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Producing more protein in Asia

Posted: 23 Aug 2005

by Lester R. Brown

Mounting pressure on the earth's land and water resources to produce livestock, poultry, and fish feed has led to the evolution of some promising new ways of producing protein. One of these has increased milk production in India, another has caused a revolution in carp farming in China, as Lester Brown reports.

Since 1970, India's milk production has increased
more than fourfold, jumping from 21 million to 87 million tons. In 1997,India overtook the United States in dairy production, making it the
world's leading producer of milk and other dairy products. (See data here)

The spark for this explosive growth came in 1965 when an enterprising young Indian, Dr. Verghese Kurien, organised the National Dairy
Development Board, an umbrella organization of dairy co-operatives. A co-op's principal purpose was to market the milk from tiny herds that
typically averaged two to three cows each.

It was these dairy cooperatives that provided the link between the growing appetite for dairy products and the millions of village families who had only a few cows and a small marketable surplus.

Creating the market for milk spurred the fourfold growth in output. In a country where protein shortages stunt the growth of so many children, expanding the milk supply from less than half a cup per person a day 25
years ago to more than a cup represents a major advance.

Using roughage

What is new here is that India has built the world's largest dairy industry almost entirely on roughage - wheat straw, rice straw, corn stalks, and grass collected from the roadside. Cows are often stall-fed with crop residues or grass gathered daily and brought to them.

A second new protein production model, which also relies on ruminants, is one that has evolved in China, principally in four provinces of central Eastern China-Hebei, Shangdong, Henan, and Anhui-where double cropping of
winter wheat and corn is common.

Once the winter wheat matures and ripens in early summer, it must be harvested quickly and the seedbed prepared to plant the corn. The straw that is removed from the land in preparing the seedbed as well as the cornstalks left after the corn harvest in late autumn are fed to cattle.

Although these crop residues are often used by the villagers as fuel for cooking, they are shifting to other sources of energy for cooking, which lets them keep the straw and cornstalks for feed. By supplementing this roughage with small amounts of nitrogen, typically in the form of urea, the microflora in the complex four-stomach digestive system of cattle can convert roughage efficiently into animal protein.

This practice enables these four crop-producing provinces to produce much more beef than the vast grazing provinces in the northwest do. This
central eastern region of China, dubbed the Beef Belt by Chinese officials, is producing large quantities of animal protein using only roughage. The use of crop residues to produce milk in India and beef in China means farmers are reaping a second harvest from the original crop.

Carp species

Another promising new animal protein production model has also evolved in China, this one in the aquacultural sector. China has evolved a carp
polyculture production system in which four species of carp are grown together. One species feeds on phytoplankton. One feeds on zooplankton. A third feeds on grass. And the fourth is a bottom feeder. These four species thus form a small ecosystem, with each filling a particular niche.

This multi-species system, which converts feed into flesh with remarkable efficiency, yielded some 13 million tons of carp in 2002.

While poultry production has grown rapidly in China over the last twodecades, it has been dwarfed by the phenomenal growth of aquaculture.
Today aquacultural output in China - at 28 million tons - is double that of poultry, making it the first country where aquaculture has emerged as a leading source of animal protein. The great economic and environmental
attraction of this system is the efficiency with which it produces animal protein.

Protein pressure

Although these three new protein models have evolved in India and China, both densely populated nations, they may find a place in other parts of the world as population pressures intensify and as people seek new ways to
convert plant products into animal protein.

The world desperately needs more new protein production techniques such as these. A half-century ago, when there were only 2.5 billion people in the world, virtually everyone wanted to move up the food chain. Today there may be close to 5 billion people wanting more animal protein in their diet.

The overall demand for meat is growing at twice the rate of population; the demand for eggs is growing nearly three times as fast; and
growth in the demand for fish - both from the oceans and from fish farms - is also outpacing that of population. Against this backdrop of growing world demand, our ingenuity in producing animal protein in ever-larger quantities and ever more efficiently is going to be challenged to the utmost.

While the world has had many years of experience in feeding an additional 70 million or more people each year, it has no experience with some 5 billion people wanting to move up the food chain at the same time. For a sense of what this translates into, consider what has happened in China since the economic reforms in 1978. As the fastest-growing economy in the world since 1980, China has in effect telescoped history, showing how diets change when incomes rise rapidly over an extended period.

As recently as 1978, meat consumption was low in China, consisting mostly of modest amounts of pork. Since then, consumption of pork, beef, poultry, and mutton has climbed. In 2003 people in China ate some 71 million tons of meat, close to twice as much as Americans ate. China has decisively displaced the United States, long number one in meat consumption.

As incomes rise in other developing countries, people will also want to increase their consumption of animal protein. Considering the demand this will place on the earth's land and water resources, along with the more traditional demand from population growth, provides a better sense of the future pressures on the earth. If world grain supplies tighten in the years ahead, the competition for this basic resource between those living high on the food chain and those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder will become both more visible and a possible source of tension within and among societies.

This article is drawn from Chapter 3 of Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in An Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures, by Lester R Brown (W.W. Norton,2004).

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