Saturday, September 14, 2013

Feeding The World-Is it ONLY Agriculture's Problem?

At the beginning of this month I was fortunate enough to attend the Midwest Swine Nutrition Conference. This is typically a way for the 5 major universities (Ohio State, Purdue, University of Kentucky, University of Illinois, and Michigan State) who plan the event to share their research with nutrition companies and other swine industry partners. This year there was less research presented and we were lucky enough to have some fascinating outside speakers. Today's topic covers a presentation given about animal food sources.

Dr. William Weldon, a VP with Elanco Animal Health, presented a study they had performed in coordination with the American Dietetics Association titled "Enriching People's Lives: A 2013 Report on the Importance of Animal Source Foods". Much of what he presented was not new information to the crowd. The world population is currently about 7 billion people which is expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050. The most interesting prediction is that there will be 3 billion more people in the middle class, 2.5 billion of which will be in the Asia-Pacific region. The fact that the middle class in China is increasing is not news, but the fact that there are so many people poised to move into the middle class is news. Exporting products is an important part of American Agriculture, especially since the US exports more ag products than it imports, making it one of the only sectors that is consistently showing a positive trade balance. According to the USDA, the US has already seen $78 billion in exports in this calendar year ($119 billion in the fiscal year). Imports so far have been $62 billion ($87 billion in the fiscal year). To make this simpler, the US exports 15% of corn, about 50% of wheat produced, and 1 in 4 pigs in the US are exported. With regards to pigs, Asia has long been considered the next export market. Ironic considering China produces about 400 million pigs per year while the US produces only around 60-70 million pigs per year. But as evidenced by the recent acquisition of Smithfield by a Chinese company, they want the safe technology and practices the US uses to produce meat and grains. Many countries like China have food systems that are plagued by disease, feed inconsistencies, and unclean production methods. It never hurts to be reminded that the US is blessed to have such cheap and safe food (the US spends the least money on food in the world).

But getting back to the presentation, Dr. Weldon spoke on Food Security in the world. According to the World Health Organization, Food Security is defined as availability, access, and use of food. He presented data showing that individuals in the developing world are living on less than $2 a day and the incoming "middle class" living on only $3-10 a day. We can argue this next fact all day but I will stand by this statement: meat, milk, and eggs provide a more concentrated protein source than plants (here is one supporting article). And not only do they offer a more concentrated protein source but meat, milk and eggs provide more readily available nutrients than plants. Its an accepted fact that most animals only digest about 50% of what they take in and let's face it: humans have to work really hard to have a strictly plant-based balanced diet. The nutrients more readily available include iron, zinc, calcium, vitamins A, D, and B12 all of which are essential in brain function but also in brain, muscle, and skeletal development.

It's estimated that 2-3% of a countries national income is lost to malnutrition each year! Most developing countries survive on grain based diets, yet as soon as they earn a little extra money to spend on food (say $3 instead of $2) they immediately buy eggs, then progress to milk and meat products as they gain buying power. Dr. Weldon presented data from Kenyan schools that showed increasing leadership skills, energy, and test scores as animal products were introduced into daily meals. This is powerful information for individuals in developing countries because more education means better jobs and brighter futures. 

What I wondered after this presentation was but how are we going to increase food production for an increasing population? Truthfully, we already produce enough food to feed the world but the food does not always end up where it is supposed to (failure of local governments, storage loss, wastage, etc). So is it really up to only the Agriculture sector to increase production to feed an increasing population? Shouldn't we be providing more support to improve local governments (and not necessarily by bombing a country and imposing our own ideals on them), infrastructures and aid programs? You can argue with me and say that all the grain we are feeding to animals should instead be given to people, but I just pointed out that meat is a more nutritionally packed food source than plants are (not to mention we produced more meat with less grain than ever before). Animal sources may be a good way to improve health but they are also important to maintain healthy weights (or reduce obesity--oh first world problems). If we only improve and increase production in the world, it will require at least 120 million more hectares to be put into production, which would cause increased destruction of important ecosystems like the rainforest (FAO) and further exacerbate production issues. 

Dr. Weldon left us with a question: How are we going to spread the word about the importance of animal source foods? Well there are plenty of options: the Chew On This Tour, obtaining a Master's in Beef Advocacy, giving presentations to organizations for the National Pork Board's Operation Main Street, to name only a few ways to promote education. 

My question is how are we going to address the hunger we are seeing in the US, not to mention the world? There is always room for improvement in production agriculture-we can improve crop varieties, water usage, animal production techniques, there are many possibilities to increase production to feed the world. But production is only part of the problem as I mentioned before...governmental failures, infrastructure problems, and lack of money are bigger concerns when it comes to feeding the world. Think what you will of the SNAP/WIC programs but not everybody who is on government assistance is abusing the system. September is Hunger Action Month and now is the time to combat hunger here at home. Here are only a few ideas of how to combat hunger in your community: Support Feeding AmericaHunger Free Minnesota, and Invest An Acre (farmers donate at least an acre of crop proceeds to their local food bank), as well as donate/help out at local food banks. I think the most impressive thing Feeding America has done is show that the Faces of Hunger are not always who we expect to see...often they are hard-working people who have hit tough times. We need to stop judging our fellow man and start helping out. So after this post, my question to you is not just how are you going to spread the good news about animal products, but how are you going to change the lives of people in your community that may be suffering from hunger? Because feeding the world is not just the problem of all those involved in should be a battle that the entire world comes together to fight. 

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