, a renowned population expert and professor at Columbia and Rockefeller universities, recently gave a lecture simply titled “Meat.” As it was co-sponsored by the International Food Policy Research Institute
and the Population Reference Bureau
, I was hoping for an insightful discussion of meat eating and its implications for feeding a world of nine billion
. While I think Cohen avoided the question of whether meat eating is ultimately sustainable, I was pleased that he included two key insights: the potential for family planning services to contribute to food security, and the importance of using multidisciplinary approaches to solve today’s global problems.
Family Planning for Food Security
In working to improve food security, Cohen said policymakers and practitioners need to focus on those who are most vulnerable. To this end, he identified five groups and suggested targeted policies for each:
While the healthy eating policies will not surprise food security experts, his recommendations on family planning might. He highlighted what should be–but is not always–apparent: that tackling food security without thought for family planning is like attempting to fill an empty bucket without first plugging the holes.
Feeding the one billion hungry people in the world today is an enormous challenge that cannot be met by any single policy. Instead, it will take an array of partial solutions, and offering family planning services to women and young people is an important part of the package. Such projects can help reduce the number of children being born into hunger by allowing women and couples to assess their economic and food situations and plan according to their needs and wishes. Voluntary family planning services and materials will not solve the food security challenge on their own, but they can make it more manageable, especially in the long run.
Family planning’s potential contribution to food security is just one part of Cohen’s larger take-home message: population, economics, environment, and culture all interact. To meet today’s multidisciplinary challenges, single-sector approaches are not up to task.
The Many Faces of Meat
Cohen offered two competing perspectives on meat eating. On the one hand, average global meat production generates a fraction of the calories and protein, per unit of land, that could be derived from plant sources. It is likely the “largest sectoral source of water pollution,” said Cohen, and is at least partly responsible for the spread of over a dozen zoonotic diseases. It contributes to only 1.4 percent of world GDP while comprising 8 percent of world water consumption.
These hidden “virtual water” costs made headlines in Britain the other week, when a study on global water security published by the Royal Academy of Engineering popularized the Water Footprint Network’s earlier findings that that an average kilogram of beef requires 15,500 liters of water–over eight times the volume needed to produce the equivalent weight in soybeans and greater than 10 times that needed for the equivalent amount of wheat.
On the other hand, Cohen pointed out that meat production provides livelihoods for an estimated 987 million of the world’s rural poor, and has important cultural significance in many societies. And it can provide many essential nutrients, even in small doses.
In one study he cited, children living in Kenya who were provided 1 ounce of meat a day received 50 percent of their daily protein requirements and showed greater increases in physical activity and development, verbal and arithmetic test scores, and initiative and leadership behaviors as opposed to students who received the calorie-equivalent in milk or fat.
The Four Factors: Population, Economics, Environment, and Culture
Clearly, Cohen’s four factors all come in to play when evaluating meat’s role in food security. An analysis of any global health issue that looks at only one factor would miss indispensable parts of the problem.
“Population interacts with economics, environment, and culture,” Cohen concluded. “If you use that checklist when somebody gives you a simple-minded solution to a problem, you can save yourself a lot of simple-minded thinking.”
Photo: Pigs on a farm, courtesy Flickr user visionshare.