web analytics
Mar 082012

Janet Larsen Earth Policy Institute

U.S. meat consumption has peaked. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that meat eating across the country fell from the 2004 high point of 184 pounds (83 kilograms) per person to 171 pounds in 2011.

Early estimates for 2012 project a further reduction in American meat eating to 166 pounds, making for a 10 percent drop over the eight-year period. For a society that lives high on the food chain, this new trend could signal the end of meat’s mealtime dominance.

Total U.S. meat consumption peaked in 2007 at 55 billion pounds and has fallen each year since. In 2012, consumption is expected to drop to 52 billion pounds, the lowest level in more than a decade.

After years of increasing consumption, Americans began cutting back on beef in the 1970s as health and cost concerns about red meat pushed people toward poultry. Falling from the 1976 peak of 91 pounds, beef eating per person is projected to sink to 52 pounds in 2012, a –43-percent drop off the high. The national beef cattle herd is now smaller than it has been in any year since 1962. The record heat and drought that desiccated grazing lands and curtailed hay production in the Southern Plains in 2011 has led to further culling of herds as well as a mass movement of cattle from drought-ridden Texas to Nebraska.

Poultry, once a rarity on American dinner tables, made a meteoric rise after World War II as industrial production systems took over from small farm flocks. Until 1940, Americans consumed less than a pound of poultry per person each month. By 1990, they were eating more than a pound each week. Intake of poultry first surpassed beef in the mid-1990s and then surged ahead, only recently beginning to falter. If 2012 forecasts play out, consumption will be down to 70 pounds per person, more than 5 percent below the 2006 peak.

U.S. pork consumption has varied less dramatically across the decades, but it, too, has recently trended downward. Annual pork intake per person hit its all-time high of 54 pounds per person in 1944; 2012 consumption is projected at 44 pounds, 19 percent lower.

Higher prices combined with a weak economy have led people to put less meat in their grocery carts. Corn, the primary livestock feed, has been in high demand by fuel ethanol producers (spurred by government usage mandates), and stocks have been tight. As corn prices have increased, so has the cost of producing meat, milk, and eggs.

Cultural factors have come into play as well; attitudes about meat are changing. Rather than considering meat requisite at every dinner or an indication of wealth, many people are deliberately choosing to eat less meat than before, often citing concerns about health, the environment, and the ethics of industrial meat production. Given livestock’s large climate and resource footprints, “peak meat” is good news.

(This  article first appeared at the Earth Policy Institute website. Larsen is director of research and one of the incorporators of the institute, an independent environmental research organization based in Washington, DC.  She is a co-author of The Earth Policy Reader and has managed the research for all the institute’s publications, most recently Lester Brown’s Plan B book series.)

Feb 152011

(Lester Brown is the president of the Earth Policy Institute, which advocates for sustainable energy, food and resource use, and author of
World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse

Lester Brown

Today there are three sources of growing demand for food: population growth; rising affluence and the associated jump in meat, milk, and egg consumption; and the use of grain to produce fuel for cars.

In early January, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, on February 3rd, the FAO announced that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent.

Will this rise in food prices continue in the months ahead? In all likelihood we will see further rises that will take the world into uncharted territory in the relationship between food prices and political stability.

Everything now depends on this year’s harvest. Lowering food prices to a more comfortable level will require a bumper grain harvest, one much larger than the record harvest of 2008 that combined with the economic recession to end the 2007-08 grain price climb.

If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimaginable levels. Food riots will multiply, political unrest will spread and governments will fall. The world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.

Over the longer term, expanding food production rapidly is becoming more difficult as food bubbles based on the over-pumping of underground water burst, shrinking grain harvests in many countries. Meanwhile, increasing climate volatility, including more frequent, more extreme weather events, will make the expansion of production more erratic.

Some 18 countries have inflated their food production in recent decades by over pumping aquifers to irrigate their crops. Among these are China, India, and the United States, the big three grain producers.

When water-based food bubbles burst in some countries, they will dramatically reduce production. In others, they may only slow production growth. In Saudi Arabia, which was wheat self-sufficient for more than 20 years, the wheat harvest is collapsing and will likely disappear entirely within a year or so as the country’s fossil (non-replenishable) aquifer, is depleted.

In Syria and Iraq, grain harvests are slowly shrinking as irrigation wells dry up. Yemen is a hydrological basket case, where water tables are falling throughout the country and wells are going dry. These bursting food bubbles make the Arab Middle East the first geographic region where aquifer depletion is shrinking the grain harvest.

While these Middle East declines are dramatic, the largest water-based food bubbles are in India and China. A World Bank study indicates that 175 million people in India are being fed with grain produced by overpumping. In China, overpumping is feeding 130 million people. Spreading water shortages in both of these population giants are making it more difficult to expand their food supplies.

Beyond irrigation wells going dry, farmers must contend with climate change. Crop ecologists have a rule of thumb that for each 1-degree-Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, grain yields drop 10 percent. Thus it was no surprise that searing temperatures in western Russia last summer shrank the grain harvest by 40 percent.

On the demand side of the food equation, there are now three sources of growth. First is population growth. There will be 219,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night, many of them with empty plates. Second is rising affluence. Some three billion people are now trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive meat, milk, and eggs. And third, massive amounts of grain are being converted into oil, i.e. ethanol, to fuel cars. Roughly 120 million tons of the 400-million-ton 2010 U.S. grain harvest are going to ethanol distilleries.

Encouragingly, President Sarkozy of France vowed to use his term as president of the G-20 in 2011 to stabilize world food prices. Thus far the talk has been about such measures as regulating export restrictions and speculation, but if the G-20 ends up treating the symptoms and not the causes of rising food prices, the effort will be of little avail.

What is needed now is a worldwide effort to raise water productivity, similar to the one launched by the international community a half century ago to raise cropland productivity. This earlier effort tripled the world grain yield per acre between 1950 and 2010.

On the climate front, the goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050—the widely accepted goal by governments—is not sufficient. The challenge now is to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 with a World War II-type mobilization to raise energy efficiency and to shift from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

On the demand side, we need to accelerate the shift to smaller families. There are 215 million women in the world who want to plan their families, but who lack access to family planning services. They and their families represent over a billion of the world’s poorest people. While filling the family planning gap, we need to simultaneously launch an all-out effort to eradicate poverty. Once under way, these two trends reinforce each other.

And in an increasingly hungry world, converting grain into fuel for cars is not the way to go. It is time to remove subsidies for converting grain and other crops into automotive fuel. If President Sarkozy can get the G-20 to focus on the causes of rising food prices, and not just the symptoms, then food prices can be stabilized at a more comfortable level.

Aug 042010

These past few months have been filled with extreme weather in many parts of the world, and climatologists are trying to figure out what to make of it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti has the story:

Feb 222010

(This article, originally entitled U.S. Car Fleet Shrank by Four Million in 2009 – After a Century of Growth, U.S. Fleet Entering Era of Decline ran on the Earth Policy Institute website in January. Lester R. Brown is president of the EPI and author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.)

By Lester R. Brown

America’s century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end. The U.S. fleet has apparently peaked and started to decline. In 2009, the 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by 4 million, or nearly 2 percent in one year. While this is widely associated with the recession, it is in fact caused by several converging forces.

Future U.S. fleet size will be determined by the relationship between two trends: new car sales and cars scrapped. Cars scrapped exceeded new car sales in 2009 for the first time since World War II, shrinking the U.S. vehicle fleet from the all-time high of 250 million to 246 million. It now appears that this new trend of scrappage exceeding sales could continue through at least 2020. (See data.)

Among the trends that are keeping sales well below the annual figure of 15–17 million that prevailed from 1994 through 2007 are market saturation, ongoing urbanization, economic uncertainty, oil insecurity, rising gasoline prices, frustration with traffic congestion, mounting concerns about climate change, and a declining interest in cars among young people.

Market saturation may be the dominant contributor to the peaking of the U.S. fleet. The United States now has 246 million registered motor vehicles and 209 million licensed drivers—nearly 5 vehicles for every 4 drivers. (See data.) When is enough enough?

Number of Drivers and Motor Vehicles in the United States, 1960-2009

Japan may offer some clues to the U.S. future. Both more densely populated and highly urbanized than the United States, Japan apparently reached car saturation in 1990. Since then its annual car sales have shrunk by 21 percent. The United States appears set to follow suit. (See data.)

The car promised mobility, and in a largely rural United States it delivered. But with four out of five Americans now living in cities, the growth in urban car numbers at some point provides just the opposite: immobility. The Texas Transportation Institute reports that U.S. congestion costs, including fuel wasted and time lost, climbed from $17 billion in 1982 to $87 billion in 2007.

Mayors across the country are waging a strong fight to save their cities from cars, trying to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Many are using a “carrot-and-stick” approach to reduce costly traffic congestion by simultaneously improving public transportation while imposing restrictions on the use of cars.

Almost every U.S. city is either introducing new light rail lines, new subway lines, or express bus lines, or they are expanding and improving existing public transit systems in order to reduce dependence on cars. Among the cities following this path are Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. As urban transit systems expand and improve, commuters are turning to public transit as driving costs rise. Between 2005 and 2008, transit ridership climbed 9 percent in the United States. Many cities are also actively creating pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets, making it easier to walk or bike to work.

Forward-looking cities are also reconsidering parking requirements for new buildings. Washington, D.C., for example, has rewritten its 50-year-old codes, reducing the number of parking spaces required with the construction of both commercial and residential buildings. Earlier codes that once required four parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of retail space now require only one.

As parking fees rise, many cities are moving beyond coin-fed parking meters and replacing them with meters that use credit cards. The nation’s capital is making this shift in early 2010 as it raises street parking fees from 75¢ to $2 per hour.

Economic uncertainty makes some consumers reluctant to undertake the long-term debt associated with buying new cars. In tight economic circumstances, families are living with two cars instead of three, or one car instead of two. Some are dispensing with the car altogether. In Washington, D.C., with a well-developed transit system, only 63 percent of households own a car.

A more specific uncertainty is the future price of gasoline. Now that motorists know that gas prices can climb to $4 a gallon, they worry that it could go even higher in the future. Drivers are fully aware that much of the world’s oil comes from the politically volatile Middle East.

Perhaps the most fundamental social trend affecting the future of the automobile is the declining interest in cars among young people. For those who grew up a half-century ago in a country that was still heavily rural, getting a driver’s license and a car or a pickup was a rite of passage. Getting other teenagers into a car and driving around was a popular pastime.

In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars. Many do not even bother to get a driver’s license. This helps explain why, despite the largest U.S. teenage population ever, the number of teenagers with licenses, which peaked at 12 million in 1978, is now under 10 million. (See data.) If this trend continues, the number of potential young car-buyers will continue to decline.

Beyond their declining interest in cars, young people are facing a financial squeeze. Real incomes among a large segment of society are no longer increasing. College graduates already saddled with college loan debt may find it difficult to get the credit to buy a car. Young job market entrants are often more interested in getting health insurance than in buying a car.

No one knows how many cars will be sold in the years ahead, but given the many forces at work, U.S. vehicle sales may never again reach the 17 million that were sold each year between 1999 and 2007. Sales seem more likely to remain between 10 million and 14 million per year.

Scrappage rates are easier to project. If we assume an auto life expectancy of 15 years, scrappage rates will lag new sales by 15 years. This means that the cars sold in the earliest of the elevated sales years of 15–17 million vehicles from 1994 through 2007 are just now reaching retirement age. Even though newer cars are more durable than earlier models, and may thus stay on the road somewhat longer on average, scrappage rates seem likely to exceed new car sales through at least 2020. Given a decline of 1–2 percent a year in the fleet from 2009 through 2020, the U.S. fleet could easily shrink by 10 percent (25 million), dropping from the 2008 fleet peak of 250 million to 225 million by 2020.

At the national level, shrinkage of the fleet combined with rising fuel efficiency will reinforce the trend of declining oil use that has been under way since 2007. This means reduced outlays for oil imports and thus more capital retained to invest in job creation within the United States. As people walk and bike more, it will mean less air pollution and fewer respiratory illnesses, more exercise and less obesity. This in turn will also reduce health care costs.

The coming shrinkage of the U.S. car fleet also means that there will be little need to build new roads and highways. Fewer cars on the road reduces highway and street maintenance costs and lessens demand for parking lots and parking garages. It also sets the stage for greater investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail.

The United States is entering a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified. As noted, this transition is driven by market saturation, economic trends, environmental concerns, and by a cultural shift away from cars that is most pronounced among young people. As this evolution proceeds, it will affect virtually every facet of life.

Copyright © 2010 Earth Policy Institute

Jan 072010

From Green Right Now Reports

The soybean is a versatile crop. It helps add nitrogen back to the soil. It’s a cheap source of animal feed. In various forms, it eventually becomes suitable for human consumption in forms such as chicken (or eggs) or beef on the table.

So what’s wrong with a hard-working legume gaining a little popularity? As is often the case, too much of a good thing is, indeed, too much.

Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, suggests that the mad dash to plant more soybeans poses a threat to the Amazon rainforest.

As it turns out, the soybean’s versatility has made it all the rage globally. Since 1950, the world’s harvest has grown from 17 million tons to 250 million tons. Soybeans are the No. 2 crop in the United States and have become even more dominant in Brazil and Argentina.

How do the South American countries satisfy demand? By planting more crop. And how do they come up with enough land to do so? By clearing so much land that the Amazon rainforest is in danger of becoming more dried-out and susceptible to fire.

As part of its contribution to lowering global carbon emissions, Brazil has discussed reducing deforestation 80% by 2020. If soybean consumption continues to climb, however, economic pressures to clear more land could make this goal challenging, at best, putting the rainforest — and all it provides — at risk.

Dec 022008

By John DeFore

The most visible hiccup in oilman T. Boone Pickens’s well publicized green energy agenda is his decision to delay that enormous wind farm of his.

A new essay, though, suggests there’s more wrong with the tycoon’s plans than his having to rely on the credit markets to realize them. Writing for the Earth Policy Institute, Jonathan G. Dorn argues that modifying American autos to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) would be a waste of time and effort. Continue reading »