Sunday, May 4, 2008

Eat less, lower prices

In yet another unnecessary spat between the US and India, President George Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice have ruffled Indian feathers by claiming that world food prices are rising because Indians (and Chinese) are eating more. For once, Bush managed to side-step foot-in-mouth disease by explicitly clarifying that he meant it as a compliment, as a sign of better prosperity and therefore betterfor business (also known as the eat better, buy more plasma TVs and iPods Bush economic model). India's notoriously prickly politicians across the board fell over themselves condemning what is really a statement of fact to which there was no need to take exception. However, the Times of India went further and produced more provocative information -- that Americans eat five times as much as Indians. Bolstering this fact was a graphic, from the US Department of Agriculture showing that Americans consume 1046 kilos of grain per capita per year compared to India's measly 178 and China 291. (The USDA site is a mine of information on food and agriculture issues). Let us consider these figures dispassionately. 1046 kilos works out to a little more than 3 kilos of grain per person per day!!! Now, while one may admit that an average American eats more than an average Indian, imagining even a particularly obese American wolfing down 3 kilos of atta/maida/rice per day (and presumably other things as well) is more a vision from a Monty Python movie and strains credulity. Even the average Chinese appears no slouch in the grain department, munching through almost a kilo of grain per day! So what is the explanation, assuming that TOI hasn't goofed. Clearly this is the effective amount of grain consumed and includes the huge amounts of grain consumed by cattle which appears as beef on the dining table of an average American. (In fact the American diet is low in grain and high in animal protein, mainly red meat). The same is true of the mainly non vegetarian diet of the average Chinese. It is a well known fact that grain-fed livestock consumes resources far out of proportion to the yield, accelerates soil erosion and affects world food supply. Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein. This and a lot of other information is available in a Cornell University study - for example broiler chickens (make) the most efficient use of fossil energy, and beef, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. (Lamb meat production is nearly as inefficient at 50:1, according to the ecologist's analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Other ratios range from 13:1 for turkey meat and 14:1 for milk protein to 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs.) I can see my vegetarian friends girding their loins, if I may so put it, in having one more argument in their arsenal of reasons for a vegetarian diet. Before leaping to conclusions, let me also point out that in India almost all cattle is grass fed, there is just not enough grain to feed cattle. In fact the same study above points out that with only grass-fed livestock, individual Americans would still get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of meat and dairy protein and grain-fed livestock farming is a costly and non sustainable way to produce animal protein. He distinguished grain-fed meat production from pasture-raised livestock, calling cattle-grazing a more reasonable use of marginal land. The report in the TOI is just another example of journalistic excess arising from an incomplete understanding of the facts, something that Indian journalists excel in. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an attention-grabbing headline.


AMOK said...

I think the best thing to bring food prices under control would be for Americans to eat less. This is in fact happening as we speak. Obesity will decrease in America, while it will increase in India (and China). It is not really all of India that is eating better, but only a smaller obesity-loving subset, becoming more obese while trying to quintuple grain consumption per capita. It is the culture of obesity that wins, no matter what.

Sunil Mukhi said...

It's not a good idea to interpret George Bush's remark on changing Indian food consumption patterns as a compliment. Yes it certainly was stated as one, but (contrary to almost everyone on this planet) I think Bush is no fool and there was an implication and a purpose to his statement.

In recent discussions on the environment, there have been attempts to transfer a significant part of the burden of anti-pollution measures away from the developed countries and on to India and China by suggesting (contrary to the facts) that these countries pollute as much as the developed world.

I see the food comment as being in a similar spirit: make it sound like India and China are as responsible for food prices as Americans, so that when measures have to be taken later you can transfer some of the burden to them. In this sense the TOI is right to point out that consumption levels are not remotely comparable. And their facts don't seem to be wrong, as long as we reinterpret the grain consumption as beef consumption.

Paavan Vasudev said...

I dont see why TOI was wrong though.. They consume non-vegetarian diet by choice and therefore are accountable for the disproportionate numbers.