World grain production down, meat consumption up

Posted: 16 December 2011

World grain production fell in 2010, exacerbating a global food situation already plagued by rising prices, but world consumption of animal protein is everywhere on the rise.

Despite record rice and maize yields around the world, global wheat production in 2010 dropped substantially enough to bring total grain output to just below 2008 levels, according to new research published by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online publication.

Rice field with farmer
Rice field with farmer. Photo © Bharat Bhushan

Maize, wheat, and rice provide nearly two-thirds of the global human diet and serve as critical inputs for both animal feed and industrial products. The significance of these crops guarantees that a decline in production will produce ripple effects throughout the global economy, particularly as increased food prices continue to take a toll on the world's neediest populations. Overall, rice and wheat production have tripled since the 1960s, and maize production has quadrupled, despite global acreage of these crops increasing by only 35 percent.
 
"Production increased worldwide, but there was greater reliance on irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides - all of which take resources, can be costly, and may cause substantial environmental degradation," said contributing researcher Richard Weil.

Signs of recovery

Nevertheless, preliminary data for 2011 indicate that grain production is recovering from the 2010 slump. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently forecast that cereal output in 2011-12 will be 3 percent higher than in 2010-11.

"Grain remains the foundation of the world's diet, and the failure of harvests in recent years to keep pace with growth in meat consumption and population is worrisome," said Worldwatch President Robert Engelman. "It's important that we identify and implement more inventive and sustainable strategies in grain production. Reducing the proportion of grain harvests lost to weather disasters and waste or diverted for corn ethanol production and animal feed is among such strategies. It's also important that we prioritize grain availability for those who need it most."
 

Bioethanol plant
Corn being unloaded from a railcar at an ethanol plant in Windsor, Colorado. The plant processes some 150 million litres of ethanol annually. Credit: NREL/Gerry Harrow

Rising demand for ethanol fuel, which in the United States is produced almost exclusively from corn feedstock, is having an impact on grain prices as well. "According to the CBO, about 20 percent of the increase in maize prices between 2007 and 2008 was due to domestic ethanol demand," said Weil. Demand for grains is also rising in countries such as China and India, where growing middle classes are adopting more diverse diets. 

Food security

Globally,  meat consumption increased from 44 million tons in 1950 to 284 million tons in 2009, more than doubling annual consumption per person to over 90 pounds, according to the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). The rise in consumption of milk and eggs is equally dramatic. Wherever incomes rise, so does meat consumption.  

As the oceanic fish catch and rangeland beef production have both leveled off, the world has shifted to grain-based production of animal protein to expand output. With some 35 percent of the world grain harvest (760 million tons) used to produce animal protein, meat consumption has a large impact on grain consumption, and therefore global food security. 

World Animal Protein Production Per Person, 1961-2009

 

There are a number of ways to make animal protein production more efficient, says EPI. Combining protein-rich soybean meal with grain dramatically boosts the efficiency with which grain is converted into animal protein, sometimes nearly doubling it. Virtually the entire world, including the three largest meat producers — China, the United States, and Brazil — now relies heavily on soybean meal as a protein supplement in feed rations.  Promising new livestock and dairy systems based on roughage rather than grain, such as India’s cooperative dairy model, boost both land and water productivity. 

Achieving food security depends on changes on the demand side of the equation as well as the supply side. Along with moving to smaller families to curb population growth, this means cutting individual consumption by eating less grain-intensive livestock products and eliminating waste in the food system.

An American living high on the food chain with a diet heavy in grain-intensive livestock products, including red meat, consumes twice as much grain as the average Italian and nearly four times as much as the average Indian. By adopting a Mediterranean diet, Americans can cut their grain footprint roughly in half, improving health while increasing global food security, says EPI.