EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Moving Up the Food Chain Efficiently: Shifting Protein Sources

The composition of world meat production has changed dramatically over the last half-century or so. From 1950 until 1978, beef and pork vied for the lead. (See Figure 3–2.) Then the world meat consumption pattern began to change as economic reforms adopted in China in 1978 led to a dramatic climb in pork production, pushing it far ahead of beef worldwide. 8

In an effort to minimize waste, village families in China have a long-standing tradition of keeping a pig, which is fed all the kitchen and table waste. When the pig matures, it is butchered and eaten and replaced with another small, recently weaned, pig. Even today, four fifths of China’s pork production takes place at the family level. 9

With China’s 1.3 billion people clamoring for more pork, production there climbed from 9 million tons in 1978, the year of the economic reforms, to 46 million tons in 2003. U.S. pork production rose only from 6 million to 9 million tons during the same period, and pork consumption per person in China overtook that in the United States. Perhaps even more impressive, half of the world’s pork is now eaten in China. 10

In 1950, when beef and pork dominated world meat consumption, poultry production was quite low, roughly the same as mutton. From mid-century onward, however, poultry production gathered momentum, overtaking beef in 1996. Advances in the efficiency of poultry production had dropped the price to the point where more and more people could afford it. In the United States—where a half-century ago chicken was something special, usually served only at Sunday dinner—its low price now makes chicken the meat of choice for everyday consumption. 11

With overgrazing widespread, additional beef production now comes largely from putting more cattle in feedlots for a longer period of time. Thus the changing composition of our diets reflects the widely varying efficiency with which cattle, pigs, chickens, and, increasingly, fish convert grain into protein. A steer in a feedlot requires 7 kilograms of grain for each kilogram of weight gain. For pork, each kilogram of additional live weight requires about 3.5 kilograms. For poultry, it is just over 2. For catfish in the United States and carp in China and India, it is 1–2 kilograms of feed per kilogram of additional weight gain. 12

Between 1990 and 2003, growth in beef production averaged less than 1 percent a year. Pork, meanwhile, expanded at 2.5 percent annually, eggs at nearly 4 percent, and poultry at 5 percent. Aquacultural output, which sets the gold standard in the efficiency of feed conversion into protein, expanded by nearly 10 percent a year, climbing from 13 million tons in 1990 to 40 million tons in 2002. (See Table 3–1.) 13

Historically, as the demand for seafood increased with rising incomes, countries turned to the oceans. As population pressure built up, for example, beginning a century or so ago, Japan needed nearly all its arable land to produce rice, leaving almost none for producing feed for livestock and poultry. So the country started relying more on fish for animal protein and now consumes 10 million tons of seafood per year. But with oceanic fisheries being pushed to their limits, there are few opportunities for countries developing appetites for animal protein to switch to eating fish in the same way. For example, if China’s per capita consumption of seafood from oceanic fisheries reached the Japanese level, the country would need 100 million tons of seafood—more than the world catch. 14

So although China is a leading claimant on oceanic fisheries, with a catch of 16 million tons per year, it has turned to fish farming to satisfy most of its fast-growing seafood needs and is leading the world into the aquaculture era. China’s aquacultural output, mainly carp and shellfish, totals 28 million tons. With incomes now rising in densely populated Asia, other countries are following China’s lead. Among them are India, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Viet Nam, for example, devised a plan in 2001 of developing 700,000 hectares of land in the Mekong Delta for aquaculture, with the goal of producing 1.7 million tons of fish and shrimp by 2005. It now appears likely to exceed this goal. 15

Over the last 15 years, aquaculture has thus emerged as a major source of animal protein. Driven by the high efficiency with which omnivorous species, such as carp, tilapia, and catfish, convert grain into animal protein, world aquacultural output nearly tripled between 1990 and 2002. It will likely overtake beef production worldwide by 2010. 16

As the consumption of animal protein has grown, the share of the world grain harvest used for feed has remained constant at roughly 37 percent for two decades. Of the world’s three leading grains—rice, wheat, and corn—which together account for nearly 90 percent of the grain harvest, rice is grown almost entirely as a food crop. Wheat is largely a food crop, but one sixth of the wheat harvest is fed to livestock and poultry. In contrast, the world’s huge corn harvest is consumed largely as feed. In recent years, the addition of a protein supplement (typically soybean meal) to feed rations has boosted the efficiency of feed conversion into animal protein. This stabilized the share of the world grain harvest used for feed even while meat, milk, and egg consumption per person were climbing. 17

Table 3-1. Annual Growth in World Animal Protein Production, by Source, 1990-2003
Annual Growth
(million tons)
(million tons)
Oceanic Fish Catch
Aquacultural Output
* Figures for 2002.
Source: See endnote 13.


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8. Figure 3–2 compiled from FAO, op. cit. note 1, and from Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 3.

9. Dan Murphy, “China Visit Outlines Stark Challenges Ahead For U.S.,” at www.meatingplace.com, 13 December 2002.

10. FAO, op. cit. note 1; USDA, op. cit. note 4.

11. FAO, op. cit. note 1.

12. Conversion ratio of grain to beef based on Allen Baker, Feed Situation and Outlook staff, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA, discussion with author, 27 April 1992, on Linda Bailey, Livestock and Poultry Situation staff, ERS, USDA, discussion with author, 27 April 1992, and on data taken from various issues of Feedstuffs; pork from Leland Southard, Livestock and Poultry Situation and Outlook staff, ERS, USDA, discussion with author, 27 April 1992; poultry derived from data in Robert V. Bishop et al., The World Poultry Market—Government Intervention and Multilateral Policy Reform (Washington, DC: USDA, 1990); catfish and carp from Rosamond L. Naylor et al., “Effects of Aquaculture on World Fish Supplies,” Nature, 29 June 2000, p. 1022.

13. Table 3–1 compiled from FAO, op. cit. note 1, and from FAO, op. cit. note 7.

14. FAO, op. cit. note 7; United Nations, op. cit. note 3.

15. Aquaculture output from FAO, op. cit. note 7; S. F. Li, “Aquaculture Research and Its Relation to Development in China,” in World Fish Center, Agricultural Development and the Opportunities for Aquatic Resources Research in China (Penang, Malaysia: 2001), p. 26; “Mekong Delta to Become Biggest Aquatic Producer in Vietnam,” Vietnam News Agency, 3 August 2004.

16. Aquaculture from FAO, op. cit. note 7; beef from FAO, op. cit. note 1.

17. USDA, op. cit. note 4; Sadasivam J. Kaushik, “Grain-Based Feeds: The Answer for Aquaculture?” World Grain, April 2004.


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