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Oceana Magazine Summer/Fall 2013: Reservations For 9 Billion Please

By Andy Sharpless and Susannah Evans

This is an excerpt from the second chapter of The Perfect Protein: A Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World, by Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless and Suzannah Evans. Learn more about the book and get your copy at www.theperfectprotein.com.

If the dawn of modern humanity was prompted by the availability of nourishing fat, then the twenty-first century may repeat that story, only this time through a fun-house mirror. An obesity epidemic looms today just as surely as hunger crises multiply.

Homo sapiens is the dominant species on Earth. We’ve colonized nearly every corner of our planet, creating pockets of incredible wealth as well as valleys of famine and despair. A common way to look at the world today is through the lens of the haves and the have nots. But let us suggest another way: Humanity in the twenty-first century may be divided between two groups that we can call the “fats” and the “thins.”

We have the technical ability to feed the world already, and quite fully. If you added up all the world’s food and divided by the number of people on Earth, each person would have 2,700 calories a day—plenty for survival. But, of course, famine still happens. Nearly a billion people on Earth are hungry, while another billion are overweight. Still another half billion are obese.

If we have the ability to feed everyone, why don’t we? Obviously, economics and politics play enormous roles. Here’s another, less well-known reason: More than half of the world’s crop yields—mainly corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans—are used to feed livestock, not people. And the meat from the livestock is mostly sold to people in wealthy nations. Jean Mayer, a prominent nutrition researcher and champion ofschool lunch programs, once estimated that we could save enough grain to feed sixty million people if we reduced meat production in the United States by just 10 percent.

That’s a pretty good humanitarian argument for vegetarianism, and there’s a similarly strong one advanced by environmentalists: Global agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s freshwater and is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily thanks to the resource-intensive production of livestock.

Despite the humanitarian and environmental benefits of vegetarianism, however, vast numbers of people will continue to eat meat. Indeed, as our population grows, and wealth grows with it, people seem to gravitate toward becoming more carnivorous. The world’s population is growing faster today than at any time in history, passing seven billion in 2011, just twelve years after hitting six billion. We’re now on track to reach nine billion by 2050. And the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization says this will increase demand for food by 70 percent. The demand for meat will skyrocket by 85 percent by 2030 and double by2050 as more and more people pursue a Westernized diet.

This is bad news for the planet as agriculture and biodiversity have long been at odds. You can either save the forest and all its wild inhabitants, or feed the people. This plays out time and time again in the modern world: cattle ranchers versus wolves in the American West, rice paddies versus mangrove swamps in Bangladesh, tea farms versus rain forests in Kenya. Conservation International has identified twenty-five of the world’s top “biodiversity hotspots.” Well, more than a billion people live in those hotspots, too, and more than half of them are poor and food insecure.

Should we have to decide between saving elephants and feeding malnourished people? This is an agonizing choice. Pitting these two global concerns against each other means that one will lose. For the most part, the loser has been biodiversity. Scientists say the current extinction rate is fifty to five hundred times the average in the fossil record.

But should we have to raze the world’s remaining rain forests, mangroves, and other fertile environments to graze livestock and plant more wheat and corn and rice? Or dam and drain even more of the world’s great rivers, some of which, even once-mighty ones like the Colorado and the Yangtze, are already so over-utilized that they turn to trickles before arriving at the sea? The fact is that we’re going to continue to exploit natural resources for food. The McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that in the next two decades we’ll need to increase water and land availability by 140 and 250 percent, respectively, to meet the growing demand for food.

Here’s what that could cost us by 2030: an additional 1,850 cubic kilometers of fresh water. That’s the equivalent of the entire metro area of Baltimore submerged under more than half a mile of water. We’ll also slash up to 175 million hectares of forest, an area the size of California, Texas, Montana and Colorado combined. And lastly, we’ll be pumping sixty-six gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a move that could help temperatures rise by five degrees Celsius over the next eighty years. Scientists have already said that even a rise of two degrees Celsius would be devastating for regions where smallholder farmers rely on rain-fed agriculture to feed their families. Considering that agriculture is the world’s largest contributor of greenhouse gases, out-emitting even transportation, plus the fact that we’re denuding forests that could help alleviate global warming, it seems that we’re stuck in an unrelenting negative cycle.

But what if there was a healthy, animal-sourced protein that both the “fats” and the “thins” could enjoy without draining the life from the soil, without drying up our rivers, without polluting the air and the water, without causing our planet to warm even more and without plaguing communities with diabetes, heart disease and cancer? It’s the one animal protein that’s rarely mentioned in the endless reports about big agriculture and hunger crises. It’s the protein that’s healthiest for your body: low in cholesterol, brimming with brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and nutrients like riboflavin, iron, and calcium. It’s one of the most ancient foods, and it’s most likely the last wild creature that you’ll eat, the last pure exchange between Earth and your dinner plate.

Imagine a world in which seafood is the world’s most-eaten protein. You don’t need a sprawling industrial landscape to feed the world with wild fish and shellfish. And you don’t have to be rich to eat it. The world’s poor—the thins—know this. A billion people on Earth already depend on seafood as their primary source of animal protein, and most of them are in developing countries. Four hundred million of the world’s poorest citizens live in major fishing countries. Wild seafood accounts for 14 percent of the animal protein eaten around the world everyday, and it does so without chopping down a single tree, without flooding fields and waterways with pollution, without emitting vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

Seafood is one of the world’s truest renewable resources. It doesn’t take millions of years to replace fish taken from the ocean, as it does coal from a mine. Fish are astonishingly fecund and resilient, so much so that as recently as the 1950s, people believed the sea to be inexhaustible.

As renewable as fish are, however, we haven’t done the greatest job of stewarding the 71 percent of our planet that’s covered by oceans. Only in the last couple of decades have we realized just how damaged the oceans have become. But one thing is clear: The oceans, and the multitudes of edible creatures they contain, have awed humanity with their bounty for centuries. It’s this story that will show us how fish were once the key to new worlds, and could be the doorway to healthier, less hungry lives for the nine billion people on Earth in the twenty-first century.