Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg

Walk into any kitchen around the world and there's a good chance that meat or seafood sit neatly at the center of the meal. This is especially true at any top restaurant in New York, Rio, or Beijing. But billions of people all over the world have hamburgers or pork chops or fish fingers with their families at home every night. Even the poorest people often spend their extra income on some odd cuts of meat or fish bones for soup. In fact, meat and seafood are the two most rapidly growing ingredients in the global diet. Yet in terms of resource use, these are also two of the most costly.

In 2006 farmers produced an estimated 276 million tons of chicken, pork, beef, and other meat—four times as much as in 1961. On average, each person eats twice as much meat as back then, about 43 kilograms. And the fishing industry harvested about 141 million tons of seafood globally in 2005, the last year for which data are available. That was eight times as much as in 1950, with each person on average eating four times as much seafood as before. (See Fig ure 5-1 and Table 5-1.)1

For people living in wealthy nations, seafood is an increasingly popular health food option; with its high levels of fatty acids and trace minerals, nutritionists recognize seafood as essential to the development and maintenance of good neurological function, not to mention a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and other debilitating conditions. In poorer nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, people are also eating more fish if they can afford it. And Chinese consumers now eat roughly five times as much seafood per person as they did in 1961, while total fish consumption in China has increased more than 10-fold. For more than a billion people, mostly in Asia, fish now supply 30 percent of their protein, versus just 6 percent worldwide.2

The good news is that there are methods of raising beef, pork, and chicken that do not create mountains of toxic manure and consume huge amounts of grain and water, as well as techniques for catching fish that do not end up destroying coral reefs and ensnaring

Meat and Seafood:The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients

Figure 5-1. World Meat Production and Seafood Harvest, 1950-2006

Figure 5-1. World Meat Production and Seafood Harvest, 1950-2006

Meat Production 1950 2006

seabirds and turtles. These innovations will be much cheaper in terms of energy and resource use as well as health impacts. But the price that consumers pay at the store or market will likely rise. Rethinking how fish and meat are produced will mean that consumers in industrial countries will have to eat fewer of these products—surf-and-turf dinners for executives may become a thing of the past, as will cheap fast-food meals of fried fish and hamburgers that have become a dinnertime staple for busy families. Eating less of these foods now, however, is a sort of investment in the future, since it will mean saving family farms, improving rangeland, reducing water pollution, and—in the case of wild fish—preserving a catch that is increasingly scarce.

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