Last year the world population passed the 7 billion mark. Population projections out to 2100 rise as high as 15 billion or drop to 5 billion. The middle estimate for the future is for population growth to level out at about 10 billion people on earth. That will require a considerable increase in the production of essentials such as food and water. Further complicating the future is the fact energy consumption is growing even faster than population as China, India and other developing countries seek a life style similar to the United States.
Just to feed the future at the current rate where billions go to bed every night hungry will require 40 percent more food and water. To bring the developing world up to western dietary standards will require a 100 percent increase in food, water and land dedicated to agriculture.
Half the land in the United States is already in use as crop land or pasture, and there is little room for expansion. Agriculture already uses 80 percent of the fresh water available. At the same time rising global temperatures are expected to reduce the availability of both land and water. Like it or not, the future of our food production is constrained by energy, land and water.
The only way we will be able to produce more is to become more efficient in our production methods, and/or more efficient in our diets. We are already “eating” crude oil because it takes 10 barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) per person per year to feed ourselves. In reality food is our fuel which we measure in calories. The average American diet takes 20 calories of energy input to produce one calorie of food. This ratio is obtained by dividing the fossil fuel energy input by protein energy output. The higher the ratio, the less efficient the foodstuff.
America’s “it’s what’s for dinner” favorite is beef, which is also about the most inefficient food with a ratio of 54. The ratio is high for beef because of our method of fattening cattle on grains. The efficiency of the process would be much better if we only fed cattle on pasture, but there isn’t enough pasture land for us all to eat grass fed beef. The ratios for some other foods are eggs 26, pork 17, dairy 14, catfish 7, and Chicken 5.
It appears the only way to sustainably feed ourselves in the future is to eat much lower on the food chain. At the bottom is a vegan diet which can actually have a ratio less than one. That is, more energy is produced from the foodstuff than is put in in the form of fossil fuels. Vegan diets suffer only one intrinsic problem — there is no Vitamin B-12. A big extrinsic problem is that it is a rather boring diet which few adopt voluntarily.
One underexploited efficient food source is insects. Insects are eaten regularly in the underdeveloped world but insect farming in the first world could be more than 10 times more efficient than beef, with a ratio of four or less. Adult crickets have a very high protein to fat ratio, whereas various pupae such as meal worms are relatively high in fat. Depending on the species, insects can also be a good source of vitamins and minerals. So for the future what will it be, boring vegan or icky bugs?