The birth of a baby is a wonderful thing. The birth of the seven billionth person alive will be a huge milestone. It both represents the success of our species and throws up the question of our very future on this planet.
Feeding people has always been important. It will be even more so with billions of extra mouths to feed in the coming years.
The truth is that we’re already doing a bad job of it. A billion people are hungry and another billion are malnourished. At the same time, a billion people are obese – overweight to the point where their health is endangered. The divide between rich and poor has perhaps never been so stark.
Over the last half century, the Western world has championed industrialised farming; large-scale production of single crops, be it cereals or animals, fueled by copious chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Our farm animals have disappeared from the land only to be grain-fed and reared in industrial sheds. This is how the vast majority of meat and eggs are produced in Europe and the USA – in factory farms. Sadly, it’s a model now exported around the world. And it’s hugely wasteful.
A third or more of the world’s cereal harvest is fed to industrially-raised animals. If the grain fed to farm animals were grown in a single field, it would cover the entire land surface of the European Union.
But worse than that; factory farms are protein factories in reverse – they waste food, rather than make it. On average, it takes 6 tonnes of plant protein such as cereals or soya to produce 1 tonne of animal protein for human consumption. That’s a shameful waste.
And if that food wasn’t diverted to feed factory farms, it could be fed directly to people. Or the land used for something else. As Professor Steve Jones put it in the Daily Telegraph, “A shift in the production of the commonest crops to feed people directly, rather than to use grain to fatten animals, would increase the calories available by half, and more or less solve the joint problems of shortage and glut”.
Whilst the human population is expected to grow by a further 2 billion or more by 2050, the livestock population is forecast to double, and much of it factory farmed.
Encouraging the spread of factory farming is literally putting hungry people in competition for food with factory farmed animals. The resulting increased demand for basic staples then drives up food prices to the detriment of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. As Oxfam observed, “Increased demand for grains to feed livestock, coupled with the burgeoning demand from biofuels for feedstocks, is likely to push future food prices further beyond the limits of affordability for the world’s poorest people”.
So we need to stop wasting vast amounts of grain, taking it off the international market and out of the mouths of people to feed factory farms. Instead, we should be looking for better, less wasteful ways of producing food. We need a fairer food system that ensures all people get enough to eat. And that farm animals return to the land where they belong to play a more efficient part in our sustainable food future. Your support for change is needed today more than ever. There are now seven billion good reasons to go beyond factory farming.