EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Moving Up the Food Chain Efficiently: Introduction

Throughout most of our 4 million years as a distinct species we lived as hunter-gatherers. The share of our diets that came from hunting or gathering varied with geographic location, skills, and the season of the year. During the northern hemisphere winter, when there was little to gather, we depended heavily on hunting for our survival. This long history as hunter-gatherers left us with an appetite for animal protein, one that continues to shape diets today.

In every country where incomes have risen, this appetite for meat, eggs, and seafood has generated an enormous growth in animal protein consumption. The form the animal protein takes depends heavily on geography. Countries that are land-rich with vast grasslands depend heavily on beef—the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Russia—or on mutton, as in Australia and Kazakhstan. Countries that are more densely populated and lack extensive grazing lands have historically relied much more on pork. Among these are Germany, Poland, and China. Densely populated countries with long shorelines, such as Japan and Norway, have turned to the oceans for their animal protein. 1

While we typically focus on the food requirements generated by population growth and the pressure this puts on the earth’s land and water resources, moving up the food chain also adds to the pressure. The challenge is to do so as efficiently as possible, minimizing additional demands on land and water. Encouragingly, new approaches to the production of livestock, poultry, and fish are raising the efficiency with which grain is converted into animal protein.


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1. For data on meat production in various countries, see U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), FAOSTATStatisticsDatabase, at apps.fao.org, updated 24 May 2004.


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