Life on earth would not be possible without the constant cycling of several key elements. In particular, proteins, – which are among other things, essential for human brain and muscle development – cannot be made without nitrogen.
In fact, there is no possibility that we can produce food without nitrogen.
As we continue to experience an overall shift in our agronomic system—one that has been ongoing over the past several millennia—we’re going to continue to see an increasing demand for nitrogen. We’re also going to see an increased need to feed a growing population with evolving dietary standards.
Traditional Diets are Changing
Traditional diets have been historically dominated by staple cereals, such as wheat and rice, or legumes and tubers, and also emphasizing an increasing number and variety of fruits and vegetables, and notable for this work, meat, eggs, dairy, and aquatic species.
But as the global middle class increases and people gain higher purchasing power (especially in Asia), diets are changing. This is due in part to:
- Rising incomes
- Decreasing size of the family unit
Urbanization is forecasted to lead to an additional 2.5 billion urban residents by 2050 living in cities. That’s 2/3 of the global population, with 90% of that growth projected to take place in Asia and Africa.
An additional tradeoff here is that urbanization has led to a decline in rural population, with one result being that far fewer people choose farming as an occupation (though, technology has greatly improved ‘farm efficiency’ and the number of people needed to operate a farm has decreased drastically over time, as we will touch on in a future post).
As societies become more urbanized, they tend to become more westernized. Lifestyles change and the share of resource-intensive food in people’s diets and the calorie intake increases significantly; there is more demand for all types of food, but especially protein in the form of meat.
The rapidly-growing middle class in many countries is shifting from more traditional diets of staple cereals and grains towards more processed foods, meat, fish, poultry and dairy.
Industrialization Exposes the Wasteful Nature of Animal-Based Foods
Inevitably, as a country is industrialized, the outcome is always a higher demand for nitrogen (and by extension, protein).
Very few (if any) countries today are able to meet their additional protein demands by grazing livestock or increased fishing. This has naturally led to the increased cultivation and focus on feed crops, with corn and soy currently being the most predominant.
Unfortunately, animal metabolism is inherently inefficient; countries which have the highest per capita meat consumption have diets with the highest nitrogen cost.
Notably, the overall nitrogen efficiency of the global food system is around 15%, with the US at 12%, and China at only around 9%.
Caption: The transfer of nitrogen from fertilizer to animal-based food. Source: Davidson, 2014.
The wasteful nature of animal-based foods coupled with its rising demand is particularly troublesome.
Currently, production of animal-based foods relies heavily on feed crops. To sufficiently feed the world in 2050, we must double our global crop production, however, without major technological advances, the increase is approximately 50%. That’s far below the 100% needed.
In the past, the main solution to this problem has been to primarily increase farmlands and deforestation in order to keep up with feeding the population. In fact, agriculture accounted for 75% of global deforestation.
Now, however, we are reaching a point where expanding agricultural land is not a sustainable solution, and deforestation will only exacerbate our climate change problems. To make matters even more complicated, centuries of agricultural activities are showing the toll they’ve taken on arable lands, with more than a third of global soil having been completely degraded.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), there is only 60 years of farming left globally if things continue at our current degradation rate.
Taking a Closer Look at Alternative Sources of Proteins
There’s no doubt there will be a strong demand to feed the human population as the global population increases, the global middle class continues to gain more purchasing power, and extreme climate events impact the Earth.
Join us for a three part series where we’ll continue the conversation about alternative sources of proteins as a solution, different ways to produce them, and their implications on the global agricultural system.