steep price jumps and diversify import sources to sidestep export regulations.

According to the FAO, roughly one in eight of the world's population, or 868 million people, was starving in the period covering 2010 to 2012. While the figure is down from 1 billion just 10 years ago, it demonstrates that not enough food is reaching the mouths of hundreds of millions around the world.

Even though it may appear that trade regulations and market mechanisms are functioning the world over, a significant percentage of people are unable to reap the benefits of resource distribution.

There is no question that rising global demand for meat is negatively impacting countries in Africa and elsewhere that have low purchasing power and a high dependency on imported grain.

Many of these countries face severe shortfalls of food because of civil war and inept governance.

David Hallam, director of the trade and markets division at FAO headquarters in Italy, told me: "It is possible to increase the production of food to cope with a globally increasing population and the accompanying demand for meat. There is, however, a prerequisite, namely carrying out $80 billion a year of new agricultural investment in African countries and elsewhere."

Local self-sufficiency is one thing. Spreading agricultural output in developing countries is another. In the end, both benefit the rest of the world in one way or another. The problem is who will pay for the investment. Should that be the task of local governments, or governments and businesses in the consuming countries?

"That's a question," said Hallam.

Government-affiliated enterprises and private-sector companies from countries like China, the Gulf states and South Korea are already involved in agricultural enterprises in Africa. They are developing basic infrastructure, such as roads and harbors, and opening export routes back to their home countries. As systems for dealing with land transactions are still underdeveloped in many of the host countries, friction has developed between the foreign arrivals and local people who have been forcibly evicted from their land.

Food security guarantees cannot exist in one country alone. In addition to increasing the transparency of trading and distribution in international markets, consideration must be given to developing countries. International strategy and insight are essential in this age of mass meat consumption.


For two days in late October, about 100 temporary stalls promoting anything-but-ordinary products lined a pathway through Yoyogi Park in Tokyo's Shibuya district. Coming together for the tenth annual Tokyo Vegefood Festa, shops and food stands were treating visitors to vegan dishes consisting of grains, nuts, berries, seaweed and other vegetable-based ingredients.

Though the International Vegetarian Union defines a vegetarian as someone whose diet consists solely of foods derived from plants, with or without eggs and dairy products, the mouthwatering dishes on offer at the festival used absolutely no eggs or dairy products. Chinese food, boxed lunches and sweets of assorted colors proved popular.

According to Haruka Moori, a director of the nonprofit Veg Culture Network, the event's sponsor, the event drew about 35,000 visitors.

Mitsuru Kakimoto, president of the Japan Vegetarian Society which supported the event, said, "Nutritionally, there is no proof that eating meat is good for you."

For those who believe that not eating meat will result in a deficiency of protein, Kakimoto responded, "Protein is absorbed by the body as amino acid and soybeans. Grains contain enough amino acid to satisfy the body's needs."

According to a 2008 survey by the Food Standards Agency in the Britain, so-called the birthplace of vegetarianism, 3 percent of the population was totally vegetarian and 5 percent was quasi-vegetarian, meaning they avoided some meats.

"From the outset, animal welfare sentiment has been strong in Britain. In recent years, the addition of health considerations and environmental consciousness has led to increased vegetarianism," explained Kakimoto.

In Japan and the United States, health is seen as the strongest motivator for vegetarians. For example, 100 grams of sirloin steak typically contains 12 grams of protein and 48 grams of fat. In 100 grams of soybeans, however, there are 33 grams of protein and just 22 grams of fat. Many dietitians assert that a vegetable diet allows people to obtain protein while avoiding arteriosclerosis-inducing animal fat.

In response to this, Akikazu Takada, 76, professor emeritus at the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine and author of "Niku wo taberu to kennko ni naru" (Eating Meat Leads to Good Health) (Chukei Publishing), said, "In general, the body's protein absorption rate is higher with meat. For the body, eating it together with fish and vegetables is best."

Takada added: "Eating meat removes stress and anxiety. While on the contrary, unreasonably abstaining from something you believe to be delicious is capable of causing harm to your health."

(This article was written by Mizuho Kajiwara and Etsushi Tsuru)

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(Photo: Hiroyuki Kodera)

(Photo: Hiroyuki Kodera)

  • (Photo: Hiroyuki Kodera)

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