Whilst food inflation globally is soaring for a variety of reasons, the war in Ukraine is clearly contributing its bit, given Ukraine and Russia both have a significant share of global grain production. Given the war is restricting the evacuation of grains from Ukraine to the rest of the world, millions of poor people at the margin may not be able to afford food at these prices. This piece in The Economist makes this reality sound even more tragic by highlighting the fact that majority of the grains produced in the world is not consumed by humans but rather used for animal feed or fuel.
“If Ukraine remains cut off from world markets, it might seem like simple maths to infer that production elsewhere must expand to keep the world fed. But in fact, more than enough grain is already grown to meet humanity’s needs. The problem is that 43% is either burned as biofuel or used to feed animals. That is equal to six times the grain output of Ukraine and Russia combined.
Less than half of the world’s grain harvest is eaten by people. Take wheat, the most important crop grown by the two warring countries. In 2019, the latest year for which data are available, Russia and Ukraine jointly produced nearly 103m tonnes, less than the 129m tonnes fed to animals. Another 22m tonnes were turned into biofuel. The belligerents’ second-biggest crop, maize, was even less likely to end up on a plate: humans ate just 13% of global output. Because Russia and Ukraine produce little rice, the total share of their grain output eaten by people was just 37%, below the global average of 46%.
Around the world, grain production went up by 17% in the 2010s, exceeding population growth by six percentage points. Consumption per person, however, remained flat, even as many went hungry.
Instead, the extra grain was put to other uses. Nearly one-tenth was converted into biofuel, which is used mainly to power cars. But the lion’s share went to animals. According to our calculations, if the world’s pig population were a stand-alone country, it would rank at the very top of grain-consumption league tables, chomping through as much grain as 2bn people. Overall, from 2010 to 2019 the amount of grain used for animal feed rose from 770m tonnes per year to 987m, as the world’s pasturelands shrank and appetite for meat grew.
Some grain by-products, such as maize husks, are unsuitable for human food. And feeding grain to animals does generate food for people indirectly, in the form of milk, meat and eggs. However, this process is highly wasteful. For every 100 calories of grain fed to a cow, just three emerge as beef. Along with other feed crops and pasture, rearing animals also uses land that could produce human food.
In response to the war, governments are mulling policies to get a greater share of grains into grub. Germany and Belgium may ease biofuel mandates, and China has warned that it will “strictly control” the conversion of maize into ethanol. But with fuel prices soaring, the International Energy Agency nevertheless projects biofuel demand to rise by 5% in 2022.
In the long run, the only way to avoid such trade-offs is to get energy from other sources—ideally using renewables. That would benefit future harvests, endangered by climate change, too. But for now, reducing waste and turning wheat and maize into bread instead of animal feed is probably the best remedy. Ironically, one of the most effective ways for individual consumers to alleviate the world’s grain shortage is to eat more grain—at the expense of meat.”
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